The Poetics of Rock

The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records

Albin J. Zak
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 276
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppbkt
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  • Book Info
    The Poetics of Rock
    Book Description:

    After a hundred years of recording, the process of making records is still mysterious to most people who listen to them. Records hold a fundamental place in the dynamics of modern musical life, but what do they represent? Are they documents? Snapshots? Artworks? Fetishes? Commodities? Conveniences?The Poetics of Rockis a fascinating exploration of recording consciousness and compositional process from the perspective of those who make records. In it, Albin Zak examines the crucial roles played by recording technologies in the construction of rock music and shows how songwriters, musicians, engineers, and producers contribute to the creative project, and how they all leave their mark on the finished work. Zak shapes an image of the compositional milieu by exploring its elements and discussing the issues and concerns faced by artists. Using their testimony to illuminate the nature of record making and of records themselves, he shows that the art of making rock records is a collaborative compositional process that includes many skills and sensibilities not traditionally associated with musical composition. Zak connects all the topics--whether technical, conceptual, aesthetic, or historical--with specific artists and recordings and illustrates them with citations from artists and with musical examples. In lively and engaging prose,The Poetics of Rockbrilliantly illustrates how the musical energy from a moment of human expression translates into a musical work wrought in sound.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92815-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    In a small and unremarkable building on the west side of Manhattan, I walk down a narrow hallway that leads past a line of cramped offices to a recording studio. The walls are hung with gold- and platinum-colored discs in frames, commemorating the commercial successes of artists who have worked here. At the end of the hallway I cross through a small, simply furnished lounge area—a couch, a television, a backgammon board, some magazines—and open a heavy door leading into a room of peculiar character. Its walls and ceiling are angled and covered with a combination of oddly...

  5. 1 Writing Records
    (pp. 1-23)

    In a series of scenes from Michael Radford’s film,Il Postino, the postman Mario Ruopollo gathers aural images of his island home with a recording machine left behind by the poet Pablo Neruda. “Small waves. . . . Big waves. . . . The wind on the cliffs,” he says to the microphone, pointing it at waves and cliffs in turn and smiling in wonder. As he takes hold of the power to record selectively the sounds that make up his world, Mario is overcome with excitement. Wherever he points the microphone, it seems not only to capture sound but...

  6. 2 Tracks
    (pp. 24-47)

    While I have begun by arguing for the significance of sound recording’s poetic role in rock, records obviously have components that represent other kinds of compositional activity, namely, songwriting and arranging. To sharpen the focus on the autographic aspect of the process, it will be useful to think of a recording as containing three distinct compositional layers: the song, the musical arrangement, and the track. The song is what can be represented on a lead sheet; it usually includes words, melody, chord changes, and some degree of formal design. The arrangement is a particular musical setting of the song. It...

  7. 3 Sound as Form
    (pp. 48-96)

    Bob Dylan’s original recording of “All Along the Watchtower,” like the rest ofJohn Wesley Harding(1967), is an austere affair. Against the contemporary trends in recording, which tended in varying degrees towards the sonic opulence exemplified bySgt. Pepper’s, and in contrast even to the “thin wild mercury sound” of Dylan’s ownBlonde on Blondealbum, it strips things down to an elemental level—bass, drums, acoustic guitar, voice, harmonica, three chords, and no obvious sonic manipulations. In this unadorned state the song’s themes of alienation and dread come across with an air of stark resignation.¹

    By contrast, Jimi...

  8. 4 Places and Tools
    (pp. 97-127)

    The title of George Martin’s memoir,All You Need Is Ears, at once makes reference to his long association with the Beatles and calls attention to a basic principle of record production: making records is an empirical process guided and informed by physical perception. Compositional decisions are based on responses to specific aural images, and ears are the windows through which all evaluations are made. This chapter explores the factors that influence the sound image, the impression the sound makes on the recordist, and the decisions that result.

    All recorded sound has an aesthetic dimension to it. It is shaped...

  9. 5 Tracking and Mixing
    (pp. 128-162)

    As multitrack recording gradually became standard practice in rock, the distinction between recording and mixing as separate stages of a project grew. It is not uncommon at the mixing stage to move a project to a different studio or to hand over recorded tracks to a new engineer. Though the two stages may be separated in time, however, they remain, as they were for early rock and roll recordists, interdependent stages in a single process. A track’s final form is arrived at through a series of evolutionary steps that flow from recording, which generates material and brings the piece to...

  10. 6 Engineers and Producers
    (pp. 163-183)

    Making records is intrinsically a collaborative creative process, involving the efforts of a “composition team” whose members interact in various ways.¹ As a matter of form, the “artist” on a recording is usually the person or group who receives top billing on the album cover, but in fact most of the tasks involved in making a record require some measure of artistry. Social relationships among the team members also contribute to the outcome of a recording project. Indeed, pre-production can include getting acquainted and in tune on a number of levels. When Robert Plant and Jimmy Page asked Steve Albini...

  11. 7 Resonance
    (pp. 184-198)

    By way of conclusion, I would like to probe a little further into the resonant atmosphere in which recordists work and which influences their creative imaginations and aesthetic decisions. In the course of the preceding chapters, I have often used words like “convention,” “association,” “resonance,” “allusion,” “reference,” and “rhetoric.” Until now, I’ve skirted the implications of such terms, but now I’d like to bring them into the discussion directly, for they suggest the workings of an aesthetic system whose very nature shapes the production and reception of its constituent works.

    Throughout the poetic/aesthetic economy of rock—among artists, fans, critics,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 199-220)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 221-224)
  14. Engineer and Producer Credits
    (pp. 225-236)
  15. Recordings Cited
    (pp. 237-240)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-246)
  17. Index
    (pp. 247-259)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 260-260)