Decomposition: A Music Manifesto by Andrew Durkin (Knopf, Nov. 2014) Reviewed by Madison Heying

Decomposition: A Music Manifesto
by Andrew Durkin
(Knopf, Nov. 2014)

Reviewed by Madison Heying

In the year 2000, the rock band Metallica allied itself with a group of powerful record labels to sue the file-sharing website Napster. An attempt to stem the tide of illegal music downloading, the move was symptomatic of growing unease about the Internet and its impact on daily life. Reflecting on the case, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would later lament that digital culture is “unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the Internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.” Byrne’s fears suggest a broader phenomenon: in contemporary culture works of art have become objectified as commodities that can be accumulated and paraded as capital. And if this is the case, then music’s status as mere commodity masks both the underlying meanings of those works and therefore the full listening experience.

In the wake of the Napster controversy, literary scholar and composer Andrew Durkin began formulating the conceptual seeds for his Decomposition: A Music Manifesto. Like Byrne, he observed that reproducing technology—from the player piano and the gramophone to the Internet and MP3s—had been changing how people listened to music. He had the suspicion that something important has been ignored or forgotten . . . , obscured by our myths about music.” Myths are the values and beliefs attributed to music and its creators that paint them in a superhuman light. Decomposition was the result of Durkin’s thinking about the ways in which the myths of authorship and authenticity are inexorably shaped by cultural, psychological, economic, and technological factors. If these factors are inescapable, Durkin says, then listeners can—or even must—harness these factors in order to empower themselves to act as creative participants in their musical experiences.

The most common myth of authorship is the assumption that music is always created by a solitary individual. This perpetuates a “rhetoric of genius” which has been attributed to composers ranging from Beethoven, Duke Ellington, and Pauline Oliveros, not to mention pop musicians like Katy Perry, The Foo Fighters, and Radiohead. The rhetoric of genius is frequently employed as a marketing tool by music publishers and record companies, who promote myths about their artists’ creative prowess and integrity designed to encourage fans to buy their music. However, Durkin proposes two modes of collaboration that complicate the tendency to attribute authorship to a “solitary genius”: direct collaboration, which occurs when an individual engages with an already existing work to create a new one; and contextual collaboration, which encompasses factors including the listening environment, the type of playback device used, the divergences in each individual listener’s physiological apparatus, etc. that affect our perception of a given piece of music.

Though his work is often pooled together with traditional “auteur” composers, Duke Ellington demonstrates an alternative to the solitary genius model. This is partly due to jazz’s improvisatory qualities, as well as the unique contributions of his band members. Although Durkin details many instances in which Ellington reworked musical fragments written by others, he is more concerned to move beyond direct collaboration, analyzing the creative roles technology, the environment, and audience members can play in shaping the musical end product. In performance and recording, microphones, amplifiers, and various playback devices subtly alter the original musical sounds by adding unintended mechanical noises, reverb, and distortion. The audience’s power lies in its ability to interact with performers by singing, yelling, and dancing along with the music. Although this is the case in all live performance, it is especially true in jazz, where performers like Ellington often base their improvisations on audience reactions.

To further pinpoint how technology affects the listening experience and perpetuates the rhetoric of genius, Durkin includes a historical survey of musical reproducing machines from the player piano to CDs and MIDI. The American experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow, who spent most of his career in isolation in Mexico, scraping by with little funding and even less recognition, is an exemplar of the solitary genius. Nancarrow’s music was so rhythmically complicated that it was virtually impossible for human musicians to play, which led him to compose for the player piano. Although this freed him from the limitations of performers he still had to rely on specialist technicians to repair and maintain his increasingly superannuated pianos. Yet musical machines continue to facilitate the rhetoric of genius: when a technician renders a Schumann piece on a player piano, a teenager plays a Led Zeppelin track, or when you listen to Beyoncé on your iPhone, sole credit for that experience usually goes to the composer or artist. This, however, fails to account for the rich network of collaborations and interdependences that made this experience possible in the first place. Short shrift is given to the inventors, the recording engineers, the factory workers (who constructed the iPhone or stereo), and even the environment one is listening in.

For Durkin, authenticity is “the quest for a singularly true, ideal experience of music (whether a recording, live performance, score, or transcription) that trumps all others, disregarding the variability of audience perception, and accessible only through those with ‘correct’ knowledge and ‘proper’ understanding.” This desire can negatively color a musical experience. For example, new technologies such as lip-syncing, pitch-correction, and auto-tune make possible certain kinds of “deception” that many artists rely on to enhance their performance, thereby fulfilling Byrne’s fears that digital innovations would inhibit creativity. When confronted with this reality, listeners seeking a “genuine” or “perfect” performance may feel duped. Consequently, Durkin frames the quest for authenticity as a problem to be solved; by becoming aware of the multiple factors that mediate performance, the listener will learn that there is no such thing as a single, “true” musical experience.

Durkin roots the desire for musical authenticity in a longing for musical experiences that can be shared and knowable by others. However, no two people hear a piece of music the same way: “Music is not the universal language, but rather . . . an extensive network of individuated aural perceptions . . . As we listen, we produce a string of recompositions . . . that continually undercut the assumption of authenticity with its stipulation about a single, pure work that is greater than and immune to multiplicities of perception.” Durkin includes an extensive explanation of the physiology of the ear and the acoustic principles that make hearing possible and unique to each individual. This is the greatest contribution Decomposition makes to arguments against notions of musical authenticity, because Durkin here moves beyond personal taste and questions of interpretation linked to the intellect, instead reaching an embodied understanding of how people hear in the world. Unexpectedly, given the realm in which he is writing, Durkin takes the musical experiences of the deaf and hearing impaired into account. To a certain extent, a completely deaf person can still appreciate music by feeling the vibrations of sound waves, as well as by engaging with the visual aspects of a performance. Durkin is careful to highlight how people with other hearing impairments, such as loudness recruitment (the loss of sensitivity to quiet sounds), presbycusis (the loss of sensitivity to high pitched sounds), or diplacusis (a disorder in which one pitch sounds like two), all have singular and legitimate musical experiences.

As with the myths of authorship, recording technology has greatly influenced listeners’ beliefs about what constitutes a genuine musical product. Records introduce the concept of a “master” performance, which dramatically alters expectations of what is possible in live performance. The pressure for musicians to perform their songs live yet in the same guise as the studio versions leads to the use of aforementioned performance-enhancing technology. Yet as Durkin constantly reminds the reader, contextual collaborations ensure that no “master” performance is possible. Each time I listen to St. Vincent’s new album the experience will be slightly different: first on a record player in my room, then on headphones at the gym, and later in my car. Over time, aided by different speakers and acoustic environments, I discover different nuances in the music—the details that make it singularly meaningful to me as a listener. If my opinion is shaped by such minute and personal factors, the one need only imagine how much interpretation can vary from person to person. The repetition that recording technology facilitates also alters the listening experience. Although scholars like Theodor Adorno have disparaged what he saw as the state of distraction induced by recordings, Durkin actually considers the ability to repeat a piece of music at will a benefit, because it allows for the listener to attend to the new details and nuances described above.

The authenticity myths are also undermined through a consideration of music notation and the mediation of language in musical experiences. The score has a privileged position in the Western classical tradition because it is popularly viewed as a pure representation of a composer’s intent. Yet sounds, strictly speaking, cannot be written down. Even though they are commonly considered synonymous, a score is not the music. Every time a piece of music is performed using a score, the performers and/or conductor must make aesthetic decisions based on an interpretation of the information provided in the score. As the product of many collaborators, each performance will sound different. This is especially true when the composer is no longer alive: it becomes difficult to say which performance is the most accurate or “authentic.”

Decomposition also examines the relationship between art and commerce. This discussion is based on the conviction that the capitalist marketplace has created consumers instead of listeners, and that copyright laws exist only to protect the interests of the music industry elite. This situation in turn perpetuates the objectification and devaluing of music. Durkin attempts to rectify this degradation with an espousal of the modes of collaboration and creativity made possible by illegal downloads and other types of “musical theft,” like sampling. Though a bit of a diversion, his exhaustive description of copyright and fair use laws sheds light on how they criminalize popular music borrowing, yet allow for quotation in the Western classical tradition (for example in the work of composers Charles Ives and Luciano Berio). Instead of viewing borrowing as destructive, sampling and quotation can be understood as just another mode of collaboration.

Indeed, the controversies surrounding piracy and illegal music downloads reveal much about how people value music. Many, like Byrne, fear that free and easy access to music of all kinds will decrease its worth. However, Durkin considers musical theft an act of love, noting that true, devoted fans will often resort to piracy to hear music that that would otherwise be unavailable (live “bootleg” recordings) or too expensive (out of print). He advocates for increased public access to music; for him, strict regulation is “the wrong response.” Programs that allow listeners to stream an immense and diverse variety of music, such as Spotify, allow people to move away from the accumulation of musical objects (CDs and records) to a state of eclectic acceptance.

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.” Such statements are problematic because they directly counteract Durkin’s contestation of myth of musical universality. Although he is rather self-aware about his background and personal preferences (particularly in the introduction), he does not seem to have fully allowed that those biases have colored the book’s premises. In the process, he fails to account for cultural discrepancies as well as age, gender, nationality, etc., differences that influence how people around the world experience and value music.

Decomposition evolved out of Durkin’s dissertation in the English department at the University of Southern California. Even though he claims to be “thinking about authorship and authenticity from a broader, more vernacular perspective—without, I hope, the distraction of academic posturing,” Decomposition reads much more like an academic study than a work geared towards a general audience. Durkin’s use of dense scholarly language, as well as his tendency to frame arguments by referring to other scholars, leave much of Decomposition with the ambiance of a literature review, rather than a reformulation of existing scholarly work that has been made accessible to a broad audience. This is unfortunate, because the book’s most lucid and effective passages of the book are those in which Durkin abandons his heavy reliance on the work of others.

In his desire to avoid “academic posturing,” Durkin criticizes musicology and other musical disciplines for perpetuating myths about authorship and authenticity. As a budding musicologist, I was troubled by his harsh words towards scholarship in the field. Because Durkin owns a PhD in literary studies and is a practicing composer, he should have been the perfect candidate to write about music from an interdisciplinary perspective (as he explicitly stated in his introduction). However, a glance at his bibliography makes it clear that he has 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. It is a shame that he seems ignorant of the strides made by musicologists to account for and rectify the negative effects of fixed notions of authorship and authenticity. Examples of such efforts can be found in the work of Philip Bohlman and Katherine Bergeron, who have written on the musical canon, as well as in Lawrence Kramer’s book Why Classical Music Still Matters, an especially accessible book that strips away classical music’s cultural baggage while advocating for its enduring values. He also ignores relevant scholarship outside of musicology proper dealing with the ways capitalism and technology have shaped musical experience and understanding (a few classics in the genre are Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and Walter Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility”). By neglecting this discourse, Durkin isolates himself from the latest ideas in humanities research and misses out on some of the nuances that it could have provided.

Although Durkin’s aim in Decomposition was to deconstruct the myths of authorship and authenticity, the book’s most pertinent aspect is its effort, as already noted, to rethink music as “an extensive network of individuated aural perceptions, which are always the result of deeply complex collaborative and mediating processes.” Durkin’s detailed descriptions of music perception and acoustics, along with his myriad demonstrations of music’s essential mediated-ness, provides readers with a broad glimpse of the elements that contribute to the interpretation of a work. Unlike Byrne who feared that the Internet would destroy creativity, Durkin convincingly argues for technology’s ability to enhance the listening experience. In the process Decomposition provides the reader with a greater awareness of the contributing factors that make this experience possible.


Madison Heying is a PhD student in Cultural Musicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work focuses on American experimental and electronic music.

Banner image via Gonazalo Baeza H (Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License)