Writing about music is like dancing about apocrypha

Composing thoughts on Andrew Durkin’s ‘Decompsition: A Music Manifesto’

I’m currently reading Andrew Durkin’s ‘Decomposition: a Music Manifesto’. It’s refreshing, insightful, and very readable, despite its size. Plenty to agree with, to champion, and plenty to disagree with too – exactly what I want from a book – and as it’s primarily concerned with music, generally, and authorship/authenticity more specifically, it’s rather an ideal book for me.

One section, headed ‘Speaking of Music’ pulls out the old chestnut (which I’m pretty sure I’ve used elsewhere on this very blog…), of writing about music being like dancing about architecture. The attribution here, however, is new me: Martin Mull. With any apocryphal statement, the attribution can lend weight, direction, and power to the argument being made, but who originally said it seems less important than that it is re-said, by lots of people, very often. This line of thought, and the striking attribution to Martin Mull are particularly interesting in a book deconstructing the idea of authorship itself. Does it matter who said it? Is the attribution dead?

In any case it made me think about writing about music, or, as the chapter title puts it ‘Speaking of Music’. Durkin opines that “even the most complex, scholarly, sophisticated aesthetic discourse is ultimately reducible to a simple choice between two rather vague statements: “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. Everything else is a rationalization for one or the other of these options.”

Without arguing one way or the other about this assertion (I liked it, and that’s the point), I wondered about my own motivation for writing and reading about music. As someone who ‘musics about music’, it might seem a pointless thing to consider, an obvious conclusion, but I don’t think it is. For many musicians, writing about music is worse than the kind of implied non sequitur of dancing about architecture, it is pure and simple heresy.

There are two types of writers that make me think ‘Speaking about Music’ is worthwhile, and these writers are sometimes embodied in the same author. The first writer is one who opens me up to music I didn’t know. They introduce me, compellingly, to music I hadn’t come across before, or, they carve a way into music I thought I didn’t ‘understand’ or like. They re-make (re-write?) music I thought I knew. The second writer lets me revel in music I already know and love either by affirming my own sense of ‘the music’ or by offering a contradictory, or simply new, insight into the work with the same implied conclusion I have: “I liked it.”  In many ways, their writing is to me what brilliant musician’s music is to me.

The authors, and authored, that immediately come to mind are Andrew Ford’s ‘Illegal Harmonies’ and, of course, Alex Ross’s later riff on a comparable theme, ‘The rest is noise’. Some more recent examples come from the world of podcasting. The late, greatly missed Bob Gilmore’s podcast ‘Tentative Affinities’ (Great name, right?), and the WQXR program, hosted by Nadia Sirota, ‘Meet the composer’, are revelations even when talking about music ‘I thought I knew’.

I always want to see more dance about architecture, and that’s why I want people to speak about music.

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Writing about music is like dancing about apocrypha

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