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.