Decomposition: Andrew Durkin speaks on his music manifesto

Decomposition: A Music Manifesto by author, jazz composer and Portland resident Andrew Durkin provides readers an innovative exposition on the topics of connectivity, authenticity and fallacy in our understanding of music. Durkin read from his work and spoke with Portland State students and guests in Smith Memorial Student Union on Oct. 29.

Humans, like wolves, are pack animals, and our innate need to feel connected to each other—through the experience of shared music, for example—bonds us. The same is true with the creation and performance of music; we feel connected to each other through the interface of art.

In his presentation, Durkin explained that humans, as social animals, desire connectivity. Desire serves as a force to mask our understanding of connections. There is a fallacy to our comprehension of shared experiences—in particular, our experiences with music.

“It is very human to want to belong, obviously—to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” Durkin said. “Music can serve that purpose—which is why it plays such an important role in religion, for instance.”

Durkin explains that our perception of connecting through shared musical interests and tastes is an illusion. We experience music idiosyncratically based on our individual experiential contexts. Each of our life experiences are unique, and therefore our interactions with the music we listen to are unique. Ultimately, our intimacies with music are inaccessible to other listeners.

The argument makes a forceful case that we have invested music with false ideals of purity and authenticity.

“For many reasons, our hearings of music are much less simple than these ideals suggest,” said Josh Epstein, PSU assistant professor of English. “The physical qualities of sound, the inner workings of our brains, the technologies through which we access music, the cultural contexts we inhabit—all of these shape our experience of music and make its effects complex and unpredictable.”

Durkin continued to explain that our misconceptions regarding music might not be a bad thing. If we recognize that we may not be connecting as deeply as previously thought, we open the door to a new form of empathy. That is, if we recognize that we cannot truly access another human’s experience, we open up to the idea that their experience may be just as authentic as our own. This idea offers the possibility of more interesting, chaotic and ethical aesthetics.

“I like Alain de Boton’s way of putting it, in another context: ‘You are irredeemably alone. You will not be understood…now let’s pretend we do not know any of this,’” Durkin said.

However elusive true connectivity may be, the concept provides strong motivation for creativity. Even if shared experience is a myth, it still has its uses, especially regarding musical composition.

“I can never write [music] without knowing who I am writing for,” Durkin said. “I can’t ignore the social aspect of it. I have to like the people I play with, not just how they play. As a result, some of my most meaningful friendships have been with musicians.”

Similarly, our sense of connectivity to the music we love helps us define ourselves and expands understanding of our world through cultural exposure. Music is a time-based art, and the kind of trial-and-error process it takes to find music that speaks to us can seem tedious. That’s especially frustrating in a culture that moves as fast as ours.

Durkin offered advice for those seeking the enlightenment that musical exploration affords. He explained that feeling confused, irritated, even bored by a piece of music sometimes means that listeners are outside of their comfort zone, and that is where the most interesting learning occurs. The author explained that true expansion often materializes on the second and third listen to something initially disregarded.

The book, Decomposition, was born out of Durkin’s doctoral thesis, a work considered far-reaching for traditional English capstones. The author draws on a vast array of influential thinkers and theorists to expound on this iconoclastic dissertation.

“Durkin’s work shows that knowledge—including knowledge of the arts and humanities—cannot be isolated from other kinds of inquiry. It models the kinds of curiosity and intellectual ranginess to which I hope our students aspire,” Epstein said.

Now that the rain is finally here, you are justified in allowing yourself a good read, the kind that distracts you from all the course reading you are obligated to do, the kind you can chew on and swallow, bite by bite, “digest thoroughly,” per Sir Francis Bacon. Andrew Durkin’s 2014 release, Decomposition: A Music Manifesto, delivers said enlightenment.