I kinda wanted to like this book but it's not really a manifesto because a manifesto would get straight to the point, actually say something, and say something in a simple way.
But it's not a philosophy of music either, or even at all. So neither of the working titles seem accurate. Then again, publishers can make decisions so it seems unfair to try to judge a book by its failure to live up to either published title. The term "decomposition" is still there and it gets something like a definition.
There are some core ideas in this book I could totally endorse without reservation if those had been the ideas Durkin had spent the majority of his book actually dealing with. Instead the book takes aim at the ideologies (Durkin's term) of authenticity and authorship. Durkin tries to show how dicey these two ideologies are without being successful. The reason he's not successful is that he is attacking these concepts as ways of writing about music rather than attacking the legitimacy fo the concepts as a whole. And the trouble is that even if he had attacked the legitimacy of the concepts of authorship and authenticity as concepts he could have just had everybody read Andrew Potter's The Authenticity Hoax, which directly attacked the notion of authenticity across the board since the dawn of the Romantic era.
And in any case attacking authorship and authenticity would not do a single thing to change the proliferation lof Taylor Swift songs or One Direction songs or all country songs sounding vaguely the same. Leonard Meyer pointed out half a century ago that products of art have been team-built products. Durkin's half a century late to the party if he wanted to point out that authorship is a myth because much of what passes for solitary invention is really more like a social process.
Earlier reviews have suggested Durkin could have engaged more of the musicology writing in the last thirty years. Actually, having read the book, I've come to think the problem is Durkin could have been more thorough in absorbing Leonard Meyer's writings. It seems particularly unfortunate Durkin's writing about the problems of authenticity and authorship being problems that he doesn't seem to have read Style & Music: Theory, History and Ideology, in which Leonard B. Meyer explicitly and at length deals with ideology as an engine for concepts about originality and authorship from the end of the high Classic period through the end of the Romantic era.
Nor has Durkin's reading seemed to include Meyer's impressive 1967 book Music, the Arts, and Ideas, in which Meyer predicted the emergence of a stable steady-state of polystylistic options across the arts. Meyer also noted that the products of artistic activity in the 20th century were more collaborative and committee-based.
Let's get to a few particular bits in Durkin's book. Durkin's attack on authorship features some ruminations on the collaborative nature of Duke Ellington's compositional approach. That got discussed at some length in Terry Teachout's biography Duke from a few years ago. It's fun but not necessarily a meaningful counter to an ideology of authorship since not many people celebrate Ellington's music as a brand. We still think of it as Duke's music.
When Durkin later turns to Beethoven he doesn't really say anything much more than that Beethoven's popularity coincided with a shift in European taste in which instrumental music became popular and symbolic of European high art aspirations. The trouble is that Durkin never even starts to address how or why that ideological/aesthetic change took place and this was precisely what Leonard B. Meyer discussed at length in Style & Music! As nationalistic impulses began to emerge in the 19th century there was a push to get away from what was believed to be too international and cosmopolitan a style in music toward the roots music of cultures. But, as Meyer put it, even though divorcing music from the constraints of language could ensure music evoked the "universal" of feeling and intuition nobody could easily devise a new musical syntax to replace the forms of the 18th century, whether the Baroque forms or the forms of the Classic era. So Romantic composers spent a century finding ways to disguise their reliance on the conventions of the eras they were trying to distance themselves from.
But Durkin's book never starts moving in that direction. What he does instead is take aim at the uncertainties and exigencies of notational systems, which is altogether a waste of time. Once again going back to things written about half a century ago, Paul Hindemith remarked that the Western notational system has plenty of problems and a composer can only use it to convey to a performer an approximation of what the composer has in mind. Meyer, in Music, the Arts, and Ideas mentioned that (forget exactly where now) one of the things a written notation system permits for music is the development of complex forms. In Durkin's conclusion he makes a plea for complexity in music, not for the sake of complexity but for music being, well, anyway ... the irony of Durkin's attacks on authorship and authenticity by going after notational systems is that Meyer pointed out that without notational systems human musical activity is tethered to what people can remember long enough to continuously perform and when we're anchored to the limits of human cognitive bandwith to THAT degree humanity has proven time and again that we stop short at about the three minute mark. Paging Taylor Swift again ... .
If Durkin stays committed to attacking notational systems as a case against the ideologies of authorship and authenticity he might find that he's making an argument against the slippery and often inadequate systems that, nonetheless, have permitted the complexity he'd like to hear more of.
All that said, reading Durkin's book was a gateway to listening to some interesting stuff, like Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies. Where Durkin had a chance to formulate a real manifesto could have been in this material, where he details that no matter how solitary a genius people might want to think Nancarrow was his creative process was still essentially collaborative. It's a shame Durkin relies on what seems to be ad hoc and idiosyncratic jargon. It's also a shame he doesn't seem to have cast his net wide enough to show that as ideologies go, an insistence on the "right" edition of the perfect score is relatively new. Sure, he gets to Bach editions and how accepted performance practice informed that but that's not quite what needed to be articulated. No, the fact that Mozart and Haydn, or even later composers, were happy to revise and rewrite their works to suit the needs and strengths of their musicians at hand could have bolstered Durkin's arguments for what he calls contextual and direct collaboration.
Actually, it's a shame Durkin didn't use the most obvious case for a collaborative process in Beethoven available, the Diabelli variations. Diabelli tends to get dismissed as a mediocre composer and not without some cause, but Diabelli's Op. 29 guitar sonatas have their merits. If you could hear a Marcin Dylla playing the F major you'd hear that at his best Diabelli had some promising material. It took a Beethoven to coax that greatness from the music since Diabelli, whatever his gifts, left some ideas under-developed but that's some blog post for some other time. Durkin's not a guitarist and is a jazz musician rather than somebody who composes chamber music so I'm trying to not be unfair here when I say that Durkin needed to strengthen his readings on Beethoven a little more before he wrote a chapter that purported to demythologize the lone genius narrative of Beethoven without actually doing so. It didn't have to be a door-stopping double-tome like Taruskin's treatise on Stravinsky's appropriation of Russian folk music, but if Durkin wants to take aim at the biggest names in the concert music canon he needed to brush up on the critical literature a bit more.
However, Durkin's proposal, if I can dare to distill it into an actual axiom for a manifesto goes something like this:
* All artistic activity, no matter how physically isolated, is invariably a social activity
* All artistic activity, as an act of communication either aspires toward or must risk cliché
* Therefore originality and alleged social authenticity must be viewed with some skepticism
Had Durkin read more widely in Meyer he could have benefited from Meyer's axiomatic observation that the ideological insistence of the Romantics on individual expression created a paradox, the problem is that individual expression and artistic individuation paradoxically depends upon the norms that are supposed to be contravened for the sake of individuality. Style as an indicator individuality got abandoned by those Meyer called empiricists and transcendentalists (like John Cage) and so in the 20th century there were artists moving away from the idea that the aim of art was to be an expression of the artist's self.
Quaintly enough, some of those 20th century composers in some sense returned to an 18th century doctrine of affect. Meyer described the distinction as being one in which the 18th century doctrine of affect proposed that music represented emotional states while 19th century ideology claimed that music expressed the feelings of the individual artist who created the work. I think the 18th century formulation makes more sense. You can work to represent an emotional state in a musical work as a matter of convention, understanding that not everyone will perceive the music in the same way, whereas the Romantic variation can come across pretty quickly as narcissistic solipsism
Oh, have I forgotten to mention I actually don't like a majority of Romantic era music? :)
Durkin's attempts to cast doubt on whether we all hear the same music, this is not an organized review so much as a year's rumination, is also frustrating. Durkin spent 300 some pages to get at a point that Paul Hindemith knocked out swiftly in the first 40 pages of A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations. That really was half a century ago, give or take a year, and Hindemith wrote that what happens when we listen to music is a form of parallel mental construction in which we compare what we're hearing to what we think is going on in the musical work. Hindemith credits this idea as going as far back as Saint Augustine, and Hindemith stated that one performance of a musical work could elicit a different response from each member of the audience because each member of the audience will mentally comprehend and interpret the music in different ways.
Durkin's attempt to question authenticity and authorship based on asking "do you hear what I hear?" is a self-defeating notion because even a thoroughly conservative and traditionalist type like Paul Hindemith pointed out decades ago that, yeah, we all mentally interact with what we hear. If we're hearing music based on a musical syntax and vocabulary we don't understand, however, we WON'T HEAR IT AS MUSIC. John Cage's innovation was to introduce the possibility that once you perceive music as a mental process or disposition toward hearing music in the sounds around you then human agency in music can be altogether removed. Questions of the authenticity of the composer or performer on the one hand or the centrality of the author as a Romantic ideological talking point vanish.
But that's not the only movement within the arts to get in the direction of questioning Romantic ideological insistence on innovation, personal expression and all that. When Stravinsky insisted that music was powerless to express anything beyond itself this can be construed as a reaction to Romantic ideology, which freighted music with so much necessity to express the soul of the artist and be emotionally and culturally "authentic" it was overwrought. Stravinsky famously jumped from style to style and appropriated ideas and methods from a variety of musical eras. You could suggest that Stravinsky tilted back away from a Romantic ideology of art-as-expression-of-the-artist's-true-self toward something more like an 18th century doctrine of affects in which music can abstractly depict a series of emotional states or concepts within a shared understanding, but that the artist as artist has no inherent claim to dictating what the language may mean.
Durkin's attack on what he calls the ideologies of authorship and authenticity ring hollow because while he takes many and generally ineffectual labors to attack the concepts as rhetorical devices within writing about music he never even begins to attack the legitimacy of the concepts as a way to understand the arts, or even his own approach to the arts.
If he had cast about beyond music his ideas and questions could have been fascinating.
Let's take film, what is the "real" version of Star Wars? Hasn't Lucas spent decades insisting that everyone who enjoyed the 1977 version of Star Wars fixated on an unfinished movie? Well Herman Melville insisted Moby Dick was a draft of a draft and it's still classic American literature whether you enjoyed it or not. That there's a "de-specialized" version of Star Wars out there suggests that within cinema history audiences can be persuaded that the director/screenwriter's authority has limits. Once you put something out there as a completed/released work of art the audience interaction with that work takes on a life of its own. Durkin's blog shows he's clearly familiar with all the ways in which Lucas got ideas from other places.
Maybe Durkin's even read The Secret History of Star Wars, too. If Durkin wanted to get at a case study in which ideological insistence on authenticity and authorship is potentially toxic and flies in the face of audience affection it would be impossible to find a better case study than George Lucas! The more we have at hand to learn about how the films developed the more thoroughly it becomes clear that the films were a sprawling collaborative process yet if there's any self-aggrandizing solipsistic myth-making process in the contemporary arts about the arts, George Lucas' decades of "I meant to do that" tinkering with films he made decades ago could have been exhibit A for Durkin's best points about the shortcomings of a straitjacketed ideological insistence on a certain understanding of what authorship and authenticity are.
But we keep mythologizing anyway. It doesn't matter how many Beatles there were, we pick the individuals who are allegedly most responsible for the final product. Why we keep gravitating toward individuals as emblematic of collaborative processes is almost too obvious to mention. As Daniel Kahneman has put it, our brains are organisms designed to jump to conclusions. Most of the time that works. In fact 90% of the time it works just great which is why when the 10% shows up where that doesn't work great it's a disaster of cognitive shortcuts.
If Durkin had written his whole book around a critique of contemporary copyright practice then it would have been an entirely different (and probably better) book. Durkin points out that there's a big difference between urging that copyright needs reform and the two binary positions of "copyright is evil" and "copyright as it is is great". Alas, this is the part of the book that seems tacked on and incomplete. Nothing about, say, a supreme court case in which publishers wanted to reject the right of first sale!?
The concept of "proprietary totalism" as the default position of corporations is an interesting one, one that could be fleshed out more. I would suggest, since, you know, this blog tends to get known as that blog covering the life and times of Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll as a public figure, that Durkin's writing invites a question. Let's consider that "Blurred Lines" case and by contrast consider that in the midst of a year or two of controversy about whether or not Mark Driscoll was a plagiarist not a single author or publisher opted to take legal action. Was this really because there was no evidence in the first print editions for plagiarism? Well, no, that's not likely because as Warren Throckmorton documented, Driscoll's publishers retroactively fixed many a passage by adding footnotes and attribution that had not previously existed in first print editions. So THAT would seem like evidence that authors and publishers "could" have made a case for plagiarism. Nobody did, whereas Marvin Gaye's estate did sue after they were sued, if memory serves.
Durkin has proposed that technology informs how we understand the arts. Arguably our reliance on machines to both create and hear music has done more to inform our cultural insistence on authenticity and authorship than traditional musical notation. Our expectation that a musical piece sound the same every time isn't a "universal" but it's an expectation that can be reinforced by the ways that we listen. Sousa warned that by letting our musical experience be mediated by machines this would introduce a brutal stratification between producers and consumers of music; it would lead to a proliferation of music via machine that would obliterate regional musical dialect and flavor; it would lead to a culture in which the amateur musician all but vanished and the need for music teachers and the infrastructure of cultural preservation would be harmed.
Now the funny thing here is that about half a century later the émigré Paul Hindemith complained that American musical culture, particularly in music education, had this idiot egalitarian streak that bore no resemblance to the real world. Tell every kid that he or she could be a future Beethoven and you're lying to the kid but American aspirational ideals, as Hindemith perceived them, ran with the idea that you tell a kid to reach for the sky and assume the best. He sourly asserted that all the American musical educational system seemed to be good for was not producing balanced all-around musicians but music teachers who would produce more music teachers and specialists who would produce more specialists. Not unlike Sousa, Hindemith believed the role of the amateur musician in fomenting musical culture was a necessity.
And in a way one of the boons of the technology that may have divorced the production of artistic work from any monetizable way of profiting from it could be the emergence of a new amateur class. But I wonder if this is the part that Durkin and others may not have considered in classic left/progressive terms. Let's get back to "Masscult and Midcult" and old Left attacks on the middlebrow. If the middle class is shrinking does the middlebrow go away? No, the corporate funding can jump in and save the day. But that's not what is interesting here, the question that comes up is if the old Left talked about high art and low art, about high culture and folk art, what could we say describes those two realms? High art had the patronage system but folk art, what was that? Couldn't we get quasi-Marxist here and suggest that folk art was made at the time and expense of the common person without any necessary expectation or reality of financial compensation?
A life in the arts if you're not in an aristocratic leisure class might be a life in the arts where you do it entirely at your own expense with no actual pay just because you love making music or art or whatever your hobby is. If Durkin wanted to really attack the ideologies of authenticity and authorship he could have attacked the legitimacy of the ideological insistence on the superiority of the vocational artist over the hobbyist. He could have done this, too, by way of Charles Ives. Durkin's working definitions of authorship and authenticity were too narrow and so he ended up stopping short of getting into some stuff that could have been fascinating.
Decomposition doesn't read like either a manifesto or a philosophy of music. It reads like a series of dead ends on tertiary issues that don't seem important to what Durkin's worried about in his book and at his blog. It reads like a series of false starts and rabbit trails into things that don't address the real ideological stuff going on behind the buzzwords he spent a few hundred pages trying to neutralize to no effect.
Still, fumbling attempts to address how we think about the arts is better than not thinking about how we think about the arts. I doubt Durkin would agree with Sousa about the dangers of ceding so much of our musical life to machines from a century ago. I don't know that he'd even agree with Leonard B Meyer's warning in the 1990s that the danger in our listening is how inattentive and partially focused it is now that it's mediated by machines through which we listen to music while we walk to the grocery store instead of listening in the devoted setting of a concert or a recital. Really, I do think Durkin could have benefited in writing his book from being more deeply engaged with Meyer's work beyond the book with "emotions" in the title. I also, obviously, think Durkin could have benefited from spending less time attacking the straw man of the vagaries of music notation and more time on the ideologies behind his ideologies of authenticity and authorship.
Meyer wrote that the problem of value is inescapable. We can pretend it doesn't matter, we can bury the debates about value in technical jargon, we can find ways around it but we can't escape the question of what we value and why in the arts. In some sense Durkin's ultimate failure is that he tries to dismantle the ways we talk about values without questioning the values themselves. He's not really interested in attacking authorship or authenticity as customs of history or even as ideologies, but as buzzwords he perceives in music journalism. But the problem is that if we're not talking about music in the aesthetic and technical terms of the construction process what do we have? We will tend to fall back on to the lifestyle reporting Ted Gioia complained about. But the Scylla to Charybdys here is that classical music writing became irrelevant, as Richard Taruskin has put it, for being obsessively into shoptalk, talking about the technicalities of the construction process without getting around to what these things mean.
Leonard Meyer wrote in his Music & Style that it is impossible to assess a work of art on its own terms. Our very capacity to recognize something as a work of art is culturally and ideologically mediated. The paradoxes of Romanticism are that the individuality it prized depended on the norms the individual was expected to subvert. Meyer described Romanticism as the ideology of elite egalitarians. The egalitarian impulse was strong in Romanticism but the trouble is that all art as communication depends on the kinds of conventions the ideology repudiated on the one hand, and on the other hand the capacity to deviate from norms depended on a knowledge base that generally ended up being elitist. It was ultimately impossible to repudiate the syntax and vocabulary of the 18th century for the 19th century composers. By the 20th century the norms had been abandoned to degrees that tested the limit of human cognitive bandwidth and let's just say we don't all listen to Schoenberg in the elevator ... .
Which is to say that Durkin can attack authenticity as much as he wants but the problem is that in lieu of explicitly formal/formalist values in assessing what music is and whether we call it "good", the default definition for artistic greatness becomes ... authenticity. Thus old debates about whether whites could really play jazz or whether black composers could contribute to classical music in the same way as whites have because it's music of the Man or something kind of like that. Paul Desmond was a great saxophonist and George Walker has written some fine piano sonatas, so there. That gets to my misgivings about Durkin's project, he doesn't want to affirm aesthetic criteria through which authenticity based on ethnic or class signifiers define participation in the arts, and I think I totally get the reasons he doesn't want to "go there". But the trouble is that if we don't go "there" and we don't turn to the proposal that there are aesthetic values we can construe as aspirational absolutes then we're kind of at a burger joint saying we don't want to buy a bacon cheeseburger but the place doesn't sell chicken.