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.
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.