Decomposition is a bracing, revisionary, and provocative inquiry into music—from Beethoven to Duke Ellington, from Conlon Nancarrow to Evelyn Glennie—as a personal and cultural experience: how it is composed, how it is idiosyncratically perceived by critics and reviewers, and why we listen to it the way we do.
Andrew Durkin, best known as the leader of the West Coast–based Industrial Jazz Group, is singular for his insistence on asking tough questions about the complexity of our presumptions about music and about listening, especially in the digital age. In this winning and lucid study he explodes the age-old concept of musical composition as the work of individual genius, arguing instead that in both its composition and reception music is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise that comes into being only through mediation.
Drawing on a rich variety of examples—Big Jay McNeely’s “Deacon’s Hop,” Biz Markie’s “Alone Again,” George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, Frank Zappa’s “While You Were Art,” and Pauline Oliveros’s “Tuning Meditation,” to name only a few—Durkin makes clear that our appreciation of any piece of music is always informed by neuroscientific, psychological, technological, and cultural factors. How we listen to music, he maintains, might have as much power to change it as music might have to change how we listen.
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Andrew Durkin is a composer and writer who has a PhD in English from the University of Southern California, where his mentor was Joseph Dane, author of What Is a Book? He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC, where he worked with digital media pioneer Bob Stein. He lives in Portland, Oregon.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the Introduction:
The title of this book comes from the old joke about what Beethoven is doing these days. It’s a cheap laugh, to be sure, but the punch line (“decomposing!”) is a nice metaphor for my purpose: to demythologize music without demeaning it. A composer myself, I contend that the exalted view of musical composition associated, in the Western tradition, with Beethoven—though it is by no means limited to him—has a way of interfering with the fullness of our musical life. By constraining musical understanding within the limits of traditional notions of authorship, and a blind faith in authenticity, that exalted view distracts us from the processes that produce music—not the conscious creative processes of the individual composer (many composers are only too happy to talk about how they work) but the much less obvious contributions of a broad array of collaborative and mediating activity. We have become accustomed to focusing on the end result of musical production as if that’s all there is to it. And when this distraction occurs, when the final stage of a creative arc is presented as the entire thing itself, something valuable in our experience of music is lost.
Perhaps that seems too dramatic a way of putting it. Perhaps our experience of music is doing just fine, thank you very much. And yet today even many emphatic fans articulate ennui and despair about the art form. The last few years have seen the emergence of a kind of death cult for music, greatly expanding on the infighting angst that has always marked particular genres in the modern era (as evidenced, for instance, by the “jazz is dead” meme). What we see now is something more thorough, a simultaneously economic, aesthetic, and philosophical cri de coeur, the impact of which is discernible, for instance, in the presumptuous eschatology of Frontline’s episode “The Way the Music Died” (2004), Andrew Shapter’s documentary Before the Music Dies (2006), and Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur (2007), which divided its discussion of music into two chapters, “The Day the Music Died [side a]” and “The Day the Music Died [side b].”
Keen claims that in the wake of postmodernity “it’s quite conceivable that we will see the end of a cultural economy”—by which he means the end of a marketplace in which art is bought and sold. Others have suggested that the problem is more strictly aesthetic. “For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music,” composer Glenn Branca wrote in the New York Times in 2009, in an article whose title—“The End of Music”—echoed Frontline, Shapter, and Keen (and like them seemed a brazen attempt to get a rise out of audiences). Many responded with variations of the same rebuttal: if you don’t know any good modern music, you’re not looking in the right place. “Curmudgeons are eternal,” wrote one commenter. “This could have been written any time in the last 30 (100?) years.”
But whether or not the curmudgeons are right, this is a time of great concern about the future of music, even for those of us who never stopped loving it. Working musicians worry publicly about how to adapt to the changed landscape of the twenty-first century—notwithstanding the fact that many of them, like singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, or folk songstress Amber Rubarth, or geek rocker Adam Rabin, or guitarist and producer Chris Schlarb, or singer and improviser Fay Victor, or clarinetist and vocalist Beth Fleenor, or solo bassist and blogger Steve Lawson, have come up with creative new definitions of what it means to have a music career. Fans today enjoy greatly expanded access to a universe of musical offerings unthinkable even fifteen years ago—whether or not they choose to partake of it legally or fairly. And the industry’s institutions wobble topheavily between mandating an increasingly outdated conception of what a musical community should look like, on the one hand, and tapping into new dynamics for that community, on the other. All the while, there has been a great deal of anxiety about how we value music—but also about what music means, what it is for, and even what it is.
In Decomposition I wish to explore a suspicion that something important has been ignored or forgotten in the wake of this tumult, obscured by our myths about music. In biology, decomposition involves the breakdown of once-living matter, so it can be recycled for future life. As a metaphor for this book, I mean the word as an alternative to the mainstream story of authorship and authenticity—a counternarrative focusing on the less ostentatious, more organic aspects of musical creativity. Decomposition in this sense is also a way of giving the lie to music’s death cult; it points to the inevitability of regeneration in art. But it requires, as Cornel West suggests, that we talk about corpses. One has to acknowledge that artists, works, audiences, discourses, and traditions do not last forever as they are experienced and appreciated at any particular moment. “Absolutely, read the poetry of John Donne, he’ll tell you about corpses that decompose,” West tells Astra Taylor in her film Examined Life. “See, that’s history. The raw, funky, stinky stuff of life. That’s what bluesmen do. That’s what jazzmen do.”
My concern with decomposition comes from my own experience as a “jazzman”—more specifically, as a composer, musician, bandleader, writer, educator, blogger, and occasional critic. The mythology I have observed in practice, weighing us down like the proverbial albatross, is two-pronged. First, there is the persistent assumption that music is always created by solitary individuals. An easy example here is the film (and earlier, the play) Amadeus, and the way it draws its dramatic power from the legend of Mozart. Here is our most flattering stereotype of authorship: that works spring full-blown and ex nihilo from the minds of isolated geniuses. Second, there is the obsession with authenticity: the quest for a singularly true, ideal experience of music (whether a recording, live performance, score, or transcription) that trumps all others, disregarding the variability of audience perception, and accessible only to those with “correct” knowledge and “proper” understanding.
My interest in critiquing these myths will most likely be familiar—perhaps even a bit too familiar—to anyone who has spent any time in a university or college humanities department over the last few decades. It might very well be overdetermined by the stereotypical postmodern take on art. But with this book I want to demonstrate the benefit of thinking about authorship and authenticity from a broader, more vernacular perspective—without, I hope, the distraction of academic posturing. That task is more challenging than it seems. While authorship and authenticity simplify our understanding and perception of music, neither notion is simple in itself or easy to discuss. Each is informed by degrees of truth. Each can be defined extremely or moderately. Each has a long history and a wide variety of contexts not necessarily coherent or consistent, and sometimes downright contradictory. For instance, the same Romantic era that gave rise to the modern notion of the solitary godlike genius also glorified folk culture, with its emphasis on communal and anonymous creativity. Similarly, “authenticity” is often deployed with maddening slipperiness: one writer might refer to it for historical verification; another might invoke it as a barometer of emotional honesty in a performance; still another might use it to determine the supposed success or failure of a cultural appropriation. “Authenticity” has become a classic weasel word—or, more frustratingly, a classic weasel concept, as sometimes it is invoked in practice without being invoked by name.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, haziness of definition, we deal with musical authorship and authenticity on a daily basis, so persistent are these ideas in our culture. And while their influence is by no means universal, neither is it limited to a geographical region or genre, as it once narrowly characterized Western classical music. Rather, “authorship” and “authenticity” have been imperfectly yet widely disseminated as governing concepts by the global music ecosystem, thanks to that ecosystem’s dramatic expansion in recent years. Thanks also to population growth, the development of music education, greater access to the technological means through which music is recorded and distributed, more nebulous boundaries between the “professional” and the “amateur,” and a self-help industry devoted to emerging artists, there has been in our time an explosion of preprofessional and semiprofessional music making. Emphasis on authorship and authenticity is the conceptual glue holding this unwieldy network together—connecting superstars like Lady Gaga, Yo-Yo Ma, and U2 with the local rockabilly-reggae-polka ensemble selling its music independently on Bandcamp.com.
The fact that it is possible to speak of a “global music ecosystem” at all is of course a testament to the ruthless success of market capitalism, which undoubtedly influences the way we think about music too, and provides a fertile ground for the flourishing of authorship and authenticity. But the relationship is symbiotic. In modern times, authorship and authenticity have, by simplifying our understanding, helped transform the perception of music from an amorphous, multifaceted, irrational, unmarketable process into a tangible, manageable commodity—what in the business is called “product” (or what pianist Ethan Iverson recently called, with unintended foreboding, an “interesting property”).
In the context of human history, this commodification of music is a relatively new development, certainly less than a few centuries old as a cultural trend, and probably less than a century old as a widespread phenomenon. Mentioning its prevalence now is not to suggest its total absence in past societies. Some indigenous cultures used songs as gifts, which could be individually owned, shared, or passed on to others. In certain Pacific Northwest Native American tribes, for instance, singing a song that you did not own would “invite the severe punishments due to thieves.” And in the tradition of Somali sung poetry, some compositions are treated as private property and cannot be recited by other poets without attribution.
Yet there is a difference worth noting: the foregoing cultures lacked technology to “store” their music. In the global music ecosystem, in contrast, the order of the day can best be described as “reification”—succinctly defined by pianist Charles Rosen as “the reduction in capitalist society of, for example, a human being, a work of art, or even an idea to a material object.” The difference is that reified music has been reduced while being objectified. Carolyn Abbate similarly suggests that for many, music has become a “souvenir”—“one of the things taken away from the experience of playing or listening”—kept like a knickknack in a drawer, and once in a while “contemplated as a way of domesticating that experience.” Lydia Goehr and Richard Taruskin have both used the metaphor of the museum—a collection of things—to make the same point. Christopher Small, in Music of the Common Tongue, writes, with apparent regret, that Westerners—particularly those ensconced in the classical music tradition, though I think his observation has farther-reaching implications—tend to perceive “music primarily in terms of entities, which are composed by one person and performed to listeners by another.” Daniel Cavicchi similarly argues that “seeing music as an open ‘process’ and not a closed ‘object’ remains a radical idea” because “people still buy music in pre-packaged plastic cases and then play ‘it’ on their stereos and react to ‘it,’ something that effectively masks their own part in constituting that music and that constitution’s place in broader social processes.” Although we enjoy, idealize, and even fetishize live performance, our fundamental understanding of music is now deeply dependent on a certain concreteness: the “track,” the “album,” the “score”—allegories of cultural experiences involving the record, the cassette, the CD, and other media hard-copy forms.
Reification is complicated by the immateriality of digital music, to be sure. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer consumers were buying their music in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, opting instead for purchases in cyberspace, where recorded music consists primarily of bits—MP3s, WAVs, AIFFs, and other digital files. Strictly speaking, these are not “things,” not objects in the sense of LPs, cassettes, or CDs. Streaming and cloud technologies have further contributed to an impression that music is no longer (or will soon no longer be) an item to be owned, but rather an experience to be accessed.
And yet as trumpeter and composer Kris Tiner has pointed out, perhaps one object has been replaced with another, while an underlying mind-set has endured. For those who have been liberated from the hard-copy recording itself, there is now playback technology to fetishize. Such technology—handheld MP3 players, music-dispensing smartphones, and so on—readily invites its own objectification, through attractive packaging, hip marketing campaigns, extensive accessorizing, and user-friendliness. So while many of us no longer collect CDs or LPs, we continue to rely on a tactile relationship with the devices that play our music. Modern playback technology is designed to be handled, even caressed—think of the touch screen—and is as portable as previous generations of sound media. The typical smartphone is about the size of an audiocassette, a fact capitalized upon by a recent iPhone case design. All of this facilitates objectification. More than a decade into the “digital revolution,” old habits of musical understanding endure: most musicians continue to refer to their work as “records” or “albums,” stressing the physicality of something that, as the industry lingo goes, “drops” on a given release date. Composers still speak of “unveiling” new pieces. Fans still refer to a favorite song as “the bomb.”
In short, the impulse toward reification lingers. And it may not be going anywhere soon. After all, it took some effort to get to where we are now. As recently as the late 1800s, Small points out, Europeans were still visiting “pleasure gardens” where they could experience music, often at negligible cost, as process—not as background sound, but woven into the fabric of an outing—instead of consuming it as a detached, objectified work of art. And Evan Eisenberg, in his The Recording Angel—the second chapter of which is provocatively called “Music Becomes a Thing”—notes how listeners resisted the commodification of music in the early years of the new industry. While Eisenberg places responsibility for the conceptual shift to reified music squarely with the invention of recording, and Small attributes it to the growth of industrial capitalism, with its underpinnings of scientific rationalism, a crucial role was also played by the concepts of authorship and authenticity. In a sense, these concepts—which predated both recording technology and modern commerce—provided the theoretical and intellectual justification for the mind-set that drives the global music ecosystem, long before that ecosystem actually existed. And so today we live in a world where, for most listeners, these concepts are deemed axiomatic.
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