The Rocktalog: Scholars Celebrating & Inhabiting Musicians
Geoffrey V. Carter
Saginaw Valley State University
Citation: Carter, Geoffrey V.. “The Rocktalog: Scholars Celebrating & Inhabiting Musicians.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.i01
Abstract: The Rocktalog brings together scholars’ reflections on a selection of musicians from different styles, along with a range of imagined dialogues and statements from the artists themselves, some remixed and some improvised. Edited by Geoffrey V. Carter, this collection of sixteen works draws on “The Octalog,” a lively panel discussion at the CCCC’s in 1988, later published as “Octalog I” in Rhetoric Review. Reimaginging this original “electric” dialogue as an ongoing conversation between musicians and musical scholars, The Rocktalog asks questions about the roles of remix, conversation, and composition in engaging with music and musical artists. Each reflection features a mix of audio tracks, original essays and transcripts.
Keywords: Octalog, Rocktalog, rhetoric, music, interviews, encomium, historiography.
Introduction: The Rocktalog
The Rocktalog began as an imagined dialogue between two late rock stars, Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa. While I wasn’t well versed in their respective music catalogues, I was captivated by archival interviews with each of these musicians, especially with regards to their composing process. Somewhere along the way, I thought how both Dio and Zappa might have responded to the other, especially given their shared practice of listening carefully to questions and offering interesting anecdotes that built out new avenues for even more questions. To be sure, the seventeen-year gap between their respective deaths meant that each would have inhabited different aural landscapes, but the passion they each had for their music made me think they would have been attentive to the other. Indeed, I thought how great it would be to get musicians from different styles together to talk about their experiences, writing methodology, and thoughts on formulating their body of work. In any given moment, musicians are always looking ahead to their next project, or as Dio puts it in “The Last In Line”: “We’re the hand that writes / And quickly moves away.” What I imagined was a return to those writing hands that have all, alas, too quickly moved away. Or, as Zappa doesn’t say in the final track of the 2016 compilation album, The Crux of the Biscuit: “Ha. Ha. Ha. [Restart] the Tape.”
In re-imagining Ronnie and Frank’s last lines, I also thought back to one of the great dialogues in the field of rhetoric and composition. In 1988, a Conference on College Composition and Communication roundtable comprised of eight distinguished scholars who reflected on rhetorical history, theory, and methodology. This conversation featured robust debate from the likes of James Berlin, Robert Connor, Sharon Crowley, Susan Jarratt, Nan Johnson, Richard Leo Enos, Jan Swearingen, and Victor Vitanza. It was preserved in Rhetoric Review (7:1, 1988) as “Octalog I: The Politics and Historiography.” This dialogue, along with conversations unfolding the Writing Program Administration Listserv (WPA-L) and Gregory L. Ulmer’s Invent Listserv (Invent-L), were my first introduction to an academic field that appeared to be in perpetual conversation with itself. Unlike my perception of literary studies, which as an undergraduate felt somewhat stagnant, the same year I was introduced to Kenneth Burke and his notion of a Parlor’s “unending conversation,” I discovered a 1997 sequel to the original Octalog featuring the work of Janet Atwill, Linda Ferreira-Buckley, Cheryl Glenn, Janice Lauer, Roxanne Mountford, Jasper Neel, Ed Schiappa, and Kathleen Welch (with Thomas Miller as a special respondent). The realization of Octalog as a trilogy wouldn’t happen until 2011, but between the two, I could see the Burkean Parlor coming to life. Eventually, the notion of recasting the Octalog musically—as the following Rocktalog—emerged from YouTube interviews with Ronnie James Dio and from the inspiring lyrics of the title song of his first solo album, Holy Diver: “You are the driver / You own the road / You are the fire, go on explode.”
No doubt the most explosive scholar to me from the original Octalog—and one who seemed to be everywhere as he was not only part of CCCC’s and WPA-L, but also part of the experimental discussions on Invent-L—was Victor J. Vitanza. In the initial Octalog, he extolled both the audience and panel to listen for those “faraway away voices” and to not sing with all that was “maskulin,” but rather to join in singing with Walt Whitman’s “body electric” (48). In colliding Vitanza’s “body electric” with my imagined dialogue between Dio and Zappa, I wondered if it might be possible to bring Vitanza’s electric chorus together with electricity of rock ‘n roll. I do so with Vitanza’s caution not to focus just on the “maskulin”—and certainly there’s much in rock ‘n roll that wears a hyper-masculine mask—I tried to expand my thinking on what it might mean for an Octalog to become a Rocktalog. Might interested scholars have unlimited freedom to investigate and re-animate the words of any musician they wanted, but also be able to move beyond rock ‘n roll into any musical genre they desire?
So, it’s out of this experimental thinking that the present work emerged. I previously had the great fortune and pleasure of working with Vitanza after graduate school on three video installations at conferences which were ultimately published as From Gallery to Webtext (Kairos 12.3), MoMLA (Kairos 17.2), and MLArcade (Hyperrhiz 22). These collections gave me confidence in approaching Vitanza about a re-imagined Octalog format. Initially, I hoped that Vitanza might have acted as a respondent to each musician as Thomas Miller acted as a respondent in Octolog II. Vitanza, after all, studied jazz drumming at the Berklee College of Music with Alan Dawson, a mentor for Tony Williams, Miles Davis’s legendary seventeen-year old wunderkind drummer. I wanted to harness some of that spontaneous vibe. I envisioned scholars choosing musicians, providing a rationale for their selection, remixing existing interview material into a “statement” on behalf of the musician, and then—and here’s where my initial idea became too unwieldy—turning to Vitanza to facilitate questions of these remixed statements and having scholars try to respond to each other while role-playing as their musician.
Fortunately, the resulting collection moderates and modulates my rather ambitious initial conception into something that, at Vitanza’s suggestion, could be on-going. Instead of trying to role-play as rock ‘n roll stars, the Rocktalog could become the start of an archive for scholars to share thoughts about musicians in the future. That is, like the Octalog itself, this collection has the potential to be re-animated with future remixed interviews and ruminations by other scholars. The sixteen scholars showcased here approximate a length and an approach for future scholars to improvise their own reflections on musicians. Seeing this project as an open-ended platform for more even more memories and music might make this an ongoing installation—a Classic-Punk-Rock-Jazz-Folk-Country-Death Metal-Dixieland-Rap-Soul-Ska-Regaee-Jam Band-A Capella Kind of Burkean Parlor. If music teaches anything, it’s the desire for follow-up albums, reunion tours, and new bands that innovate new styles out of old grooves.
Prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device where an orator inhabits the speaking habits of another person. I had a sort of imitation in mind during my original call for participation, and, as I mentioned, I originally thought of scholars trying to respond to questions as the artist might. As the project transformed over time, different people originally connected to the project were drawn to other obligations, and additional “band members” were sought. As the assemblage transformed over the years—and, yes, alas, it took while to get this double octo-album together—I began to think of the project in terms of Encomium. For the Ancient Greeks, the word enkomion means “the praise of a person or a thing.” Each scholar who selected an artist for this project did so because they found something praiseworthy in their music making and song writing. But, in many cases, there’s also a second layering of encomium at work as the selected artist praises the discovery and mystery of their own creative process. A reader of the collection as a whole will find reference to how the project was originally conceived as one geared towards a speculative conversation, whereas in some of the pieces, there is more of a rumination on the celebration of the mystery of the creative process. Imitation and praise are at the heart of this work, and perhaps the combination of these sensibilities is evoked by Vitanza through his celebratory imitation of drumming/writing that he calls his “paradiddle-diddles diddles paradiddle-diddles.”
The Rocktalog is arranged chronologically with the contribution being arranged in the order they were received. At each stage of the project, I would send along the examples of previous scholars, and I believe this sent the assemblage off in new direction. While the collection can certainly be read in any order, perhaps the conversation between the pieces I had originally hoped may spark in terms of what they share and how they differ with regards to the composing process. To get into the mindset for experiencing this work, I highly recommend beginning with Vitanza’s contribution as it was his speculative thinking about the future of rhetoric in the first Octalog over thirty years ago which helped to inspire the variations here. Perhaps return the original Octalog, and then, to get into the headspace of the Rocktalog, throw on Dio’s Holy Diver album: “Between the velvet lies / There’s a truth that’s hard as steel / The vision never dies / Life’s a never ending wheel / Holy diver / You’re the star of the masquerade.”
The Rocktalog in Order of Received:
Victor J. Vitanza: A com-post
Bill Hart-Davidson: Jaco Pastorius
James Beasley: Glenn Gould
Cynthia Haynes: Mary Travers
Sean M. Conrey: Jerry Garcia
David Grant: Link Wray
Tim Richardson: Ian Curtis
Nicole Ashanti McFarlane: Nina Simone
Geoffrey V. Carter: Ronnie James Dio
Jeff Rice: Frank Zappa
Matthew A. Cicci: Tom Petty
Mark Olague: Donny Hathaway
Ron Brooks: John Hartford
Sarah J. Arroyo: John Lennon
Scott Sundvall: Jim Morrison
Robert Lestón: Enrique Morente
“Octalog: The Politics of Historiography.” Rhetoric Review 7 (Fall 1988): 5–49.
“Octalog II: The (Continuing) Politics of Historiography.” Rhetoric Review 16 (Fall 1997): 22–44.
Special Thanks to Bob Wall for helping with the audio production on a number of the contributions.