Rock and-or-not Roll, Rhythm, Noise,
and Processual Mediating-Vibrating Technologies

Victor J. Vitanza

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

About the Author
Table of Contents

Gracyk, Theodore, Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996. ISBN 0-8223-1743-5

An alternate title for this review, of this book, would be "Rock is a Medium, Not a Species." Or "Rock is the Medium, not the (almost) Alien Species, of the Mass Age." A sub-title would be "From Performing Artist to Recording Artist," while a sub- sub-title would be "Roll Over Ontological Question!" But any would-be title at any level or any entitlement at whatever level is unacceptable to Theodore Gracyk, as it should-be. For any predisposed necessity to answer the question What is Rock music? is rife with more intellectual, aesthetic, and pragmatic problems than any would-be, or should-not-be, definer (limit-er) would want to have to be confronted with.

Gracyk signals immediately What is not to be but to become and come of Rock in his various peregrinations. His fatherless grins and followup-mischievious-grins at aesthetic theorists who would fix Rock instead of thinking it a molecular agglomerate of rolling stones across smooth Deleuzean spaces are daunting. Gracyk demonstrates a superficiality of profundity (Nietzsche) and spaciousness of excess (Bataille) in his identifying which theorists and critics he must argue with and which possible counterarguments he must anticipate and denegate. Initially, however, Gracyk eases into rethinking the conditions for the possibilities of Rock. Finally, he makes his judgments, perhaps as we would not want to hear them, but as we would, nonetheless, need to hear them. Gracyk is heuristically instructive in thinking through the k/not/ty problems of the aesthetic politics and political aesthetics of Rock music.

In his first sentence, he writes: "Rock music is neither a style nor a genre of music" (1). Instead, Rock music

is a tradition of popular music whose creation and dissemination centers on recording technology. . . . Rock is less typically a song than an arrangement of recorded sounds. Rock music is both composed and received in [the] light of musical qualities that are subject to mechanical reproduction [W. Benjamin] but not notational specification. (1)

Yes, Rock is part of a tradition and has a center! Which formally suggests that it has identifiable properties. How could it not have such properties?! And yet, in rethinking-Rock, Gracyk thinks Becoming-Rock. Which is to say that he not only sees (theorizes) Rock initially as a product (an evolving species in an evolving genus with evolving differentiae) but also--and eventually as his arguments develop--re-sees (spectacalizes and technologizes) Rock as a process. Rock is processual. (Solidity/Fluidity becomes Fluidity/Solidity.) Rock gathers in its fluidity 'this' and 'that' and any thing else outside in its sub-versive process of not just reterritorializing itself but also of perpetually deterritorializing What Rock will have Become. In terms of . . . performance . . . recordings . . . noise . . . volume . . . and (near) counterhegemony.

This process, then, is to be envisioned as in less traditional historical terms and in more revisionist, if not even more so, sub-versive historical, terms. What is sub-verted, according to Gracyk, is the binary structure of the author and the live performance as privileged, with all else merely a supplement to these so-called originary subjects. What we get, therefore, as I would schematize this book, is the following set of incipient negative deconstructions:

  • Author/Performing Artist
  • Performing Artist/Author,


  • Live Performance/Recording Performance
  • Recording Performance/Live Performance.

Along with these negative deconstructions, we get (hint, hints at) the larger framework of Reality (see Ch. 2) more and more sophistically re-treated and re-versed:

  • real/copy
  • copy/real
    until the affirmative deconstruction is enacted by the object itself
  • copy/copy

  • realism/simulation
  • simulation/realism
  • simulation/simulation

And we get the wildest, savage turn arounds of

  • music/noise
  • noise/music (noise has pitch just as music does)
  • nmouissiec (a noisey word?)

Rock is revisionist at the levels of Live-Performing Artists; Rock is potententially (as in techne, dynamis) sub-versive at the ever-expanding levels of Recording Performances driven by newer and newer economies and technologies. The latter is more sweeping than the former, for more often than not the Performing Artist is the product of the processual technology cum deterritorializing performances.

Rock negatively deconstructs author/ity

Gracyk's most compelling arguments in discussing the reterritorializing of authorial and live music (by, say, overdubbing and multitrack recording) have to do with how technology invites a change in "reality" and a collaboration on (i.e., a social-construction of a re-engineered) "reality."

(But "reality" here is not to be taken as any originary source or the "really real," for in Rock--perhaps as in all things--there is no originary source of music. "Reality" is an effect (R. Barthes). But I am getting ahead of myself, for I should speak now only of a "negative" deconstruction? Perhaps, I should speak not at all of deconstructions, for Gracyk never uses the word in this context, perhaps would never himself summarize what he has done in this phashion!)

I digress into "Reality" testing!

Am I overstating, Becoming-Hyperbolic, in my re-performative-viewing of Gracyk's--the author's--performance? Perhaps so. Whereas Gracyk might say, "leave the Gun and bring the Cannoli," I would write here about t/his book, inside the margins of t/his book, "bring the Gun and the Cannoli." (Excuse my allusions to Godfather I. I can but read semiotically across--perhaps can read only uh-cross-eyed--my Sicilian Sophistic cultural biases!) So if Gracyk is reading this re-view, I say to him, "Forgive me, I mean no disrespect. Don't take any of this personally; it's un/just bidness." But in dis/respect to "reality," Where are we now?

Mine is a re-viewing, my technologically-driven performative re-viewing, that, I believe, gets to the corpse of t/his book. I would prefer to read it as--to casuistically stretch it to become--a revelutionary [sic] book, which I am well aware, will only retrospectively hail people to read it as a less than revolutionary book on the aesthetics of Rock and as a call for an expressionistic reading, which Gracyk rails against.

As I was saying:

Gracyk's most compelling arguments deal with overdubbing and multitrack recordings, which are more often than not commonplace. For example, he speaks of Bach --> the Goldberg Variations --> Glen Gould's performance/s of the Variations --> and Gould's use of technology to splice "together multiple takes . . . to constitute one seamless performance" (40-41). For some Realists, this production process leads us away from the authenticity of Bach and the authenticity of Gould's single performance of Bach's Variations. But if we were to examine What leads up to this conclusion, we would have to ask, Just how did Bach intend his Variations to be performed? And What, if any, variations of the Variations would be authentic? Can we rely on the musical notations for performance and varieties? Do we have--oh, no!--a recording of Bach or a Bach-approved performance to imitate? (How many problems come with these questions?) But though it's very difficult, if not downright impossible, to answer these questions, traditional, realist musicologist will give an answer or research until until until . . . found, if found. But in the mean while, until we know for sure, Gould's Goldberg Variations are certainly not Bach's!

Are they finally (rebeginninly?) Gould's?

Gracyk has numerous even more compelling examples in his book on this very problem for realists but very joyful opportunity for nonrealists. In the unbearable gloom or lightness, I can but think: Rock (not Roll) over "Bach"!

Like most good books, however, Gracyk's book lives a double life on its way to infinity. I can say midway now that . . .

The Corpse cum Recordinstein of Rock?

. . . Gracyk is successful. Gould is successful. (I took this book with me to Cancun and got wrapped up in it while in the sand and sun for three days. I was among so many people, but alone with my thoughts in this book. I might as well have been wearing a Walkman. But now, I am writing a review, which some will read as still my sinking into my--alone--thoughts.) But for perverse-me, a question lingers: What Monster have Gracyk (in his dubbing over and splicing of arguments, pro and con) and Gould (in his multiple splices of multiple performances) given us?, if a Monster? Have they set into motion a metastasis of Variations --> variations --> variations --> etc.? Will we, when the binairies begin to slip and rock and perhaps roll (over Bach and canonization), begin with even greater speed to lose our previous sense of What is Real? and What is simulation?, . . .

Reaching for a Coke(tm) as for a Lifevest

[Let's Start Again:] Must we return to the pleasant authentic music--which we so recklessly threw away--. . .

Must we return to this music to subdue and quiet down this monster? Must we call in the traditional academic musicologists and breathern to demonstre the Beast? To draw a circle 'round IT thrice?

Gracyk, as I have portrayed him here, is successful. But there is more to this success; there is the deep questioning that takes us to the dark side of the question of an aesthetic politics and a political aesthetics. To a failure. To Liberalism, at best. Or finally (rebeginningly?) to a success in failure (F. Jameson), which Gracyk does not pursue. I highly recommend this book to readers for its back-and-forth suspended sophistic, dissoi-logoi arguments and its suggestivness. And it is this very suggestiveness that I wanted . . .

My slow but processual Re-readings

. . . To reinterrorgate. While reading the book in my bourgeois-pleasureable Cancun, and while being served food and drinks by those employed who will never, most likely, be served food and drinks in the same style, in my own country, I felt or feel now no shame or guilt; for such feelings would only fuel the impulse toward being reactionary. And take me to other less productive places in my private mind and here in this public review.

The Last Man On the Beach, nonetheless, subjecting himself to himself

I thought, while reading in that Cancunean (cacoonean) context, about the Question concerning Noise and Volume, and the concomittent detachment that Gracyk seems to think that they bring to and take away from an "us."

In my then reading and revisioning of the book, I would have had Gracyk say--which he does say, though not in this particular plotting out of the argument--we must turn up, juice up, the noisey monster. But to an extreme. In dis/order to Self-Overcome. How else to get the other possible forms of resistance from the now unplugged crew? I would have had us distort, defamiliarize our ears, our labyrinthine world. Silencing the "I Wants." And if the extremes did not play well, we would have had to turn up and turn up and turn up the volume on the monster. Still unevenly more. 'Til the blood poured profusely from the ears, cleansing the organ. Finding one's self in these thoughts requires a losing of one's self. An over-coming of self.

I took my cue from . . .

"Nietzsche, most quiet and shiest of men, knew of this necessity. He endured the agony of having to scream. . . . Nietzsche screamed out into the world: 'The wasteland grows . . . .' He thus put the question to his fellowmen [sic] and above all to himself: 'Must one smash their ears before they learn to listen with their eyes' " (M. Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? (Listening?), 48-49; qt. from Thus Spake Zarathustra, prologue, 5). But all said, extremely, softly or screamingly, as Heidegger declares, "threatens to turn into chatter. The threat of this perversion is part of what gives us food for thought. The threat is that perhaps this most thoughtful thought will today, and still more tomorrow, become suddenly no more than a platitude, and as platitude spread and circulate" (49). Ah, What I hear here: Good sense, though elitist; Elitist, though good sense. Always the double articulation. The Slide: few understand(elitist)/all understand(chatter), all understand/few understand! This is what my ears have become trained to hear. The sliding implosion of opposites, collapsing into crashing Noise! It's so, so, so inventive!

"Must one smash their ears before they learn to listen with their eyes"?

I had read previously that some music and now Rock violate in the most self-reflexive (self-reflective) mirroring manner-isms the genres of what we have been taught to take to be music, just as our colleague Jacques Attali (in Noise: The Political Economy of Music) violates the Music/Noise binary in dis/order for it to Become-Thought as Noise/Music. With this negative deconstructive turn-around, Noise would continue to invent newer and newer Economics. Echo Nomics. Crashing Ergo Nomics. Mirroring E-Nomics. E-NoMoi. Growing new ears?

And yet--as I've suggested, with the darkest heuristic 'And Yet,' it's sad to say (?)--Rock and Noise (the un[properly]pitched stones a-rocking and a-rolling) . . . Rock and Noise--Gracyk paraphrasing Attali says--"[are] now a tool of bureaucratic power, doing more to silence people than to empower them" (103). We hear, eventually, ah-cross-eyed.

The last man on the beach listens alone and is silenced. He might as well have his ears opened. With blastings. New, unrestrained noise. Demanding even greater volumes of noise. In searching for even more perverse screams of the growing wasteland. Threatening the social order. Gracyk adds: "There are pockets of noise left, as evidenced by the furor over 'Cop Killer' and the difficulty rap groups have in securing concert venues, but on the whole rock's noise hardly threatens the social order" (103). To Doubleness (we are) Bound (R. Girard).

Noise has its limits! As does the traumatized ear falling into a dull tinnitus. (With cicadas chirPinggggggggg in the ears! chirPinggggggggg in my ears!) What a stupid line of reasoning and metaphorizing! Or was . . . is it stupid?

I cut off my ear and I send it to you, my Lord, for I love the revolution of love more than my ear that so offends you. (Forgive him, Father, for he NOs Not what he is saying!) And yet, there is the inner ear, that which determines our Reality. (Dare I speak of it as a third ear?) The labyrinth! Again, What to do?

What is wanted is a music for everyone and no one. For Gracyk, if not un/just noise and volume alone, what differentiates and makes Rock (without ages) sub-versive is its ability not only to be listened to but also to be performed. By everyone. Rock is Democratic. Rock the masses.

And yet, there's another paradoxical doubleness here/hear in this talk of Democracy. While on an airplane flight, Gracyk experiences the difference between music for hearing (Beethoven) and music for playing (Bonnie Raitt). The maximum volume allowed him on the plane was good for Beethoven but not good for Raitt. Gracyk muses, ". . . rock encourages a range of participatory elements prohibited in the serious concert hall. With recorded rock, many fans drum and sing along, and there is always air guitar" (107). He contermuses,

[T]he typical volumes of rock music may only reinforce a passive and atomistic sense of the self. . . . At high volume, rock creates a cocoon of sound that screens out other, unwanted sounds. . . . While I have no hard evidence, I suspect that this may be one of the major uses of rock music in daily life. Some people use jazz for this purpose. . . . Physical and sensusal, felt and heard, rock [as a fix] invites us to crank the volume and overwhelm consciousness. (107)

Where are we now? With Gracyk? And Rock? Like many composers, Gracyk strings us out. For a long series of suspended arguments and counterarguments, that become fugues. (When I read and reread Gracyk, I hear fugues in my ears. I race through the words and pages like E. A. Poe's 'man of the crowd' in a fugue state. Statelessness.)

After Attali, Gracyk takes (us) up with Luigi Russolo's The Art of Noises, which is a defense primarily of noise as well as volume. Then he goes on to discuss the Electric Guitar and its impact. Then closes ch. 4 with saying, "Despite its power to disrupt [the dominant political signifying practices of print and audio cultures] "rock has always been a reactionary art. Rock musicians accept a very traditional artistic goal, the expression of emotion. To be so they employ newer and noisier instruments. 'Serious' composers have, by and large, repudiated expression" (124). (When I read this statement, I knew this to be the case, as a performer and as a listener.)

Thereafter, Gracyk takes us through chapters dealing with "the reactionary backlash" against Rock (jungle music), dealing with Theo. Adorno's attack on popular music (commodification, popular arts as tools for fascism), and dealing with "romanticizing rock music" (more expressionisms). It's a long miserable way to go IF someone such as myself wants to think positively about Rock and its political goals. And not see Rock, too, as so many other practices of resistance, un/just leading to cynicism (cf. P. Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason).

Gracyk, in the final chapter, gives us some balanced relief, if not good tidings. I am not going to rehearse or survey Gracyk's exposition and summary of arguments pro and con concerning ideology, hegemony, high and low cultures. I would prefer to think that readers of enculturalation are familiar with much of the specifics of these concerns. For example, as Gracyk points out, Rock, while "often celebrated as a vehicle of sexual liberation[,] reveals an infestation of sexism. Most Rock reinforces the most repressive gender roles" (210). Or reverses them. Or the pleasure given us when listening to Rock is an "aesthetic pleasure in disinterested contemplation" (212).

I am, however, going to raise the question of When is enough listening with interest sufficient to satisfy the purist-at-heart theorists who would only accept listening counterhegemonically. If ideology is our doing it but not knowing that we do it, as K. Marx claimed (Capital 1), then when is enough in our knowing that we are doing it enough knowing? Perhaps it's too much to expect that now that we know we are being sexist by listening to exploitative Rock that we must stop listening altogether to Rock. How do I stop it, long after I have smashed the records and burned over the CDs, from Echo Nomic Incorporating itself in my ears? Here Comes Every Corp-Oration! Into my Ear! Long after I have severed my ear/s, been reborn of the blood pouring from and cleansing out my Rock-polluted ear/s.

Of course, there is never enough knowing! That would qualify any Rock-infested Ear for possible redemption. (There's no stopping Rock. Knowing Rock.) The demands of the argument of the purist would excessively demand what perhaps no human being, except in an unintended parody of self, could offer us as a sign of "enough," as a sign of the end to the ideological ear wax. The purist, perhaps crypto-Purist Platonist, would not allow Rock in his or her dreamed of Republic of the Cult Studs State(tm). But would only continue perpetually with the critique against (contra to, but always already--perhaps unwittingly--"along side") the permanent revolution of Kapitalism.

And yet, the music lives on. (It sings itself! [I kant even get rid of thinking in the music's li(n)es!]) There is the extreme of noise and volume, and there is the extreme of listening only counterhegemonically. (Hegemonic/Counterhegemonic; Counterhegemonic/Hegemonic!) Golly Miss Molly!/Molly Ms. Golly! But we are to doubleness bound, are we not? And as Gracyk's book ends, we fall with the arguments into a postmodern cynicism (222-23). In our doubleness bound, we can be only liberals, which is what a good socialist position would have to see as a necessary excluded middle! Neither Right Wing nor far Left of what it is to be humanly (humanisticly) possible!

So Where are we now?, knowing about Rock's complicity?, but not Knowing What to do about (the per-verse) Rock (of ages)?

The ears of the Other

Without the resolution of the dissoi-logoi (for and against) at the end, while waiting for a new wo/man, new times, it is this postmodern cynical liberalism that I hear. And only hear. So what am I to do? But speak to you, Dear Reader, and say, "Read and Re-read the book and listen to what you might hear. And then let us listen together, though differently." Slippin' and a-Slidin'.

How(l) is this Theodore?

Copyright © Enculturation 1999

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