Before Theodor Adorno’s study of late works in Beethoven, late style was considered a phenomenon of aberrance, tied to subjective expression and the biographical timeline of an artist. Adorno’s study, however, unearthed another possibility for lateness, one in which late works could be understood as the seeds of disciplinary change. Adorno found this possibility in the late works of Beethoven, whose body of work developed at the cusp between a classical high style and the onset of modern music. His music operated as a hinge between the eras that preceded and followed him, laying the groundwork for modernity while remaining grounded in the conventions of his time.
In music, convention is an agreed upon disposition of form. For example, the sonata form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The form is tri-partite, but it is convention that determines that a sonata should be tripartite to begin with. Throughout different periods, convention drives the specific condition of form, leading ultimately to changes in both form and style.
While Beethoven operated within the conventions of his time, yet he challenged how form was conceived. For example, in his Missa Solemnis, a work analyzed in-depth by Adorno, Beethoven moves away from the evolution of motifs within a given structure (the standard in the Classical period) and instead generates imitative sections accumulating throughout the piece. In other words, a new formal structure began to emerge within the given framework of form, that of the fragment. Ultimately, the strength of the fragment created a denial of unity which conflicted with the ideal of aesthetic harmony prevalent in his time, yet the formal conventions of the music remained intact. These formal properties push the work to be, as Edward Said wrote, in and apart from the present,(1) which he identifies as an important characteristic of lateness. In other words, lateness is neither a full acceptance of the present (zeitgeist) nor an explicit resistance to it (avant-garde). Lateness is a mode of temporal resistance that does not reject its own time entirely, but rather dips a pen into the obscurity of the present, registering the unspoken contradictions within the current paradigm. We propose lateness as a theory of the present, applicable not only to today’s context, but to the contemporary in different eras of history.
- Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is the Contemporary?” What Is an Apparatus?: and Other Essays, Stanford University Press, 2009, 44.
Every era must contend with the question of its own contemporariness, which is, as defined by Agamben:
a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it… Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.(2)
In other words, a belief in the zeitgeist is insufficient. Like the eye’s inability to focus on an object held too close, one cannot see the present without maintaining some distance from it. This, of course, raises the question of how to hold one’s attention on the present. One must ask, what are the conditions of our time, and what does it mean to be contemporary today?
In the wake of the twentieth century, in which Modernism was ultimately declared ‘over,’ and the avant-garde was announced ‘dead,’ the twenty-first century has given way to expressions of uncertainty and a loss of authority. Meanwhile, with the advent of the digital, architectural production today has become iterative, facilitating the generation of geometrically complex free-form architecture as well as processes by which those forms can be continually repeated and altered. The result is an architectural paradigm that spurs the endless iteration of anomalous forms as part of an autonomous process. Moreover, as advancements in building technology make constructability less of a concern, contemporary architecture produces increasingly more exuberant forms. The more anomalous the form, the better it fits into the status quo. The formal trends of contemporary design have rendered a model of deviance obsolete as a mode of resistance. Deviance would require a point of reference from which to deviate, suggesting a linear model of action-reaction, thesis-antithesis. But a linear, Hegelian progression in time is no longer possible because the current state of unlimited possibility has produced stasis, as the anomaly has become the norm in contemporary design.
Although Beethoven’s historical context was quite different from today, he also operated in a moment of stasis. The forms perfected by Haydn and Mozart had become the conventional drivers of most musical production at that time. The recognizable conventions of musical form (such as Ternary Form (ABA), Rondo form (ABACA or ABACADA), or Sonata Form (ABA – C – ABA), had stabilized and merged with social and cultural forces into the rigid standards of the era, shifting from convention (form) to the conventional (style).(3) In other words, Mozart and Haydn were no longer experimenting with form, but rather generating work prolifically within the boundaries of specific forms that were dictated by style. Michael Spitzer calls this the “extreme conventionalization of eighteenth-century musical material,” a phenomenon which makes it possible for Mozart to have written around six hundred works when he died at age thirty-six.(4) The classical style left little room for formal invention and thus entered into a suspended state while composers worked unquestioningly within its given forms.
As such, Beethoven is a relevant model for architecture today, because his late works operated against the decided forms of the classical, yet he did not fracture them directly. As Michael Spitzer writes, “the fascination of the late music is that it breaks the letter of the classical law while obeying its spirit ever more strictly.”(5) His approach was not one of deviance or transgression, but rather one that introduced undecidability in the interstice between legible forms, giving his work the quality of irresolution that opened the door for the fragmentation that was to occur later in modern music.(6)
There is a parallel between the classical period and now: once again, we find ourselves in a suspended state because the uninhibited production of anomalous form precludes a model of deviance effective against the status quo. In Beethoven, then, we can find a model for ushering in a temporal disjunction within our artistic paradigm. We propose lateness as a means to formulate a new theory of the present, one that challenges what is perceived as contemporary today.
An important component of our research during the Lateness seminar last semester was the role of convention in the context of lateness. In his middle period, Beethoven worked with virtuosic subjectivity, eluding structural rigidity. Yet Adorno identifies in Beethoven’s late work an adherence to convention. Adorno writes, “But what drove Beethoven, the composer of unfathomable richness in whom the power of subjective production were heightened to the point of hubris, to the point where man becomes Creator, towards the opposite tendency, of self-curtailment?…To the musical experience of the late Beethoven the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, the roundedness of the successful symphony, the totality arising from the motion of all particulars, in short, that which gives the works of his middle period their authenticity, must have becomes suspect. He saw through the classic as classicism.“ (See Missa Solemnis, pg. 151.) In other words, Beethoven is able to see past the trappings of style towards form itself. As such, his late works are the ones that open the door to modernity and that achieve a differentiation between form and style. Conventions, then, are the building blocks of form, while the conventional is the crystallizing of particular formal relationships into a style. Arguably, late works are those that can overcome the latter process.
Spitzer, Michael. “Notes on Beethoven’s Late Style,” Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in art, literature, and music. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2016. 193.
The difference between deviance and undecidability distinguishes the avant-garde from lateness: deviance, (the assumption of an avant-garde discourse), is the divergence from a known norm while undecidability (a characteristic of lateness) introduces a new condition between existing norms.
Travel week photos
The goal of this studio is to test this theory of the present in architectural form.
The first step is to engage in a search for anachronistic form. Students will be asked to do studies of precedent, selecting works that show characteristics of lateness. This assignment has three requirements. First, to identify the formal properties prevalent in the historical context. Second, to identify the formal properties of the late work itself. Third, to identify the change in form that the late work precipitated. At least one of the works analyzed must be contemporary (from 2000 onwards). The goal is to apply the process of analysis in a new way, teaching them to think about form in relation to time.
The studio trip is to Siena, Italy, a city in which the architecture indexes the transition from the Middle Ages to Renaissance, and as such, is a study in the relationship between architectural form and time. During the trip we will re-examine the medieval in terms of moving from the gothic, to the Romanesque, to the Renaissance. We will look at architecture and urban conditions that have been overlooked, but could bear witness to conditions of lateness.
The site for the studio will be chosen based on the analytic work conducted in the studio. The site will be in Siena or in New Haven. The choice will depend on the interpretations of lateness that arise in the first few weeks of the studio.
Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is the Contemporary?” What Is an Apparatus?: and Other Essays, Stanford University Press, 2009, 44.
Adorno, Theodor. “Late Style in Beethoven,” Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK, 1998.
Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Spitzer, Michael. “Notes on Beethoven’s Late Style.” Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in art, literature, and music. Ed. Gordon MucMullan and Sam Smiles, Oxford University Press, 2016.