AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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"Punk Music & Ontology of Rock Recordings" by Christopher Bartel

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Christopher Bartel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University. He has research interest in music, fiction, and video games. His essays have appeared in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and Ethics and Information Technology. Prior to pursuing studies in philosophy, he worked in the music industry as a sound engineer until the allure of philosophy became too strong (‘cause that’s where the real money is!).


The standard view of the ontology of musical works in the Western classical tradition holds that musical works are some kind of abstract entity and they are intended to be instantiated in live performances.  I take it that this is the typical starting point for the debate.  Disagreements arise over the kind of abstract entity that a musical work might be, and over how works are to be individuated.  I have some skepticism toward these latter ontological projects (Bartel, 2011).  But, I am not thereby opposed to other kinds of ontological projects.  Actually, I think some do rather helpfully clarify exactly what is going on in our musical practices. 

One such project concerns the ontology of rock music.  Arguably the dominant theory is Ted Gracyk’s (1996) view that the object of critical attention in the rock tradition—the work in rock music—is the recording.  In the classical tradition, works are like a set of instructions indicated by a composer, which must then be performed—thus, it is a two-part tradition.  In rock, however, the work is the recording, which one can hear directly by listening to it on an appropriate playback device.  This view has the virtue of satisfying many of our intuitions about the tradition of rock music.  Rock recordings are the primary object of attention in rock criticism, and there is (typically) little expectation that live performances of rock songs would be sonically identical to a recording of that song.  That would often be impossible:  the lead singer or guitarist might have multiple overlapping parts; recordings may include instruments that are not part of the band (e.g. cello); and they often include effects that cannot be achieved live—think of a slapback echo.  Against this, Stephen Davies (2001) has argued that Gracyk’s view does not pay sufficient attention to the appreciation of live performances skills within the rock tradition.  But Andrew Kania (2006) defends Gracyk by carving out a space within the general account that addresses Davies’ worries.

I accept Gracyk’s view of the ontology of rock.  But I do want to point out one exception:  punk recordings.  Or at least some of them.  I am not talking about The Clash, or The Damned, or even the Sex Pistols.  My examples will mostly come from the hardcore punk movement of the early 1980’s—bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, and Slapshot.

When compared to other mainstream rock recordings of their time, much of the recordings from these bands were technologically primitive.  While mainstream rock recordings of the 1980’s would have been layered in sophisticated effects, these recordings used little more than compression and equalization.  Mainstream recordings would have doubled most of the guitar and vocal tracks; hardcore did neither.  Mainstream recordings would have been recorded on 24-track machines.  Multiple machines could be synched together to provide 48, or 72, or even 96 tracks.  When recording the drums alone, this overabundance of available tracks would allow the engineer to dedicate separate tracks to the top and bottom of the snare drum, the head and the inside of the kick drum, each of the toms, each of the symbols, multiple ambient room mics, and any specialty items that the drummer might use (e.g. cow bell, splash symbol, tambourine).  Hardcore was often recorded on 8-tracks.  

Certainly, hardcore punk recordings were relatively unsophisticated because they lacked the funds to access the big, flashy recording studios.  But that lack of sophistication was also part of the aesthetic of the recordings identified with that movement.  Hardcore audiences valued the simplicity of the recordings for their authenticity, immediacy, and honesty.  And that brings me to my point.  While the aim of a mainstream rock recording is to construct a track, the aim of hardcore punk recordings is to capture the intensity of a live performance.  The general practice of mainstream rock shows little concern with whether the track produced could be performed live.  But with hardcore recordings, the aim is instead to recreate in the studio as authentically as possible what a live experience would be like—direct, uncompromising, and fierce.  In this regard, hardcore recordings are (surprisingly) more like classical or jazz recordings.  If it is true of classical music recordings that they “attempt to capture, or simulate, what happens in a live performance situation” (Kania, 403), then the same can be said of hardcore recordings.  Their aim is documentary.  If this is correct, then such recordings are ontological anomalies within the wider tradition of rock.  Most importantly, this difference between hardcore and mainstream recording practices shows up in our critical practices.  While rock critics are expected to pay compliments to the complexity of the recording, such criticism would be anathema to hardcore.  Indeed, the criticism that hardcore recordings lack sophistication and polish simply proves that the critic is not hardcore enough! 

My point needs to be qualified a bit.  I am not saying that all punk recordings fall into this category, or even that all hardcore recording do.  I am saying that there is a significant group of recordings with this genre that do.  Such hardcore recordings are central to the genre of punk, but not in the sense that they make up a numerical majority of all punk recordings.  The recordings I have in mind are certainly a minority within the wider tradition of rock recordings.  They may even be a minority within the genre of punk itself, especially given the many sub-genres of punk.  Rather, these recordings are central to punk in the sense that they hold a special place within the history of the genre, they capture something important about the movement—the do-it-yourself ethos that rejects the mainstream establishment, including the mainstream’s recording practices. 

It is surely a good question to consider what grants rock recordings their ontological status.  Is it the process of multi-track recording?  Is it the recording’s achievement of a particular sound?  Is it the way that critical attention may be paid to recordings that is largely independently of live performances?  I’ll consider each of these.

Suppose it is the process of multi-track recording.  Rock recordings typically are not recorded in one take, and there is no expectation that they should be.  Rather they are recorded in pieces that can be edited together in minute detail.  

Certainly, it must be acknowledged that hardcore recordings fall into the general tradition of rock recordings in that they too may be constructed out of multiple takes—the process of recording remains the same.  But if the process of editing a performance together from multiple takes in the studio was the line-in-the-sand that places hardcore punk recordings into the same ontological category as mainstream rock recordings, then the same must be said for many classical recordings. Some classical recordings are the product of having spliced together multiple takes.  Admittedly, it is not easy to do for large orchestral pieces.  But it can be done.  And it happens in jazz too.

We might think that classical and jazz recordings that make use of such editing techniques are “cheating”, but (I take it) we do not thereby think that they actually jump ship and become part of the rock tradition.  And neither do their intended audiences.  Classical and jazz audiences might criticize these recordings for being “impure”, but that criticism only makes sense if the general critical practice is to think of recordings as an attempt to capture a performance.  I am suggesting that this is exactly what is happening with hardcore.  But hardcore recordings differ from classical and jazz recordings in an important respect too:  the hardcore audience will accept some amount of editing.  On the other hand, what they will not accept is editing that is too slick, too produced.  Essentially, the recording must be the kind of thing that one would expect to hear in a live performance.  Which leads me to my next point.  

Suppose that what gives rock recordings their ontological status is the achievement of a particular sound.  The process of multi-track recording gives the rock musician the ability to achieve a sound that cannot (easily) be achieved in a live performance setting.  

Now, I don’t want to mislead you.  I am not saying that punk recordings make absolutely no use of studio production techniques.  That would be fibbing.  Nearly all will at least employ some level of compression, gating, and equalization.  But still, the studio wizardry that would be accepted is quite basic—there are unlikely to be many sophisticated mutes or fades, the guitars are often hard-panned left or right, and you will find very little reverb.

The important point for my argument is that the sound of a hardcore recording is beholden to the live performance.  As I have already said, there is a conscious aim to produce a recording that would be no different to what could be achieved on stage and in real time, a recording that would approximate or simulate a live performance.  

But maybe you are still unconvinced.  Despite my pleading, maybe you think that all punk recordings are exactly like rock recordings ontologically, the only difference being that some punk performances happen to be more successful at sounding like their recordings by virtue of their simplicity.  Still, you might say, the recording is the primary object of critical attention.  

If you want to demand ontological unity for all rock recordings—hardcore included—then you would need to ignore the critical practice of recordings in this sub-culture of punk:  recordings are admired for their immediacy and authenticity, for their emulation of the live experience.  Which brings me to my final point:  if rock recordings are ontologically different from classical and jazz recordings because our critical practice of rock recordings treats them as distinct from live performances such that there is little expectation that the live performance should reproduce the recording, then, once again, this just doesn’t capture what is going on with the appreciation of hardcore recordings.

Punk recordings (at least some of them) are ontological anomalies in the wider tradition of rock.  Though I am not committed to the idea that they are unique in this respect.  Maybe there are (many) others?  I don’t know if there are, but if so:  awesome!  I don’t care whether or not punk recordings are unique.  Rather, my point is that some punk recordings—hardcore in particular—are part of an ontological minority within the wider rock tradition that that treats live performances as primary, and that this primacy of the live performance is evident in the critical practice surrounding the appreciation of punk recordings.  

This observation is not intended as a refutation of Gracyk’s account.  In fact, this observation is parasitic on his general account:  in order to understand what is special and distinctive of these punk recordings, they must be understood as reactions against the bulk of the rock recording tradition.  Indeed, I think I am merely filling out an issue raised in the introduction of Gracyk’s (2001) I Wanna Be Me:  the Sex Pistols’ sound and ethos emerged out of a need to assert their identity and their anti-establishment ideals, and we can see the impact of those ideals on the recording practices of the next generation of punk musicians.  

References

Bartel, Christopher (2011).  “Music Without Metaphysics?”  British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 51 (4): 383-398.

Davies, Stephen (2001).  Musical Works and Performances.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.

Gracyk, Theodore (1996).  Rhythm and Noise.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Gracyk, Theodore (2001).  I Wanna Be Me.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.

Kania, Andrew (2006).  “Making Tracks:  The Ontology of Rock Music”.  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 64 (4): 401-414. 

15 thoughts on “"Punk Music & Ontology of Rock Recordings" by Christopher Bartel

  1. I love this post on hardcore and I am very sympathetic to the idea that hardcore recordings are anomalies within rock, and may deserve a distinct ontological status.

    However, I want to try out an even more radical proposal. To me, what is really distinctive about hardcore shows is the level of audience participation, the tribal sing-alongs. (This may be even more true of Boston and some NY hardcore than DC hardcore, though Ian MacKaye is pretty explicit about writing lyrics that aim at sing-alongs.) However, another feature of hardcore is that the lyrics are not always obvious given all that screaming. (Converge, though a bit later than the period you discuss, is a good example of this.)

    So I wonder if hardcore recordings can be thought of as more akin to scores for classical music. They are, effectively, instructions for sing-alongs and how to participate in the live shows. And I would think the raw feel and the intensity is a central part of that instruction, as much as those latin words you see on classical music scores.

    Even though this proposal is quite different from yours in some respects, I think it might be another way of preserving the central insight that “[hardcore] treats live performances as primary, and that this primacy of the live performance is evident in the critical practice surrounding the appreciation of punk recordings”. What do you think?

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  2. CHRISTY COMMENT: I'm a big fan of punk and consider myself fairly informed about it. So when you claim that for hardcore punk, “the recording must be the kind of thing that one would expect to hear in a live performance” I cannot help but be baffled a bit. Insofar as we're talking about the formative years of the genre, this strikes me as just false if not precisely the wrong way around. That is, what I find to be the distinctive feature of hardcore is that, more so than any other genre, it has two distinct kinds of followers: Musical Fans & Performance Fans.

    For example, in addition to being obsessed with The Fall, I'm also a devotional follower of Hardcore progenitors The Germs and Bad Brains as well as the more paradigmatically Hardcore bands MDC and D.O.A. However, I'm familiar enough with these bands and the scenes out of which they arose to know that insofar as fans such as myself would have wanted to engage, appreciate, and enjoy their music, the absolutely worst place to do so would have been at their live shows. Why? Because you didn't attend such shows to hear the band play your favorite songs but rather to see the band perform those songs with the expectation that those performances' most compelling aspects would be of a decidedly non-musical sort (e.g., seeing Darby Crash cut himself, pass out mid-set, then incite a club-destroying riot, or having Joey Shithead kick, bludgeon, and spit on every audience member within 15 feet of the stage, witnessing a speed-addled Mark E. Smith not so much sing as occasionally mumble while fiddling with the guitarist's amplifier knob for 20 minutes then sack half the band prior to the third song on the set-list.

    Just as fans of these bands' music needn't be fans of their live performances, fans of these bands' live performances needn't also be fans of these bands' music. In fact, one could even be actively averse to the other; many of those attending these live shows actively hated the music and were quick to vocalize their displeasure loudly and repeatedly (this was especially the case for The Germs, a gifted, innovative band both musically and lyrically that one may correctly recognize and properly appreciate as such only by attending to their studio recordings.

    So, rather than regard punk as inverting the traditional rock relationship between the studio recording and the live performance, perhaps punk—at least in certain earlier formative incarnations—ought instead (or also) seen as severing that relationship altogether.

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  3. Christy,

    Great examples! I take your point. And I particularly like the distinction you draw between musical fans and performance fans. That is, if I understand the distinction correctly. I take it what you mean is that some fans appreciate the musical aspects of the performance, while others appreciate the non-musical aspects — or they appreciate the spectacle. If I have understood that correctly, then I don’t think your point really is in conflict with mine. I agree entirely with your claim that “fans of these bands' music needn't be fans of their live performances, [and] fans of these bands' live performances needn't also be fans of these bands' music”. Sure. So, I am talking about this from the perspective of a musical fan.

    I think it is probably also true that some bands had very different goals and intentions for their live performances. Maybe The Germs really were playing for the performance fans, while Minor Threat really was playing for the musical fans. If that is right, then I am talking about the latter kinds of bands and the way that such bands would view the role of their recordings. Think of the straight-edge hardcore scene. For many of those bands, the kind of chaotic performance that you are describing would be considered a disappointment.

    Of course, you and I are both cherry-picking here. But I think we are right to do so. The more broad point that I wanted to make in my post that, while I think Gracyk is right about the tradition of rock recordings generally, there are some (however obscure) recordings that don’t comfortably fit with his claim that the primary object of critical attention is the recording. I bring up the example of hardcore punk (at least some of it) to show that there are some recordings that don’t fit the general account. I hope I’m right about this. And perhaps you are also right to say that there are some punk bands that would rather sever the recording/performance relationship altogether. Yes, I agree! But I don’t think that is true of all hardcore, and I don’t think that contradicts the point I am making for the few examples that I am talking about. There are at least some recordings that fit my account.

    So, there is no need to be baffled! We just need to allow that there are likely many divergent practices here, each of which perhaps making their own ontological demands.

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  4. Hi Shen-yi,

    Great suggestion! I like the idea that recordings might be instructions for sing-alongs. At least for some hardcore, there was a conscious attempt at community-building, which certainly plays into your suggestion. I am most familiar with the Boston hardcore scene (‘cause that’s where I’m from) and the stuff from Dischord (‘cause I was straight-edge in my not-so-wild youth!). Certainly, Ian MacKaye was (and is) very much pro-community-building; and the love of sing-along anthemic songs can still be seen in Boston bands like the Dropkick Murphy’s.

    The one thing that I am unsure of regarding your proposal, and I would need to think about it some more, is whether the point you are making is really constitutive of what these recordings are, or is just something that these recordings also happen to do. How central to the goal of recording for hardcore do you take this to be?

    Additionally, I suppose that you might have some difficulty in explaining what is happening with instrumental recordings. Still, perhaps there are cases that fit your account.

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  5. That sounds right (and perfectly sensible). I'm not terribly familiar with the Straight Edge Hardcore scene and so neglected to consider how it might reflect a more regimented, disciplined attitude toward live performance. Perhaps this explains why I fail to find the appeal of Minor Threat and its direct/indirect offshoots. Gimme Darby's snaggled, poetic, sexually charged vulnerable menace over Ian's monotone self-actualization seminar for excessively heterosexual caucasians.

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  6. Christopher (& Sam), careful what you wish for: to make the connection between sing-a-long anthems and mid-late 80s/early 90s hardcore (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Pennywise, Dropkick Murphys) requires beginning with mid/late 70s English punk/pub bands like Sham69 but also wading through the giant racist, ultra nationalist, hooligan cesspool that is Oi! (which also happens to be very pro-community building).

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  7. Thanks! And I like the description of Minor Threat as “monotone self-actualization seminar”. That is sadly accurate.

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  8. I find it odd to think that there ought to just be one thing that is “the work” in these cases. Gracyk and Kania are right to point out that tracks are an important object of aesthetic attention, which is something that treating musical works as abstract entities overlooks. But we can also direct critical attention to the interpretation evidenced in the track (which might be evidenced on other occasions in a live performance) or the song (which can be performed or recorded again with either the same or a different interpretation).

    Given that all of these (track, song, interpretation) are present in almost every case, I am tempted not to see the cases you describe as ontological anomalies but instead as anomalies of appreciation. In these cases, we tend to direct our critical attention to different things.

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  9. Hi P. D.,

    Yeah. To be quite honest, I am not sure what to say here, mainly because there are some intuitions and commitments that people within this debate widely share, but I do not. The suggestion you are making veers closely to an area of the debate that I am quite skeptical of. But for the sake of argument, I will at least reply in the way that I think Gracyk and Kania would reply.

    The desire to identify one thing as “the work” is defended on the grounds that it avoids an over-proliferation of things that are “the work”. (I apologize if you already know this.) I am not sure if you are suggesting that we might view the song, the track, and the interpretation as “the work”. But assuming that you are, Gracyk and Kania (and others) would claim that each of those things are numerically distinct, non-identical things. And if the work is identical with each of those things, then we would have numerous distinct, non-identical things that are “the work”.

    Instead, I think they would try to accommodate your suggestion by saying that, while we can attend to the song, track, or interpretation, and in doing so treat each of those things as distinct objects of appreciative attention, that does not require that each thing should be “the work”. Kania’s essay “Making Tracks” offers a clear attempt to separate these things out. He claims that the work is the track, and that songs are “manifested” in both the track and live performances.

    The skepticism that I have towards ontological debates is because I think you could translate everything that Gracyk and Kania want to do into another language that fits better with what you (or I) would want to do without any loss. For instance, if you don’t share Gracyk’s and Kania’s intuitions on this, then perhaps you could see the cases that I am describing as not being ontological anomalies, but rather anomalies of appreciation as you suggest. Sure. I think there are likely many non-equivalent ontological theories that are all equally valid, at least in the sense that they are all able to account for the phenomena that people within this debate want to account for.

    I am not sure that I answered your question. But I hope I came close!

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  10. Thanks, Christopher. I think we're pretty much on the same page.

    There are at least three different questions we might ask here: What objects exist? Which of those merit aesthetic attention? Which one of those is “the work”? (I honestly don't care about the last question too much.)

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  11. Really cool post. I grew up, in the 90s, admiring the east-coast post-hardcore scene from a distance, here in the UK, so this is not going to be as informed as some of the above posts!

    Probably some of this carries over for post-hardcore, especially where it blends into math-rock. I've not kept up with how post-hardcore has developed, but there seem to be a handful of current bands like, e.g., Giraffes? Giraffes!, comprised of simply a guitarist and drummer and who rely on building up guitar loops to fill out the sound. Now, if it were just the sound that mattered, then one would expect their recordings not to rely on building up the loops, and for their records to sometimes just start off with the sound of, e.g., two or more guitars at once. But my suspicion, having listened to their records and watched some shows on youtube, is that they don't–they build up guitar loops whether playing live or making a record and don't multi-track it. When recording, they aim to document. Moreover, I think fans would be quite disappointed if it turned out they were relying on multi-tracking rather than live-looping (if you know what I mean…)

    My other suspicion, which is entirely apriori, is that this isn't unique to post-hardcore/math-rock/whatever, and that there may be other sub-genres, not just within rock, where the norm for recording is for musicians to create loops on-the-fly and then play over those loops to build up the sound, rather than relying on multi-tracking to record two or more distinct riffs at distinct times.

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  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  13. Hi Dan,

    Really, they don't multi-track their recordings? If that is the case, then it is a great example! Those little looping machines can be really fussy to work with at times. In my experience, there is a trade-off between multi-tracking and looping. Once you get used to it, a looping machine can be a really quick way to construct the sound; but you really only have one shot at it. There is no going back if the guitarist flubs a note. On the other hand, multi-tracking the parts and then looping them digitally would provide more flexibility and precision; but that would be a much slower process. (Though, the technology may have improved since the last time I tried it!)

    I think the really interesting thought is whether the audience would be disappointed to find out that the recordings are multi-tracked. If so, then the audience really is thinking of the recording as serving a documentary function. I think this is what is happening in at least some hardcore recordings, and you're probably right that it carries over to other genres.

    I too suspect that this isn't unique at all. I focused on hardcore (a) because it is what I know, and (b) because I think it is one genre that is explicit about its rejection of the standard rock recording practice. I would be really interested to know what other genres take recordings to be documentary and what motivates that practice.

    Thanks!

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  14. Pingback: PUNK ROCK PHILOSOPHY: INTRODUCTION | AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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