Decomposition: A Music Manifesto
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Decomposition is a bracing, revisionary, and provocative inquiry into music—from Beethoven to Duke Ellington, from Conlon Nancarrow to Evelyn Glennie—as a personal and cultural experience: how it is composed, how it is idiosyncratically perceived by critics and reviewers, and why we listen to it the way we do.
Andrew Durkin, best known as the leader of the West Coast–based Industrial Jazz Group, is singular for his insistence on asking tough questions about the complexity of our presumptions about music and about listening, especially in the digital age. In this winning and lucid study he explodes the age-old concept of musical composition as the work of individual genius, arguing instead that in both its composition and reception music is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise that comes into being only through mediation.
Drawing on a rich variety of examples—Big Jay McNeely’s “Deacon’s Hop,” Biz Markie’s “Alone Again,” George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, Frank Zappa’s “While You Were Art,” and Pauline Oliveros’s “Tuning Meditation,” to name only a few—Durkin makes clear that our appreciation of any piece of music is always informed by neuroscientific, psychological, technological, and cultural factors. How we listen to music, he maintains, might have as much power to change it as music might have to change how we listen.
invention”: McCormick, “The Truth About Lip-Synching.” “Fifty Worst Inventions”: Time, “Fifty Worst Inventions,” http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1991915,00.html. “I truly feel like the Guitar Hero games”: Franich, “ ‘Guitar’ Hero Is Dead, but We’ll Always Have ‘Strutter.’ ” “it’s still possible for a band to get heard”: Quoted in Kot, Ripped, 128. “If we dare attempt this tribute to Rush”: Rodman, “Tribute bands are music to fans’ ears, wallets.” “truly
mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things.” To help make his point, Sousa coined the pejorative term “canned music,” most likely in reference to the canisters that cylinder recordings came in. He felt that mass dissemination would result in the shortening of the typical listener’s attention span, and, more important, replace the nineteenth century’s vibrant amateur musical culture with an aloof class of gadget-obsessed dilettantes.
eventually allow for the creation of an edit compiled from different takes, for instance. He did not have access to sophisticated audio processing tools such as equalization or compression. His successor at EMI, second-generation producer Walter Legge, would use such technology to stake out a modern conception of the producer’s role, in which raw recordings were edited into finished works, ostensibly more “perfect” than any live performance. (Of course, even the modern conception of production is
speaker over another. Yet anyone who has any familiarity with the world of recorded sound knows how easy it is to get caught up in such arguments. The aforementioned Compton Mackenzie, one of the first professional audiophiles, lived that temptation—and also its caprice. Mackenzie was one of the more vocal critics of electrical recording when it became commercially available in 1925. The sound, he complained, suffered in comparison with that of its acoustic predecessor. “The music itself is a
presumptively calls “the American century, the Jazz century”? Lydon cites a blog commenter, Shaman, who takes swing revivalism to an absurd extreme by asking whether “the rise and fall of America has anything to do with the rise and fall of Swing.” Lydon and Shaman both privilege the connection between art and power—the lurking ideology Mehldau had warned against—but for Shaman, it is not enough merely to idolize swing. That idolization must also involve a putdown. “I think the messages of Rap,”