Aesthetics & Rock’n’Roll

In “Rock ‘n’ Recording: The Ontological Complexity of Rock Music”, John Fisher (1998) argues that the ontology of rock music is unique, in that the primary object of appreciation is the recording, rather than the performance, song, or score, as in standard aesthetic accounts of music. For Fisher, these concepts to not fully account for rock music, which he asserts is primarily concerned with recordings. The definitive version of a rock song is the studio recording, rather than the performance or the score (which cannot sufficiently describe the sound events in rock music), making rock music more akin to film or printmaking than classical music.

Part of Fisher’s concern is to articulate what a recording is: the temporal sequence of sounds encoded in a medium, not the medium itself. When we refer to music on a rock album, we refer to the sounds, not to the physicality of the medium (though the physicality of the medium makes a difference as to the fidelity and quality of the sound events). Fisher here refers to the idea of a “norm-kind”, a kind of thing that can have defective instances (like the species “lion”, and actual instances of lions, which may fail to meet the standards of the ideal lion). Rock music’s recordings are this ideal sound event, for which the sound events at playback of a master tape are mere descriptive-kinds. The musician authorizes the norm-kind (recording) and declares it the ideal form of that work. If the recording does not meet the standards of the norm-kind (the original standard sound event), it is said to be defective in some way.

Rock recordings are often constructive, in the sense that they do not record how a live performance might sound, but are “built up” in a studio from various sounds and takes. Because of this, the recording itself is a musical work—the primary musical work. The producer, engineers, and musicians are all the artists. A recording is not merely of a performance of a song (indeed, the sound event may not even be able to be performed), or even an arrangement (rock recordings cannot be fully accounted for by arrangements or scores, and there are often no pre-existing scores). When the sound recording is authorized by its creators, that is the moment the work is brought into existence (it is now the norm). People also commonly ascribe the properties of the recording (for instance, studio-created abrupt song beginnings) to the work (abruptness is supposedly not a property of the song, but of the recording). So these three make up the meat of Fisher’s argument: 1- the record production process is constructive, so that the resulting recording is the artistic work, 2- the absence of pre-existing scores and the inability to account for rock sound events with scores shows that scores are not the primary work, and 3- properties of the work are ascribed as properties of the recording, but not of the song. Fisher denies that rock music can be reduced to the recording, and believes that live performances are still very important in rock, though we should look at the musical work here as the product of collaboration, so that we appreciate the work more fully as we understand the complexity of its creation. While While the musical objects include the recording, the song, and the arrangement, the recording is the primary work.

It seems to me that Fisher’s look is at classic rock, and fails to account for the current rock music scene. Music videos of rock songs (which are often sonic variations of the “recorded” work) and the importance of live performances and recordings of those performances, as well as variations of songs, are just as important in current rock music as a “normative” studio recording from a specific album (note that many of the works in Pandora’s collection are of live performances, or are variations of songs). His account applies much more readily to the rock music of his own youth than it does to the rock music of the present. Further, classic rock may not be unique in its ontology: what about movie soundtracks? Are these instances where the primary work is often the recording, and where the arrangement or song is secondary?

Fisher, John Andrew. (1998). Rock ‘n’ recording: The ontological complexity of rock music. In Philip Alperson (Ed.), Musical worlds: New directions in the philosophy of music (pp. 109-123). University Park, PA: Penn State Press.


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