It’s not only Rock & Roll, babe!
12/23/11

The studies of the different forms of rock music are little by little becoming established in university degree programmes. And these publications are coming thick and fast at a vertiginous rate. But few of them take as a starting point the musicological angle in order to understand this music intrinsically, before contextualising it in its era. A gap which could not remain indefinitely.

COVER Histoire RockThe history of the work in question began seven years ago, through an email sent by the well known publishing house, Fayard. At the time it wanted to commission from Christophe Pirenne, a musicologist and music historian at the Universities of Liège and Louvain-La-Neuve, a work on the history of rock music. ‘I was flattered that they had confidence in me,’ remembers Christophe Pirenne. ‘Fayard is known for its series in the field of classical music. Its forays into the domain of more popular, more contemporary and more amplified music are rare. And this extended analysis of rock music was a magnificent challenge.’

The challenge would also prove to be magnificent through the sheer quantity of factors to be taken into account. It in effect concerns over fifty years of popular music forms produced within a cultural context of dynamic mass production, one which was constantly evolving, and bringing to the stage an impressive series of professions. The undertaking, which was to last two years, thus stretched over a period of more than six years. And this was certainly not down to any form of idleness. ‘I was faced on the one hand with organising the material, which is colossal, and on the other hand with the explosion of the documentation in the domain of pop music, particularly in the human sciences. By the time I had discovered a methodology which seemed suitable, put together the bibliography and written the first chapter, the two years initially planned had already passed.’

A panoramic methodology

In roaming over the pages of this volume, which has an impressive density (it runs to over 700 pages), its long gestation period is quickly understood. The author takes musicology as a starting point, as such a book simply doesn’t exist. ‘Everyone agrees that rock is music,’ observes Christophe Pirenne, ‘but when you go through the literature on the subject you discover books essentially within the fields of sociology, biography and technological developments, but very few people talk about rock as music. I also wanted to demonstrate that even if the work exists in itself I am not naïve to such a point as to believe that despite their undoubted gifts Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and Kanye West were living on an island. If they made their music it is because they had such a technology, it is because they came from such an environment, and it is because they lived during such an era.’

From this springs the importance of the researcher allowing himself detours well stocked with examples and anecdotes through fields as vast as history, the history of music and its technologies, sociology, socio-economics and biography. The author articulates with great dexterity the whole of theses approaches in order to analyse and understand this music in an intrinsic manner (structurally, harmonically, from the perspective of the instruments used and the soundscapes being looked for), but also to place it in its cultural, social, economic, political and, of course, musical contexts. A multiplicity of approaches which, well tied together, facilitates and increases the different entry points in the reading of the work.

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