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.
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...