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  • Adorno, Time, and Musical TimeResponse to Stephen Decatur Smith
  • Max Paddison (bio)

Just as a piece of music compresses time, and a picture folds space in upon itself, so the possibility becomes concrete that things could also be different than they are.

—Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie1


Given its importance, the concept of time in Theodor Adorno’s aesthetics of music has so far received little attention in musicology or philosophy in the English-speaking world, even though there has been substantial interest elsewhere, especially in Germany,2 France,3 Italy, and Belgium.4 It is in this context that Stephen Decatur Smith’s article “‘Even Money Decays’: Transience and Hope in Adorno, Benjamin, and Wozzeck” is timely in all senses of the word, because it brings together a range of otherwise seemingly disparate elements in Adorno and gives them an illuminating focus through the concepts of time and transience, raising important issues.

The concept of time in Adorno is certainly fundamental, whether taken as the experience in nature of all that is fleeting, transient, and in a perpetual process of growth and decay; or as historical time as change and “progress”; or as the experience of time in the temporal arts, and especially as ways of organizing time in music. But you can also argue, as does Smith, that an equally persistent preoccupation in Adorno’s work is the concept of space, including what Adorno calls the “spatialization of time,” where concepts of movement and stasis can also be understood in relation to time, even as motion and arrest around objects in space, circumambulations that in the process of movement happen to take time. Indeed, Adorno goes further and proposes that in the context of modernism a temporal art such as music has moved increasingly toward the dimension of space and toward Stillstand, time standing still. Furthermore, you might say that both temporality and spatialization are also, as duration and movement, associated with the persistence and continuity of the experiencing Subject, as a sense of self and of memory fundamental to our sense of time passing and of time past, as well as an anticipated future and the utopian or redemptive hopes that might accompany that. Many of these aspects of Adorno’s concepts of temporality and spatialization, derived from his close [End Page 244] association with Walter Benjamin in the 1920s and 1930s, and to an extent from the pervasive influence of the ideas of Henri Bergson in the early twentieth century, are taken up in relation to the interpretation of Alban Berg’s music—and in particular of his opera Wozzeck—in Smith’s article. As well as responding to aspects of the case made by Smith through addressing some of the important issues he raises, I want to introduce some speculations of my own that have been sparked from reading his article and also to pursue some alternative readings of Adorno’s critical reception of Bergson.


One big question is strongly implied, although not addressed directly, in Smith’s article, and I think it is one that can serve to locate the discussion within a broader philosophical context: how does Adorno actually understand “time” in philosophical terms? That is to say, is it a real dimension of the world for him, and is it therefore to be seen as one of the invariants or “invariables” of music? Or is it a feature of how the world appears to us, a convenient and conventional ordering of events that might seem invariable and inevitable, but which could in fact be otherwise? In view of the rebellion against the conventions of musical time and notions of musical narrativity that took place in the 1950s and 1960s through the use of chance procedures and of “open forms” (John Cage), and the substitution of metaphors of space in the form of “labyrinth structures” (Luciano Berio) and “fields of possibilities” (Henri Pousseur), is Adorno really a Kantian as opposed to a Newtonian realist in his rejection of supposed musical invariables such as time? I think he most certainly was a Kantian in the sense that he did not regard “time” as a real attribute of the world itself...


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