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Decomposition: A Music Manifesto [Rauer Buchschnitt] [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Andrew Durkin

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18. November 2014
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.

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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...


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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 3.5 von 5 Sternen  6 Rezensionen
3.0 von 5 Sternen Hard to follow 20. Oktober 2014
Von Dr. Cathy Goodwin - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts (Was ist das?)
I was intrigued by the title and subject and actually attracted by the fact that the book grew from a dissertation.

However, I had the following quibbles:

It's not clear who's the target audience. Musicians? Do they read this type of material? Academics would want even tighter research and the ordinary public will be baffled for the most part. The author refers to the mythology that composers work alone and that there's a concern with authenticity. Who has those concerns? Are they widespread among the general public?

The language is unnecessarily dense. "Transduction is thus an aesthetic double whammy, reminding us what an unstable phenomenon perception is ..." As a result, even the most interesting material becomes challenging to the reader. The section on "machine metal music," for instance, has some fascinating material (e.g.., Caruso's voice was particularly well-suited to the recording media of his time). But it's hard to follow and would benefit from judicious editing.

The idea that people hear music differently is also interesting, if not new or even surprising. I've asked professional musicians how they listen and gotten a variety of responses. Some say their pitch is so perfect they get distracted by a single note; others have said, "I just relax and enjoy the music without analyzing it."

The sections on copyright and plagiarism also were potentially interesting, but seemed unrelated to the other issues. At one point the author reflects on someone who loves music enough to steal it. An interesting thought, but where does it fit?

The jacket draft suggests that music is "informed" by factors ranging from neuroscience to psychology to technology and culture. That statement is probably true, but it's hard to encompass all these areas in just one book by one author. In writing what seems mostly to be a sociology of music, it would be helpful to frame the book in purely sociological terms, rather than use the skills and background of a professional musician.
4.0 von 5 Sternen A lot of thought provoking discussion aimed at serious musicians 30. September 2014
Von J-J-J-Jinx - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts (Was ist das?)
This dense tome is definitely aimed at serious musicians and in-depth music aficionados, and even then may require a few trips to the dictionary. I hoped for something a little more accessible to the layperson but instead felt a little lost and it really taxed my powers of concentration at times. I am reminded of when I first started using computers and computer graphics programs and I would read every computer magazine I could get my hands on and at first I didn't know what they were talking about 75% of the time. If I were reading the same way to learn everything I could about music, I think this book would be very worthwhile. Not that you will learn everything about music here, but you will get to spend quite a few hours listening to someone very knowledgeable and experience HOW they talk about music, and then be able to go back to the bits you didn't understand later.

There is some really thought provoking stuff here, and although this book was a bit much for me, I'd love to read something by this author if he did choose to write something more accessible.
3.0 von 5 Sternen Decomposition: A Music Manifesto 13. Oktober 2014
Von JMM - Veröffentlicht auf
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This book might be a more significant read for composers and musicians. I am not a musician, just a fan of music, and I found the book to be a very difficult read. Some of the concepts are really not accessible for someone who has no musical ability or training. Still, I found the author's discussion to be most engaging when he referenced musical pieces/composers that I was familiar with (in particular the classical pieces he references).

There are passages of great insight - namely the portions which demonstrate the idea that music (like any other art form) is as dependent on its audience as it is on its creators. A piece of music, however well-composed and performed, is only as good as the person who is listening to it -- who they are, where they come from, their past musical experiences, and their overall ability to appreciate what they are hearing.
3.0 von 5 Sternen Coming to a required reading list near you... 13. Oktober 2014
Von Hervian Rose - Veröffentlicht auf
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This is a well written, even erudite, book.
It reminds me of some of the books I had to read in college - we never discussed them or had tests over them, we just had to report, on the honor system, how many pages we read. To do this we had to buy it.
This is a longish semi-readable book about sociology of musicians and their audiences and how their relationship has changed/stayed the same through the years. I got it because I thought maybe it would enhance my enjoyment of music, but I was mistaken about the sort of book it is.
I'm struggling to guess who is the target audience, and have concluded maybe there isn't one, that the author just wanted to say all this stuff. Frankly I think the content is better suited to a blog, which would allow the readers to interact after each entry.
4.0 von 5 Sternen academic literature 14. Oktober 2014
Von Amazon Customer - Veröffentlicht auf
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I have a son who is a professional musician, composer, conductor and teacher. I am sure he would find this book very interesting. But I am not sure if he would ever have time to read it. I love music of many kinds and have the opportunity to hear different types of concerts at the liberal arts college near where I live. I thought it would be interesting to read this book and maybe have insights into the mind of some brilliant musicians. Unfortunately, at my age, there is not a chance that I would ever be able to wade through this book in my lifetime. I thought it would be the type of book that I could read by skipping to points that interested me. It is dense and packed with deep thought suitable for an academic audience, not the general public.
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