Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Cheerfulness is an achievement."

(The title is a quote from Alain de Botton.)

(photo by Tavis Ford)

For some, this is the hardest time of year—a nagging reminder of isolation, and the feeling that, as John Keats put it, “we cannot be made for this sort of suffering.” For some, that feeling is made worse by the superficial visions of happiness that trot across our screens, and in our places of commerce. There, the holiday season can feel like an assault—columns of seemingly uncomplicated, impossibly Technicolor people, marching contentedly through a wonderland of material comforts. How easy it is to forget that even the most committed consumers have less sanguine stories to tell—a fear of death, a struggle with self-criticism or insecurity, a shameful memory lurking somewhere beneath the cheery veneer. Caught in the aggro-joy of the marketplace, how many will share those stories this holiday season? How many will ask to hear another’s story shared?

Here are a few from my own community. A family upended by a daughter’s suicide. Dear friends living with cancer, depression, addiction. Parents living with old age. A woman living out of her car at the other end of the street. Tales of divorce, betrayal, resentment—like tiny fissures presaging the coming earthquake. Life here is not only these things, of course. But even in a beautiful, earthy city like Portland, there is pain and sadness, and I suspect that, without descending into the ridiculousness of Debbie Downer, our task during the holiday season is to at least acknowledge it. Maybe such acknowledgment is where the possibility of hope really begins.

Confirmation bias aside, I couldn’t help seeing the same message in a poem I found yesterday, by Portland Revels founder Richard Lewis:

Call all the heroes home from war
Call them away from their fierce weapons
Let them fight no more,
For now is peace under the Yuletide heavens.
Peace, that is winter’s gift—
The ancient hope, renewed each year,
In song and heartfelt fellowship
In story and salutes of solstice cheer.
Call the people, the young and old together—
No quarrel shall mar this holy time.
When all clasp hands, each with other,
While trees guard the land and silent sky
So are we much in love with love,
At one with all that lives—below, above.

What struck me about these lines was something more than mere “solstice cheer”—though that was important too. But there’s also a landscape that must be “guarded.” (From what?) There’s a silent sky, hovering overhead like an indifferent deity. There’s a sense that hope must be constantly renewed, presumably after periods of hopelessness. It all seemed to cycle back into the mystery of existencea reminder that pretending we have actually overcome suffering, even for the sake of a holiday, is a way of re-inflicting it.

Speaking of the Revels—I took my daughter to see this year’s Christmas show last weekend (Mommy had her book club, and we took the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours). I must admit that I arrived at the venue in an un-festive mood. At one point, the company came out into the audience, exhorting us to join them in a rendition of “The Lord of the Dance” (the shaker-derived hymn, not the Michael Flatley phenomenon). At first, I resisted. But somehow, something about the way I was invited in—a friendly face and a warm hand, stretched out on the spur of the moment—allowed me to push through my own season-induced melancholy. I in turn led my daughter into that line of dancers, and we circled around the auditorium, singing a song about a savior I don’t believe in, and enacting the endless falling and rising of the world.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Song Machine

. . . that vile element of competition in music. Surely that’s soul destroying in itself?
 (John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten)

Thank goodness John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is sprinkled throughout with quirky trivia about the music industry.

Did you know, for instance, that Lou Pearlman (convicted felon and impresario behind such turn-of-the-century boy bands as the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—plus a lot of similar fare you probably have never heard of) is cousin to Art Garfunkel? Or that Barry Manilow hated “I Write the Songs,” the recording that probably made his career? Or that the “lyrical concept” for Katy Perry’s “Firework” came from, of all places, a famous bit in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the paean to those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”)?

Don’t get me wrong: Seabrook’s book is first and foremost a journalistic examination of the songwriting assembly line that has produced the most lucrative music of the new century—things like “Right Round” and “Umbrella”—and of the “mysterious priesthood of musical mages” (as he calls them) who operate it behind the scenes, under cheeky pseudonyms like Denniz PoP and Dr. Luke. But ultimately, the throwaway nuggets were what enabled me to work my way through. The rest, if I’m being honest, was too damned depressing.

Depressing . . . but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t because of the music—even though, as you have probably guessed, “Firework” and its ilk are not my cup of tea. Nor was it because of the mechanistic creative processes Seabrook describes—even though the phrase “the song machine” could be construed as a kind of dog whistle, riffing on longstanding cultural anxieties about technology’s influence in art.

Consider, for instance, the weeklong “writer camps” now routinely convened by mega-artists. From the outside, these seem like musical spam-factories—dozens of writers and producers collaborating in endlessly rotating pairs until someone generates a potential hit through sheer abundance of effort. Or what of the various attempts to harness creativity with science, signified by oxymorons like “melodic math” and “cultural technology”? One could be forgiven for finding these absurd, too.

But are such practices and philosophies all that different from those that produced music I actually like? Are the writer camps different in kind from, say, the industrial ethos of the Brill Building, or Motown, or Tin Pan Alley, or the Wrecking Crew? After all, the latter were “rock and roll’s best-kept secret” (to use Kent Hartman’s felicitous phrase) for a reason. As for “melodic math” and the like, consider just one precursor: Irving Berlin’s subjectively objective “Nine Rules for Successful Songwriting,” published in 1920. (“The lyric must be euphonious: simple and pleasing to the ear,” Berlin tells us—as if those adjectives mean the same thing for all listeners.)

One could summon other examples, but the point is the same: the mechanisms may be more robust now, but pop has always required an assembly line, or at least an assembly-line mentality. More importantly, given its intended listeners, music is music, no matter the time period or technology.

The real insight of Seabrook’s account is that the “machine” he refers to isn’t the assembly line or its products at all; rather, it’s the demeaning, dehumanizing juggernaut of industrial capitalism itself, taken to the ugly extreme it currently enjoys in the Top 40. As in most other sectors of twenty-first century American life, the musical rich are getting richer, and their numbers are shrinking, while everyone else (the musicians in the so-called long tail) receives ever-smaller shares of an ever-smaller pie. “77 percent of the profits in the music business,” Seabrook points out, “are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists”—a statistic that is even more lopsided than income inequality figures in the broader culture. Focusing on the quality of one form of pop over another (or the quality of pop over some other genre) is almost like saying this situation would be acceptable if more “deserving” artists were getting the piles of dough. The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is getting the piles of dough; it is the piling that is the problem.

In music, this situation is usually excused as some necessary apotheosis of the rock-n-roll dream. Yes, it inspires cruelty and masochism, evident everywhere from American Idol to the troubled relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown to the fame-facilitated death of Scott Weiland (or Amy Winehouse, or Michael Jackson, or whoever). But it obscures those things with a playful marketing veneer; as, lately, in a flurry of ads (featuring many current pop stars) “that wistfully evokes the opulence of the ancien régime of the deposed French Bourbon monarchy.” Indeed, it caters to listeners’ desire to be pop royalty, too.

Thus we might grow jealous at Seabrook’s description of a typical Clive Davis industry soiree, with its survival-of-the-fittest seating-chart hierarchy (current hit-makers sit close to the dais, while has-beens are consigned to the corners of the room). We might be awed by tales of music-biz excess, like the one Seabrook tells of the producer Dr. Luke, who had to buy Miley Cyrus a ten-thousand-dollar toilet when “Wrecking Ball” went to number one. (Apparently, they had made a bet.) We might be astonished at the obscene cost of promoting a single record, and the carpet-bombing mentality that “justifies” such profligacy. (One insider puts it this way: “The reason it costs so much is because I need everything to click at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna, turn on BET and see Rihanna, walk down the street and see a poster of Rihanna, look on Billboard, the iTunes chart, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs.”)

But as easily as we turn away from the onramp indigent, we might also dismiss such things as part of the game, choosing from a set of ready-made rationalizations. High stakes drive artists to be more creative. Financial reward enables charity. Labels need some way to bankroll less lucrative acts. And so on. Ultimately, in the rock-n-roll dream as in the American one, individuals have to make a bargain with power and wealth, validating the system’s inherent unfairness in order to participate at all. And increasingly, aesthetic battles only seem to obscure the struggle we are continually losing. We get tangled in the surface scrub of vague signifiers—words like “genre,” or “beauty,” or “art”—ignoring the thick bedrock underneath it all: class.

In their brilliant new book, The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski describe what the kind of materialism we’re facing here really means. “Amassing wealth,” they write, “marked the beginning of an ancient transition from relatively egalitarian seminomadic hunter-gatherer communities—in which people were valued for their actual abilities—to agricultural and industrial societies, in which people were measured less by actual achievement and more by prestige, which itself was largely based upon the acquisition and exhibition of wealth.” We’re not going back to the seminomadic hunter-gatherer way of life any time soon. The question is whether we can get back to something at least “relatively egalitarian,” and whether music will help us get there, or—unconscionably and unbelievably—prevent us from doing so.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New music

After a long hiatus, I am once again working on an unfinished recording by my band Proto-Human—a PDX-based sextet featuring David Valdez (alto sax), Tim Willcox (tenor sax), Ryan Meager (guitar), Andrew Jones (bass), and Todd Bishop (drums) . . . plus me on piano and compositions. 

I really like the music I wrote for this group, but the project was nearly derailed a few years ago when one of the original members (not anyone listed above) did something detestable, and was (rightly) sent to prison for it. I don’t want to get into the specifics, but for a while that experience soured me to the music. 

Now I’m glad we recorded as the above, much-improved lineup—and I’m glad I recently had the presence of mind to get back to the task of mixing the recordings. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being in the studio. Of course, it has been a challenge to overcome the feeling of musical inertia, and to coordinate with my “other life” as a (prose) writer.

For the adventurous, below are two sample tracks—rough mixes both. (For what it's worth, not all of the cuts from the record are this rock-oriented.) 

More to come.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Is This Thing On?

Today is the anniversary of the "on-sale" date for Decomposition. Also, this year I have blogged a total of three times. 

Is there a connection?

Part of the reason for my absence is that I took most of 2015 to revise my middle-grade novel. I finally finished it in September, and now I'm waiting to see if it will find a publisher.

In the meantime I'm trying to triangulate the two writer-identities I have for some reason insisted on forging for myself: the lapsed academic who writes kooky things about music and culture, and the fantasy novelist.

I feel like there must be a connection there, but I haven't figured out what it is yet.

* * * * *

Things I'm listening to:

Chris Schlarb,Dropsy. (Chris and I have long shared an affinity for Zappa, and the melodies on this recording are some the most Zappa-esque I've heard from him.)

And something I just received in the mail and can't wait to dive into: The Big Reveal, by my friends Hot Breakfast! (Heard an advance cut from this a while back, and it was gorgeous. I bet the rest of the album is too.)

I'm also returning to some musical projects of my own, of which more soon.

For what it’s worth: if I believed in things like "record of the year," my vote might go to Sufjan Stevens's Carrie and Lowell

* * * * *

Via Alex Rodriguez, this JSTOR article about Miles Davis. I feel like stuff like this can only come from people who don't think hard enough about what music is. Consider this (quoted) question:

How are we to account for such glaring defects in the performances of someone who is indisputably one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz?

The answer is easy: first, redefine the word “defect.” Next, stop obsessing about what is or is not “important.” If you love a piece of music, great. If not, also great.

* * * * *

A friend recently reminded me how quiet (socially awkward?) I am in real life, which reminded me why I write in the first place: it’s my main and preferred form of communication. With that in mind, I pledge to be back here more often from now on.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

On the suit

The “Blurred Lines”/“Got to Give it Up” judgment is the latest in silly copyright cases (heres a good musicological argument against it), but there is one detail that has been mostly ignored:

The $7.3 million number beats the record high judgment in a copyright infringement suit.

A relevant counterpoint from my book (Chapter 7):

. . . where art intersects with commerce, progress traps occur too. In a capitalist system, artists, labels, technology companies, and other music professionals naturally seek to grow their profits. (“If you sell fifty million records one year and seventy the next year,” notes Jeff Gold, describing the expansion of Warner Music in the 1990s, then soon someone is going to ask “how are you going to sell eighty?”) As elites become more efficient at producing, marketing, and selling music, that increased efficiency stresses the system. Music becomes, as William Patry puts it, “a zero sum game, where the more people vie for the top, the fewer make it, but the rewards are disproportionately greater.” In the process, the thoughtful listener is left with a nagging feeling that just as we cannot understand music outside of recording, or our own thoughts about it outside of writing, it is now difficult to even conceive of it outside of money—outside of our transactional roles as producers, consumers, or both.  

My friends complain about modern pop all the time. I wish I could evaluate it in aesthetic terms. But I feel like I can’t even hear it. It sounds like money to me. I hear the money that went into the production. I hear the money that went into the promotion. I hear the money that is being exchanged every time it is performed. I hear the money that is expected as a kind of birthright. Lord help me, I cant get past the money. 

Call me crazy, but I think thats a problem.

Friday, February 27, 2015

On the dress

(image by Alex Tarr)

The latest in silly Internet memes: 
. . . for the past half-day, people across social media have been arguing about whether a picture depicts a perfectly nice bodycon dress as blue with black lace fringe or white with gold lace fringe. And neither side will budge. 

And a relevant counterpoint from my book (Chapter 4):

The point is that while we readily admit there is no one way to understand a work of art, no one manner of perceiving—“all art is subjective” is one of the great clichés of aesthetic dialogue—we ignore the consequences of that statement: that there is, as far as perception goes, never a singular work to agree about in the first place. Instead, we cling to the reified idea of music [or any other artwork], using it, in the worst-case scenario, to police the responses of others, or else, more kindly, to prioritize the overlap in our perceptions—as with, for example, the concert protocol that calls for simultaneous group applause, and the impression of consensus it produces by eliding complexly differentiated responses into a symbolic burst of ostensible mass agreement. 

Alas, perception is fundamentally idiosyncratic—whether were talking about listening, looking, eating, touching, or smelling. The fact that “the dress” (as it has come to be known) has pushed us to argue about what is “really” there proves how uncomfortable we are with that basic truism.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Decomposition around the web

(image c/o BookPeople)

Since the book's release date on November 18:

* I wrote a piece for Huffington Post called “The Discomforts of Digital Musica plea for listeners to break out of the star system, which I think ultimately hurts us all. (A sample: “To me, the real gift of digital technology is not the feeding frenzy of infinite free music; its the possibility of fostering artistic communities that are viable precisely because they are intimate and idiosyncratic, and because they form spontaneously, through the unprecedented channels of communication to which we now have access. If such communities are allowed to derive from shared passion, shared passion itself will nurture economic justice.)

* I did two book readings, one at Powell's in Portland (December 1), and one at Town Hall in Seattle (December 2). Both were great fun (though the Powell's event was better attended and sparked a longer discussion). 

* In advance of the Powell's event, writer Robert Ham did a nice piece on me for the Portland Mercury. It was great to meet and chat with him, and I appreciated his smart questions. (I should clarify for the record, though, that I haven't been 42 since 2011.)

* For the Seattle Weekly, Gavin Borchert did this preview of my talk at Seattle's Town Hall:

That's very flattering! (A small correction: the 
demythologizing without demeaning line comes from the books introduction, not the afterword.)

* At the end of December, Decomposition made it onto Los Angeles Magazine
Best ‘Little Music Books of 2014a welcome surprise, to say the least. Matthew Duertsen called it refreshingly unstodgyrefreshingly going against the grain of some of the more glib criticism the book has received.

* (PhD candidate) Madison Heyling's in-depth analysis of Decomposition for Music and Literature as well is probably one of the more detailed and thoughtful write-ups the book has yet received, and for that I'm very grateful. (I know how hard it is to be a grad student and do other intellectual work, so I truly appreciate the time this must have taken.)

* Ethan Iverson gave the book some love, both on the DoTheMath site (
covers an exceptionally wide turf; indeed, I can't think of reading a previous book that glosses jazz, classical, and pop in equal measure and with equal conviction) and on Twitter:

As I remarked in my response to Ethan: that may be the first time anyone has called the book 

* * * * *

Given the book’s polemic, I have been pondering how to respond to the criticism that has emerged alongside the praise (sometimes from the same critic). I've been a little hesitant,  honestly. Aside from the trouble it takes to formulate a response—I’d much rather be spending that on new projects—doing so also runs the risk of seeming unseemly. After all, it’s a reader’s prerogative to read the way she reads. And a thoughtful writer always has to be comfortable with the possibility of miscommunication.

Still, there are things in the criticism that have been sticking in my craw, and that I feel I should address at least briefly. One of them is the idea that I use the pronoun “we” recklessly. Borchert, for instance, dings me for the line “We are convinced that the quality of a musical work cannot derive, even if only partially, from its context.” Heyling makes a similar point:

One of Decomposition’s troublesome aspects is that Durkin bases many of his arguments on a set of assumptions that he positions as universals about listening. For instance, he writes: “We have become accustomed to focusing on the end result of musical production as if that’s all there is to it.” Similarly, he pronounces: “There has been a great deal of anxiety about how we value music—but also what music means . . . and even what it is.” 

To a point, I understand these complaints. I certainly find it irritating when other writers overuse the “we” convention—one of my favorite recent non-fiction reads, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, is, in my opinion, marred by this same tic. And I can’t deny that the lines that Borchert and Heyling quote are in my book, and that they sound a little pompous taken out of context. 

Yet context is important. Consider: at the beginning of the book I write that the influence of authorship and authenticity—what Heyling assumes I have posited as a “universal”—“is by no means universal.” Later, in introducing the section on authorship, I say that “I don’t want to exaggerate the case here by suggesting that the rhetoric of genius”—the mode of speaking about authorship that I am critiquing—“is the only available mode for speaking about music in our culture.” And in laying out the history of authenticity (a worldview that argues against the importance of context, and thus is directly pertinent to the sentence Borchert cites), I argue that inauthenticity “is at least as important” as a cultural phenomenon, “whether we live with it as a hard, inescapable truth or intentionally turn to it as a source of postmodern nirvana.” 

I could cite other examples; this sort of qualification goes on throughout the book. I had assumed, perhaps too easily, that readers would take this framework into account whenever coming across my use of first person plural pronouns. 

But I will also admit that there are two other things going on here that complicate the discussion. The first is that I’m trying to make a distinction between musical discourses and musical experiences, even as I recognize that they are mutually influencing. (“Ultimately,” I write, “rather than defining music, I am interested in how we discuss whatever it is we think music is, as well as what that discussion obscures.”) And in terms of musical discourses, the challenge is that in many cases “we” actually does apply—in the same way that it applies when, say, a nation goes to war against the wishes of at least some of its citizens. In that sense, I certainly can say that “we are convinced that the quality of a musical work cannot derive, even if only partially, from its context.” Even if I don’t literally count myself as a part of that “we” any more than Borchert or Heyling do, I am still part of the culture that holds this as a discursive value. It is really only in terms of the category of musical experiences that the “we” doesn’t apply, because that is where perceptual individuation happens. 

Missing this distinction, Heyling makes an odd move, recognizing that I am “rather self-aware about [my] background and personal preferences,” but then asserting that I do “not seem to have fully allowed that those biases have colored the book’s premises.” Yet when I talk about music experientially, I certainly do correct for my biases. After all, I spend a good deal of the book empathetically exploring music and musical practices that I, as a listener, don’t particularly enjoy or understand—Milli Vanilli, for instance, or auto-tuning, or drone metal. And when I talk about music as a discursive practice, my own biases are irrelevant, because I am addressing what people say and write about music, not what they actually experience (which is inaccessible to me, and which may indeed be inexpressible).

The second reason this is difficult to discuss is that there’s a case to be made that perhaps the mania for authorship and authenticity are more widespread than any of us care to admit. Like the white middle-class Liberal who doesn’t want to believe she has any role in perpetuating racism, the academically informed music fan doesn’t want to believe she has any role in perpetuating essentialized ideas about art. And yet my argument is that the discursive practice runs deep, and is hard to override. (If I knew Borchert and Heyling better, I would be willing to bet I could find examples of its expression in their work, without too much trouble. Indeed, I often find myself unintentionally falling into this way of speaking and writing too.) In part that’s because the practice is extremely convenient, especially as culture gets more dense and complex. “It is much more elegant,” as I put it in the book, “to say that ‘Cotton Tail’ is Duke Ellington’s composition than it is to say ‘Cotton Tail’ was a messy palimpsest, composed by Ellington, Ben Webster, George Gershwin, some unknown musician who first used the rhythm changes, et al.” But in part it’s because it is habitual, and human beings are creatures of habit.

One final point about the Heyling piece and then I’ll be done critiquing the critics. She argues that my “bibliography makes it clear that [I have] not engaged with most of the influential musicological literature from the last thirty years, in spite of the book’s copious references to other scholarship from other fields.” She’s absolutely right that I don’t draw on Philip Bohlman, Katherine Bergeron, or Lawrence Kramer (the musicologists she cites).* I’m sure the book is weaker for it. For the record, however, here are some of the musicologists (or musicology-informed thinkers) I do draw on, most of whom have indeed published important work within the last thirty years: Richard Taruskin, Lydia Goehr, Carolyn Abbate, Theodore Gracyk, Susan McClary, Joseph Kerman, Jonathan Sterne, Christoph Wolff, Simon Frith, Joseph Horowitz, R. Murray Schaefer, Christopher Small, Alex Ross . . .

Still and all: I am very grateful that readers and critics are engaging with the book. I look forward to further commentary.

* Heyling is wrong that I don’t cite Benjamin, however. I cite him twice.