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Review of Lydia Goehr, “What Anyway is a ‘Music Discomposed’?”, in Virtual Works—Actual Things: Essays in Music Ontology, edited by Paulo de Assis (Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2018), 135–52

“Music Discomposed” and its companion, “A Matter of Meaning It,” both published in the late 1960s, are Stanley Cavell’s (1926–2018) only essays exclusively on contemporary music. Despite their small number, the influence of these essays is extraordinary. Half a century later, musicologists continue to take up the wide-ranging issues associated with Cavell’s “discomposed” music. Cavell here elaborates on ideas he had been working since 1960 for a symposium titled “Composition, Improvisation, Chance” at the University of California, Berkeley. Taking this title as his cue, Cavell elaborates on these concepts and how they interrelate. Although the essay poses questions such as “What does it mean to compose?” it does not focus on providing clear definitions. By not directly confronting the ontology of the musical work, Cavell seems to be interested not so much in what composition, improvisation, or chance are, but rather in how their interrelation is conceived and perceived. The former essay was originally read at the 1965 Sixth Annual Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy (Oberlin College), while both essays were published in its proceedings in 19671 and in 1969 in the collection Must We Mean What We Say? (“A Matter of Meaning It” is Cavell’s response to comments by Monroe Beardsley and Joseph Margolis during the colloquium.[2])