Sunday, August 30, 2015

Andrew Durkin's self-defeating manifesto

Durkin read the review of Decomposition here at Wenatchee The Hatchet and left a few comments. 
So firstly, thanks for coming by and commenting.  It's been great to have the blog have comments that aren't about the usual set of topics the blog's gotten a reputation for.  It's also especially fun for the blog to spark any interaction about music instead of ... the usual set of topics.

It probably comes as no surprise to Durkin that we come from different perspectives.  He's mentioned not having the desire to engage in a lengthy interaction, which is fine.  Whether or not Durkin read all the posts tagged with "decomposition" is less clear.  However, he shared a few things in comments that have cleared up a couple of things about his book, cleared some things up in a way that makes it easier to understand why I have come to consider his entire enterprise to be sententious and self-defeating.

We can quote a few sentences from the start and end of his comments that may suffice to distill his philosophical approach.
Here’s what I think you’re missing in much of your review: I don’t believe concepts can exist outside of the ways we write or speak about them.
Sorry, but I don’t believe in artistic greatness. I believe that all we can do is love the art we love.

It seems necessary to clarify what I began to have doubts about regarding Durkin's book.  He can subscribe to the idea that concepts don't exist outside the ways we write or speak about them but I'm coming more from the side of playing with the idea that how we even think about music is circumscribed by the linguistic parameters through which we learned about music or literature.  We can be hamstrung by what we are or aren't able to think through based on the language through which we learn to think about music.  Which may be a tolerable transition to questions raised about Durkin's engagement with the secondary literature known as musicology.

Durkin did mention having not read a couple of the Meyer books I mentioned. For those not eager to read the length of his comments, he mentioned what books he read and what ideas he referenced.  As mentioned before, I agree with Madison Heying that Durkin seems to have not read widely or deeply enough in musicology to have made some of the points he tried making.  I'd go a step further and suggest that Durkin wasn't widely or deeply read enough in the last 41-80 years of musicology to have made some of his points.

Durkin is more than free to insist that concepts don't exist apart from the ways we write and speak about them.  The strength of his arguments in Decomposition may not derive the force of argument from a premise like that.  If anything, a philosophical premise like that highlights that his book would have benefited from formal and analytic musicology.

When I wrote earlier that if Durkin was going to take aim at demythologizing touchstones in the Western canon he needed to show he knew his work, Durkin may have taken that as a sign he needed to write his book.

Well, the problem in the Ellington/Beethoven dyad earlier in Durkin's book is that Durkin clearly demonstrates direct familiarity with Ellington's music and writings about Ellington's music. Then we get to Beethoven and Durkin shifts to summarizing DeNora on what other people said about Beethoven.  By the time I finished reading Durkin's book everything Durkin said seemed like stuff that could be written by someone who had consulted a wide variety of the secondary literature .. without having bothered to study or play a single piece by Beethoven.  Or listen to one, for that matter. It's not just that I and others have doubted the depth and breadth of Durkin's readings on musicology, I've come in the last year of considering the arguments and content of the book to have some actual doubts that Durkin even knows the classical repertoire of Beethoven or Bach.

Take the chapter where Durkin talked about "The Riff".  It's shooting fish in a barrel to explore how Russian folk songs got worked into Beethoven's string quartets for Russian patrons. It's easily known by anyone who's immersed themselves in the Goldberg variations that a Polish folk song got worked into the Quodlibet.  For that matter, for people already familiar with the music, it's not even that difficult to draw a line from the 9th century Pentecost chant Veni Creator Spiritus through to Lutheran hymnody for Pentecost to the subject of the fugue in Bach's C major violin sonata.  Had Durkin done for Beethoven (or Bach) what he'd done with Ellington, discussing where the riffs came from and how a composer or arranger can use a variety of riffs, not all of which the composer originated, and create vital and interesting music, he could have drawn a historic path from the 9th century to the 18th century to show how the remixing kept going on across nearly a millennia.  That is, if Andrew Durkin were actually familiar at any level with the concert literature of "so-called classical music".

Musicology and formal analysis is precisely the body of literature in which scholars of music point out that Matiegka appropriated the fast finale of a B minor piano sonata by Haydn to become the first movement of a solo guitar sonata.  It's how Kyle Gann can explore that Mozart made use of materials he'd heard from Clementi.

Durkin had plenty of time both in his book and in comments to explore and explain the lineage of what he calls decomposition across the classical canon.  He never really did that in his book and over at his blog Ugly Rug, eleven years worth of blogging has not revealed any particular familiarity with Beethoven's work, or Bach's.  This doesn't mean Durkin doesn't know the music, but eleven years of blogging and a published book is plenty of time to demonstrate a working knowledge of the classical side of things.  A person could invoke the B natural debate about Beethoven's Hammerklavier without so much as having heard the piece.  Reading the secondary literature gets that knowledge taken care of. 

So Decomposition comes off as a book written by someone who has written about what other people have written and said about people like Beethoven without revealing at any point any direct familiarity with Beethoven's work.  If Durkin wanted to show that Beethoven got ideas from folk music he could have.  If Durkin wanted to highlight the insoluable debate of preference over which ending for the Op. 130 string quartet is the preferable one of the two authentically composed-by-Beethoven endings, he could have done that. 

Classical music has a centuries old pattern of composers appropriating the ideas of other people, saying whose idea it was, and running with it.  Martin Luther would adapt Gregorian chants into vernacular hymns. Bach would employ isometric adaptations of sixteen century hymns shifted from their modal form into a major/minor key system. Haydn could take Polish folk songs and work them into the trios of his string quartets.  Matiegka wrote a set of variations on a lieder by Haydn in his Grand Sonata II. Brahms wrote a set of variations on a theme by Haydn (or Handel or Paganini).  Ferdinand Rebay adapted a variation form composed by Brahms into a slow movement in one of his sonatas for solo guitar.  From century to century musicology is able to demonstrate in historical terms what Durkin has described as "decomposition", and yet when it comes to the classical side of his point-making Durkin not only seems to come up short on the secondary literature, he actually at times makes it hard to know if he even knows the primary literature.

Let's take the Ellington/Beethoven dyad again.   Demythologizing Beethoven is shooting fish in a barrel for anyone who knows the primary works.  The problem is that Beethoven's not necessarily the best case study as a contrast to Ellington.  Durkin is bothered at the mythologizing tendencies of language about the singular genius and the authentic instantiation of a musical work. Durkin could have consulted Richard Taruskin's tree-killing two-volume survey of the armies of folk tunes Stravinsky appropriated for his work and how Stravinsky made a career of self-mythologizing.  What makes the mythologizing tendencies in the "lone genius" and the "authentic" part of music-making pernicious is that the people most apt to deploy this language are the creative people themselves. Of course since we live in an era of popular culture that is practically excluded from the public domain people will feel it's dangerous to admit artistic debts in pop music.  The funny thing here is that in classical music these debts are admitted so readily and casually it could have been a case where if Durkin knew any of the classical music warhorses and the lineage of the works he could suggest that the different eras of music have unique things to share. 

Durkin tends to focus on the ways that copyright regimes create problems (and those are considerable in a number of ways) but Durkin read Teachout's biography of Ellington and so Durkin could have highlighted that creativity can involve working AROUND restrictions, the way Ellington urged his son Mercer and Billy Strayhorn to create reams of music during the BMI embargo of ASCAP members.  Ellington was part of ASCAP, if memory serves, and found himself in a sticky spot when it came to composing music.  But his son and Strayhorn could work within and around those restrictions and this was an integral element of the prodigious output of the Blanton-Webster period. Duke would suggest chord progressions and then encourage Mercer and Strayhorn to develop the rest.

I think that a contrast between Ellington and Stravinsky would be more instructive because both composers occupied the same century of creative activity and in both cases myth-making vs reality has become easy to document. As it stands, Durkin may or may not have any familiarity with Taruskin's fantastic survey that demythologized Stravinsky for Stravinsky. We have plenty of documentation by now how, as I put it in an earlier post, even the most apparently solitary artistic person is creating art in a way that is fundamentally a social activity.

If Durkin had the musicological background and interest demonstrating how riffs get reshaped across a millennium of musical activity would be pretty easy to do.  It could have demonstrated the potential vitality and applicability of "decomposition". As it is, "decomposition" is more apt to become Durkin's "that is so fetch".

Now Durkin's certainly able to insist that concepts don't exist apart from the ways we write or speak about them.  This is a point at which Durkin might have benefited from reading some of the work done by social scientists and biologists on heuristics, cognitive development and the like. What if, for instance, concepts are not "just" in verbal or oral expression but are circumscribed by the language(s) we learn from childhood?  It may be true that a concept doesn't exist apart from what you write or say but before you can say or write a sentence thoughts are in your head. Does a concept only take shape once it is written or spoken, or can a concept be formulated by a thinking and perceiving mind before it is articulated?

To give an example, babies don't have the language with which to communicate conceptually but just because a baby doesn't have a mastery of a language yet does that mean the baby is incapable of formulating a concept that we adults could describe as "I'm hungry"? Is the baby not hungry because it can't speak words saying "I'm hungry" or write anything?  Now maybe a person hearing the baby crying might have to rely on other sensory perception than hearing (like a sense of smell) to determine that maybe that baby isn't hungry but has had a diaper blow out. The question at hand is whether the baby somehow doesn't have a concept of being hungry or having a diaper blow out for lack of linguistic categories to express the concept or, to some degree, even perceive what hunger is.  Does hunger not exist for the baby because he or she or it lacks a linguistic framework in the mind from which to identify the sensation we tend to call hunger?

It's possible that the language in which we think circumscribes the range of concepts we can write or talk about, just as it's possible that concepts don't exist apart from the way we write or speak about them.  This would suggest that, if anything, Durkin would have a reason to immerse himself deeply and broadly in musicology and formal analysis.  Yet as Heying has noted, Durkin's attitude toward musicology and formal analysis seems to be dismissive.  If so that's a shame because if concepts don't exist apart from the way they are dealt with in language via writing and speaking then this would elevate the significance of formal analysis because, in that sense, there might be no music apart from the reified expression of music in a fixed form.  If there is a "music of my mind" that can exist independent of formal expression then Durkin has devoted chunks of his book to doubting the legitimacy of the ad hoc languages and lexicons developed over millennia to talk about and get to performing music for reasons that are never particularly clear. 

And in the long run it's difficult to tell whether or not in the end Andrew Durkin has much interest in defending the ideas in his book in connection to his eleven years of blogging, too.  In a comment Durkin mentioned the following:
Sorry, but I don’t believe in artistic greatness. I believe that all we can do is love the art we love.

This sententious assertion needs to be read alongside what Durkin's blogged over the last eleven years which includes a fairly standard issue bromide such as ...
...  I don’t need to be convinced of Ellington’s greatness; I already know his music saved my life. ...

This gets to the self-defeating core of Durkin's approach.  Durkin insists that all we can do is love the art we love, having cast doubt on the legitimacy and utility of linguistic categories we humans have used  since 19 ... always to express such love, while using such hyperbolic language in his own expression of love for the music he loves. 


In the history of humans certain quests and claims keep coming up.  The opportunity Durkin had for a manifesto (or the start of one) would be to propose that the boundaries across the styles we so often think are distinct are ultimately permeable.  The music you love may have more in common with the music you think you hate than you might first realize.  I thought I didn't and couldn't like any country in my teens and then I began to listen to country and learned that the boundaries between jazz and blues (which I did like) and country (which I thought I didn't like) were more permeable than I had imagined them to be. I read interviews with Bob Dylan where he said to not just listen to him but to listen to who inspired him and to listen to who inspired them. So I went back to Robert Johnson and went back to Ellington and Mahalia Jackson. Then I went back to Scott Joplin and learned he was familiar with Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. So I got into Beethoven, Brahms and Bach and learned they were respectively inspired by Haydn and Telemann and Schutz and Buxtehude.  I kept going further back and stopped around Leonin and Perotin and Ockeghem.  Also got around to music from China and Thailand and Japan along the way.

Durkin focuses on what he seems to think negatives to reification. There are, however, positives. The beauty of an age in which music is reified is that we have an opportunity to understand how permeable the boundaries across musical styles and forms are.  Where Durkin seems obsessed with the limitations of notational systems and certainties about whatever a "master" version is, that's all inconsequential to me.  Rather than lament reification what if we take it as a given and see what is possible in light of that reification.  One opportunity is to take a computational approach to the recurrence of riffs across multiple styles in different eras. There's no reason a person can't hybridize the invertible contrapuntal idiom of the 18th century with the blues vocabulary of American blues players.  To borrow a bit from Yoda, no, is not different, only different in your mind. If we're to have music beyond category we may not enjoy formal analysis at first but the beauty of formal analysis is that it can, despite its drudgery, lead us to discover how permeable the boundaries are between early Romantic 19th century guitar sonatas in Spain and ragtime in the early 20th century.
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. 

I dislike contemporary Christian music because when I hear it I feel like I'm looking at a grainy black and white photocopy of a postage stamp reproduction of a Thomas Kinkaid painting.  But if Durkin's going to take his critique of authorship and authenticity seriously he'd have to say that there's no argument that this is inauthentic music or that it's bad based on any question of authorship.  Dismantling the ideologies of authenticity and authorship should have led Durkin to a point where he should be able to celebrate at least some modern pop music regardless of the money issue.

It's not enough to question the viability of "authenticity" and "authorship" as ways of praising the music we love, it's far more important to dismantle them as categories through which we vent about music we hate.  It's when Durkin complains that he can't hear modern pop music as music that he reveals maybe he can't even completely commit to the ideals he has tried to formulate in his own manifesto.  And if he can't go that distance himself, should the rest of us bother to follow?


Andrew Durkin said...

Hi again Weenatchee:

As mentioned, I don’t have the desire or time to get into this with you. In my experience, even with the best of intentions, blog commentaries (and social media discourse in general) can quickly become unproductive. This one is already veering in that direction. (“Sententious”? This from a blogger who refers to him/herself with a third-person pseudonym?)

I will point out that you’re contradictorily arguing that my critique of authenticity and authorship is old hat, AND that my understanding of Beethoven (or perhaps classical music in general) isn’t authentic enough. That is, you yourself embody the problem I’m arguing against—the problem you claim doesn’t exist anymore—when you presume to know how I have experienced certain kinds of music, and whether that experience qualifies me to write about them.

In response, the best I can do is a clunky adaptation of Maslow: when the only tool you have is musicology, everything starts to look like a musicological problem. I’ll be the first to admit that Decomposition isn’t perfect, but your obsession has blinded you to much of what is actually in the book (conveniently setting aside, for instance, my self-awareness as a listener and music lover).

I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I’ll be thinking about this exchange as I work on Decomposition’s followup.

Andrew Durkin said...

(Oh, and my apologies for misspelling "Wenatchee.")

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I have been wondering if we're talking a bit past each other because I don't think that reification of music is actually bad and we may not even be using the same working definition of reification. For instance, when you made a defense of pirating music, I couldn't help but wonder whether it's possible to pirate music that hasn't already been reified. If the music wasn't objectified to the point of being replicable it couldn't be pirated to begin with.

Drawing on a wider swath of music history would be useful toward the piracy observation. I was reading earlier this year in H. C. Robbins Landon's writing on Haydn that Haydn's work was so popular that a lot of his work that was published in his lifetime was actually pirated rather than a set of editions Haydn was directly involved in. Haydn became popular enough his work was known in the American colonies but it's not because he ever went there.

I wonder if you've been hamstrung by just using too limited a definition of reification without factoring in Gestalt definitions in your book. Your book and your blogging seem to lean on a fixed definition of reification that seems indebted to Marxist theory but that does not have to be assumed across the board.

If we play with reification in Gestalt terms reification isn't just potentially good, it's also potentially the cognitive procedural foundation for jazz as an art form, or any variation form across any style for that matter. There isn't any obligation for us to think reification only happens as a result of visual processing.

After the presentation of the initial theme the listener can retroactively supply the previously perceived theme across subsequent variations. Without reification a listener won't necessarily hear "My Funny Valentine" in what a jazz musician plays. What some listeners fiend alienating about Charles Ives or about Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal is they're so primed by experience to listen to variation forms as moving FROM the theme TO the variations they don't have the open-mindedness necessary to imagine this process can work in reverse, that a set of transformative variations can work toward the revelation of the foundational theme.

Since I don't think that the forms of reification of music are necessarily bad, just a reality that musicians have to live with and adapt to which has positives and negatives, we may never see eye to eye about that. If you see reification as a kind of informational/perceptual compression that reduces music to some kind of object I've approached reification as a cognitive process that allows expansion and reveals that once you're aware of what reification is the boundaries across all styles of music are wonderfully permeable. It might be you've been using a working definition of reification informed more by Marx and I've been using a definition relying on Gestalt theory when what may be more fun is to assimilate both approaches.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The third person stuff is off-putting, I know, and that has a lot to do with the last six years of blogging about the history of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. I cultivated a deliberately icy, remote quasi-Joan Didion style and dialed down the personal pronouns as a strategy to make life easier for sources to not have to deal with possible reprisals. Now that the corporation is dissolving shifting out of that style might take some time.

The musicology thing is a double edged sword. If there weren't the ridiculous status-game system Kyle Gann has complained about where people care more about writing the fiftieth book on Beethoven than publishing a monograph on Clementi musicology could open up rather than close of the range of discussion. I've complained here about how I can't find a single monograph on the evolution of sonata form in the classical guitar literature. So many classical guitarists talk as if the guitar can't handle sonata form which is absurd. I've linked to scholars in biblical studies and patristics who have complained that the academic prestige/industrial system has a stranglehold that stifles scholarship in favor of status games. I think between that and the self-mythologizing tendency of George Lucas over the last thirty years your critique of authorship and authenticity could go in some more interesting directions if it were expanded well beyond music.

Thanks for dropping by again. It really has been fun having this blog have a comment conversation that doesn't deal with Mars Hill for the first time in half a decade! Have a good Labor Day weekend.