The blind singer and the absent composer

A Prior #10 / Dirk Pültau

© Ana Torfs, Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten (1998) film still

On music and interdisciplinarianism in two works by Ana Torfs

In Kritik des Musikanten, an essay directed against the cult of spontaneous singing and music making in post-war music circles, Adorno recalls a painful anecdote from his youth. He tells of how his father, while out walking in the forest with his mother and sister, asked the two women to sing the song O Täler weit, o Höhen (Oh valleys wide, oh mountains high). The women were overcome with embarrassment, not because someone had expressly asked them to sing – as professional singers they were well used to that –, but because father Wiesengrund asked them to sing spontaneously, to pretend that the surroundings had prompted them to sing as if it was the most natural thing in the world. How wonderful the world is, sing a song! Being asked to sing ‘spontaneously’, as if the notes ‘tickle’ within and then bubble up and burst forth, that request paralyzes us and embarrasses us. No one sings spontaneously out of joy or sadness. In Western culture, music has lost its established place in social rituals and spontaneous singing has long been part of an ideology of spontaneous expression. We do still sing in everyday life, but we don’t do it at the top of our voices, nor when suddenly asked to do so. More often than not, singing as an ordinary, everyday occurrence just comes over us; we start humming unwittingly when we are alone, or if we have forgotten that there are in fact people around. If we sing in public, then it is often with a tinge of irony, so that others can always laugh at it.
The invitation to sing spontaneously, ‘just like that, for no reason’, is embarrassing because in so doing one fails to appreciate the dividing line between the natural person (and his way of behaving and speaking) and singing as an aesthetic practice. Every singer feels that he or she must cross a threshold to be able to sing. Nobody sings when cajoled into doing so. We should not be misled by the blessed smile or heartrending facial expression of some professional singers: although popular belief would have it that they are putting something ‘of themselves’ into their singing, they themselves know only too well that they must succumb to the work as to an alien law. Singing is losing oneself in the work of art. It is an exercise in self-alienation.