Review | Harris Berger, Rock, Metal, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience By Glenn T. Pillsbury

Harris Berger. Rock, Metal, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience. Hanover, London: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-819-56371-4 (cloth); ISBN 0-819-56376-5 (pbk.). Pp. Xv, 384. $50.00 (cloth), $18.50 (pbk.).

Reading partly as a companion to Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland Suburbia’s Dead End Kids (Harper Perennial, 1992) and partly as an ethnomusicological offshoot of Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan, 1993), Harris Berger’s book investigates the practices of musical experience and musical perception within the genres of rock, (death) metal, and jazz. He focuses on “ordinary” people, on non-celebrity musicians, and seeks to highlight their perspectives intently over any detours into the realm of celebrity musicians. While the book could benefit from some clarifying discursive injections of genre and history, Berger’s goal of exploring details of musical experience nonetheless constitutes an important research contribution.

Berger organizes his chapters into three parts, each one a move to a more micro-level of experience than the last. Part I, “The Ethnography of Musical Practice,” Functions as a background study of four musical scenes: commercial hard rock in Cleveland, underground heavy metal in Akron, and jazz in Cleveland and Akron. Here, the author’s description and discussion focuses on practice “at its medial level and [examines] how the participants’ practices constitute music cultures” (31). Throughout the book, Berger argues that experience is a form of social practice, and, importantly, that this practice is a dense web of the individual and society at large. Moreover, understanding practice requires multiple levels of focus: the individual and the social intertwine to provide a richer understanding of the participant’s experiences. The descriptions of the four scenes are roughly grouped into a rock/metal pair and a jazz pair (though the individual scenes are by no means collapsed into these larger pairs), and proceed in a generally smooth, interesting fashion. If the resulting material at times appears almost achingly detailed and basic (particularly in the rock and metal discussions), it is because, again, in order to ask questions of specific musical experience larger social contexts must be considered as fully as possible.

Specific musical experience forms the topic of Part II, “The Organization of Musical Experience and the Practice of Perception.” As before, each scene receives individual treatment, but here the focus is on the particulars of performance perception. For these discussions Berger turns to detailed phenomenological description, to “an exercise in phenomenological ethnography” (120), “taking all of the forms of musical soundand seeing how they are actively and socially constituted in the subject’s experience” (116). Berger’s conception of this kind of phenomenology views the concrete experiences of a member of the human race as the experiences of a historically and culturally particular subject. Furthermore, his goal is to present the experiences of his participants in ways that can be shared, at least partially, by his readers. His main conclusions re-emphasize how those experiences are not solely the result of individual whim, but the organization of experience as influenced both by the individual’s music-making goals and by the scenes to which they belong.

Berger treats the jazz musicians individually (and then unfortunately discards jazz for the rest of the book), while the investigations of perceptions involving the rock and metal groups (Chapters 7 and 8) proceed according to very detailed discussions of individual songs composed and performed by his main research participants. In these two discussions Berger figures more prominently than in the two previous chapters. In particular, his descriptions progress much more as an interview-with-commentary, and the reader “watches” the explorations of perception and experience unfold as a narrative. Berger also encourages audience participation as much as possible by the inclusion of extensive transcriptions of each song.

Importantly, the lens through which Berger explores experience in these two chapters is tonality. His point is that tonality, or the relationship between chords, is not inherent in the notes themselves, but is grasped through phenomenological experience: perception changes within the shifting arena of “the living present” (194). In short, tonality is a series of phenomenological tensions within a set of chords. Thus, much of his analysis derives from his asking participants whether, and how, a specific chord “feels” like a tonic or a sub-dominant, etc., or whether a guitar riff “feels” in a particular mode. The answers depend on context, on the surrounding music, and on performance details.

Yet, the bald emphasis on tonality as the basis for musical experience in these chapters is problematic, given that system’s historically hegemonic position in musical analysis. Berger does not explain why he chose it for these two songs, or why other elements, such as rhythm or timbre, could not also be included. The reader is certainly enlightened as to aspects of tonal experience in rock and metal, but the author frequently assumes that the music under discussion is tonal (in the conventional sense) to begin with. This often results in a series of realizations (for the author) that can seem tedious for all but the most generally experienced reader. Indeed, in the discussion of the metal tune (Chapter 8), Berger’s penchant for tonal starting points quickly breaks down when passages involving approaches to composition that depend on the importance of half step-based motion (as opposed to the mixture of whole and half steps used in tonality). Moreover, often such half step-based passages can be viewed as directly physical motions along the guitar fretboard. While the author’s realization and illumination of those compositional processes is most welcome (and an interesting read), many songs in the speed/thrash/death metal genres (cf. Slayer’s “War Ensemble” or Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”) utilize such techniques, and one cannot help but question Berger’s general knowledge of the larger generic conventions to which his participant’s songs belong. This is not to say that Berger should have known better, because he is obviously writing for an audience with very little experience with rock or death metal, but he should have known better, and might have provided some larger contexts for these very important points.

Part III, “Music, Experience, and Society: Death Metal and Deindustrialization in an American City,” narrows the research focus even further. Beginning with Berger’s views on the dialectic between ethnographers and their participants, he tackles the weighty issues of “objectivity” and distanced critique in ethnographic research, and attaches the dimension of ethics to the participant/ethnographer relationship. He argues powerfully for the idea of “critical phenomenology” (252-261), in which the ethnographer does not merely observe and report his/her participant’s perspectives and experiences, but injects his/her personal views into the research discussion. To take Berger’s own (extreme) example, the ethnographer does not merely report the activities of the Ku Klux Klan as racist, but calls the Klan on them in an effort to explore deeper meanings and purposes.

A lengthy interview-with-commentary with Berger’s chief metal participant, Dann Saladin, puts this idea into practice. The engaging journalistic style of Berger’s prose makes this chapter one of the highlights of the book, as the reader gets a good insight into how the politics of race and class function in the metal underground. Berger’s active engagement with Saladin certainly pushes the discussion forward, but at times his tone seems heavy-handed: it is one thing to call out the consequences of a participant’s views, but it is quite another to have the final say, via the academic press, in how such discussions are ultimately presented. Indeed, many times in the discussion there is the distinct sense of Berger “correcting” Saladin’s thoughts under the cover of ethnographic engagement. Nevertheless, the interview provides a rich view of the politics of death metal, and will greatly benefit further research of the genre.

Metal, Rock, and Jazz is a generally thoughtful and well-researched application of the potential for phenomenological exploration of popular music. As an ethnography it leaves something to be desired in the insider/outsider dialectic (e.g., “Arrowsmith”?), but this should not detract greatly from the importance of Berger’s larger points.

Glenn T. Pillsbury
University of California, Los Angeles