Works of rock

I just finished reading Charles Bartel’s article “Rock as a Three-Value Tradition” (JAAC, Spring 2017) which develops on his 2013 post at Aesthetics for Birds.

“A concern for songs— however ontologically thin—and a concern for live performances—however ephemeral—is no less central to the rock tradition than recordings.”

Bartel makes the sensible suggestion that “we should see rock as a tradition that has three activities at its core: songwriting, live performance, and track construction.”

Grazyk and Kania, who argue for the primacy of tracks, made an important point in calling attention to tracks as something other than just performances on disc. Work in the studio, for many rock musicians, is not much at all like performance. Bartel’s argument is a nice corrective to their over-zealousness. Tracks are a central part of the tradition, but complements rather than eclipses the importance of performances and songs.

Although tracks are often the primary objects of aesthetic attention and appreciation, they aren’t always. For many acts, the live performance is meant to echo the structure of the track which was carefully engineered in the studio. Yet this doesn’t hold in some sub-genres and for some specific artists.

Bartel not only attends to particular cases, but also to how the artists themselves talk about their music. In his discussion of hardcore punk, he quotes from band members about how they relate performance and recording.

Bartel still agrees with Grazyk and Kania that “the tradition of treating constructed tracks as enduring objects of artistic interest is distinctive of rock.” This is right, I think, provided we take ‘constructed tracks’ in a strong sense to mean those which are engineered from multiple takes and sound sources. In the jazz tradition, recordings play an important part in appreciation that complements but does not replace listening to live performances. Studio recordings are particular jams or improvisations, where the live audience was perhaps just the guy in the booth. Listening and relistening to recordings is an important activity apart from listening to live music. (Jazz may work similarly to rock jam bands which Bartel does discuss, like The Grateful Dead and Phish.)

I was somewhat surprised to see that I was in the acknowledgements of the paper, but I had forgotten commenting on the original blog post. It is now a common thing, but still one nice to see, when a good blog post develops into a great paper a few years later.

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