ANDREW DURKIN didn't set out to write a manifesto. In fact, he didn't set out to write a book at all. The material that wound up becoming his first book, Decomposition: A Music Manifesto, began as his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California. But when he started posting pieces of it on his blog, an eagle-eyed literary agent found him and convinced him to revise and expand his already thought-provoking exploration of how music is written, consumed, and understood.
Most of all, Durkin didn't really want to call it a manifesto.
"The original subtitle was, 'A Philosophy of Music,'" he says. "I still think that's accurate, if less catchy than the current subtitle."
In spite of what Durkin says, Decomposition certainly has its polemical side. The opening chapter takes a daring look at music's authorship, asking how a composer like Duke Ellington can take full credit for a piece of music when it was informed by the other players in his orchestra. Later in the book, Durkin urges his readers to "stay vigilant about the value of listening over consumption" as a bulwark against the way music is devalued in the digital age.
"A decade ago, the thing that excited me most about music on the internet was the possibility that we could create lots of new artistic microcosms," Durkin says. "Where no one got rich but everybody did okay. But the system keeps producing megastars and all the wealth in the industry is being funneled to a smaller and smaller cadre of artists."
This isn't the sound of a so-called expert lobbing grenades from a removed position: The 42-year-old author and pianist has plenty of skin in this particular game. While living in California, Durkin started the Industrial Jazz Group (IJG), an ever-evolving big band that performs work ranging from swinging soundtracks to imaginary noir films to abstract soundscapes. With IJG, he has had to wrestle with many of the issues he brings up in his book, from taking sole writing credit for his IJG compositions to the scant royalties he takes in from services like Pandora and Spotify (he estimates about $60 a year).
Calling Decomposition a manifesto does seem strange given Durkin's acknowledgment that no matter how much we try to pin music down, it's going to slip away from us. And he assures us that we should welcome that kind of complexity.
"I was hoping to articulate some path through the mess we find ourselves in now; a path that doesn't resort to demagoguery or hagiography," he says of his book. "I wanted to get at the complexity of music, while trying to address the reader's own role in making it. Or, as I say in the introduction, to demystify without demeaning."