Mirko M. Hall. Musical Revolutions in German Culture: Musicking against the Grain, 1800–1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xiv + 214 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-45336-5.
Hall’s study of musical thinking in the work of four German intellectuals—Friedrich Schlegel, Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Blixa Bargeld—is in full harmony with many of the assumptions and the language of the Frankfurt School. Basically, Hall reads Adorno and Benjamin backward and forward in order to delineate common threads among the book’s four protagonists in the field of music, conceived of by Hall as a “powerful site of cultural creativity, critique, and resistance,” or alternatively as a “site of critical-revolutionary activity” (3). Linking Carl Schmitt to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Hall posits a structural “acoustic state of emergency” (12). This, he argues, is the permanent threat by the culture industry and its mainstream products to annihilate music’s revolutionary potential.
In studying these four intellectuals, Hall aims to apply critical theory to critical theoreticians in order to identify and enable counterhegemonic musical discourses and practices. ... the message is that musicking against the grain, representing a critical, self-reflective practice, allows for successful resistance to late capitalism. How this practice has worked in different variations between 1800 and 1980 is Hall’s object of interest in his four intellectual case studies. ...
it is certainly the most inventive and provocative aspect of Hall’s study to extend his discussion of classical philosophers’ musical thinking to a subcultural musician such as Bargeld. However, in his fascination for critical theory and the Neubauten’s creative musical destructions, Hall loses sight of the Federal Republic’s sociopolitical conditions in the 1980s. To give but the most striking example, in a shortcut he equates Nazi and postwar West German politics, writing that, “if National Socialism or the West German culture industry attempted to create a totalizing work, Neubauten … refused to combine sound, text, and imagery into a prepackaged work offering future plenitude” (125). Such phrases reminded me of the circles in postwar Germany ... which were so obsessed with their theoretical heroes that they sometimes failed to balance their insights with reality.