Tool, Rock, and the Dionysian Future of Music

In Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche declares his “tremendous hope” for “a Dionysian future of music,” in which music would free itself from moralizing and rationalizing tendencies and creatively affirm the boundary-dissolving experiences that accompany states of ecstasy.  In the twentieth century, many forms of popular music have contributed to the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope.  I’m interested in adapting the poststructuralist method of “pop analysis” developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to consider how Dionysian religious impulses are at work in the genre of rock music, with specific attention to the music of Tool, a contemporary American rock band comprised of a vocalist, drummer, guitarist, and bassist.  Tool’s music connects with religious elements of personal transformation, ritual ecstasy, and esotericism while also harboring a critique of authoritarian religious beliefs and institutions. 

A full analysis must wait.  In the meantime, an outline will suffice.  There are at least three main points to discuss: 1) Nietzsche’s critique of Western music and his proposal for a more Dionysian music, 2) the Dionysian religiosity of popular music, and 3) the religious elements present in the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions Tool’s music.   

1. Nietzsche’s critique of Western music can be understood as a critique of logocentrism, according to which music is subordinate to the clear boundaries drawn by rationality and discourse.  This logocentrism is evident in Plato, including his Republic, where the ideal city is described as one in which songs should be arranged in a hierarchy that subordinates their harmony and rhythm to their verbal element, their logos.  This logocentric subordination of rhythm and instrumental harmony also occurs in Christian religious music (e.g., plainchant and liturgical music), where logos is Christ.  In a modern secular context, one can notice this subordination of music to logos in Rousseau’s essay “On the Origin of Languages,” according to which music arises out of imitations of language, not experiences of sound or hearing. 

For Nietzsche, the logocentric domination of music is a life-negating habit that should be overcome by a life-affirming sense of music, a Dionysian music wherein the intense and boundary-dissolving power of rhythm and sound is encountered as a wellspring of creative enchantment.  Moreover, by invoking Dionysus, Nietzsche indicates that this life-affirming music occasions ecstatic states not unlike those experienced by participants in ancient Dionysian rituals.

2. Many forms of twentieth-century music contributed to overcoming logocentrism (e.g., Schoenberg’s atonal pieces, Cage’s aleatory and silent compositions), however the music that has been most Dionysian emerged not in classical or art music but in popular music.  As the pop analysis developed by Deleuze and Guattari suggests, becoming heterogeneous and minoritarian is the only way to effectively escape the master signifiers and major identities that dominate music, and that is precisely what pop music and pop culture accomplish.  Whether rock, country, or hip-hop, popular music spreads through mainstream culture in the horizontal networks of subcultural and countercultural trends, thus engaging while also subverting the standards and authorities that mark the proper boundaries of music as a “fine” or “high” art. 

Lyrics in popular music use local dialects and diverse idioms that transgress proper grammar.  The rhythms and melodies are extremely repetitive, designed not to express a clear development of musical motifs but to provoke uninhibited dancing, community building, sexual activity, and ecstatic states.  The live performances of popular music are very loud, and the behavior of audience members includes acts that are not welcome at a classical music venue (e.g., enthusiastic screaming, singing along with the performers, nudity, and drug use).  In short, the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions of popular music enact Dionysian modes of becoming that escape the logocentrism of Western music.  This is particularly apparent in the music of Tool.

3.  Tool was founded in the 1990s and is still performing and releasing new music.  Tool fits in the genre of rock, but is also closely connected to metal, punk, and progressive genres.  Their lyrics express critiques of religion, as in songs like “Opiate” and “Eulogy,” which satirize religious claims to authority or leadership and the weakness of those who follow that leadership.  Amidst the critique of religion, the lyrics also express commitments to personal transformation and the realization of the divine potential of humanity, specifically using images and symbols from esoteric traditions of hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic.  Some language is more explicitly religious, for instance, singing of embodied existence as a “holy gift” (“Parabola”) in which one can realize one’s “divinity and still be a human” (“Lateralus”). 

The Dionysian character of the lyrics shows up forcefully in the use of profanity in the lyrics, the use of screaming in the vocal melody, and multiple allusions to drug intoxication, disorder, transgressive sexual acts, and death-rebirth experiences.  Furthermore, the lyrics are not the dominant part of the music.  The rhythms and instrumental harmonies of the guitar, bass, and drums are not mixed into the background but are just as prominent as the vocals.  The distorted and electronically altered sounds of the guitar and bass contribute much emotional and chaotic intensity to the music. 

The beats played by the drums frequently make use of polyrhythms, wherein multiple meters occur simultaneously.  Not incidentally, polyrhythms are a defining trait of the ritual music of African diaspora traditions, where the mixture of meters corresponds to the mixture of divinity and humanity that occurs in the spirit possession states that the music occasions.  Tool’s drummer makes conscious use of polyrhythms, and he uses hermetic correspondences to arrange his drum set.  The Dionysian religiosity of Tool’s music is apparent at the live performances, where the stage is often decorated with the psychedelic artworks of the visionary painter, Alex Grey, and audience members encounter drug use, nudity, dancing, moshing, and various boundary-dissolving states of consciousness. 

In short, Tool’s music fulfills Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope and thereby engages in a wildly experiential version of what John Caputo calls “religion without religion,” with lyrics, harmonies, and rhythms enacting a creative dissolution of boundaries while overcoming the life-negating logocentrism and authoritarianism of Western music and religion.

4 thoughts on “Tool, Rock, and the Dionysian Future of Music

  1. Hmmmmm… I wonder if you haver ever visited a Pentecostalist church when the congregation is in high swing?

    I am not convinced that Nietzsche is right. Never have been really though I have penned my own odes to the Dionysian salvation of the blues–the origin of most of the music you describe in your essay.

    I am also not convinced that Nietzsche was able to read Plato without seeing Christianity or modern Science’s readings of Plato rather than Plato himself. Certainly if the Republic is geared toward being a regimen for the psyche more than a regime for the polis, your own essay is a demonstration that NOUS will ally with THUMOS in guiding the EROI to what is best for the PSYCHE by a LOGOS.

    How is Plato more guilty of logocentrism than you yourself as you set out to persuade your readers through an account (logos) in 1000 words or less (993, I think) that Tool meets Nietzsche’s “criteria”? How does using words (logoi) to account (logos) for a word (logos) in Nietzsche’s own accounts (logoi) of what music must become get us out of being logocentric?

    Owing to Karl Jaspers’ very real influence on Deleuze’s doing of metaphysics, and even more importantly, in guiding Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s life & work, I am ultimately most confounded by why you keep using Derrida’s term logocentrism in unison with Deleuze who does not make the error of reducing all of occidental metaphysics to a totalizing notion like logocentrism.

    1. Great to hear from you! Thanks for your comments. All good points. Music to my ears.

      Pentacostalism is a great example. Plenty of ritual ecstasy there. I’m not clear enough in this post. I don’t mean to say that the suppression of trance happens in all occidental music (or metaphysics, religion, etc.), just that it happens a lot, so much that we could call it a major trend, a trend that some minor or pop trends escape.

      My use of Nietzsche to frame the discussion probably only complicates that point, especially since Nietzsche’s Plato is a straw man, and the opposition between Dionysus and Christ oversimplifies Christianity.

      I appreciate the irony of using logoi to criticize logocentric music. I don’t claim (or don’t mean to claim) to be overcoming logocentrism with my words, and I’m sure that if I wrote as much as Plato, you might find a few sentences where I say that lyrics are superior to rhythm and that mania should be subordinate to rationality. I only want to claim that a lot of pop music does avoid the privileging of lyrics over rhythm and of reason over mania, especially pop musics inheriting the music of African diaspora traditions.

      I hope the word logocentrism won’t always sound like a Derrida term. He can keep hostipitality, but I want logocentrism back. I find it helpful for distinguishing the kind of music one hears from Palestrina or Mozart from the music of Vodun or Santeria (or Tool). In any case, I’m also bothered that I say logos and logocentric so much. It makes me feel better knowing that it sounded confounding to you, too.

      1. It’s a good piece. I figured that you had done enough work with the ek-static to know about the pentecostalists. My own family, besides me, is pentecostal. I converted to Catholicism. Now I am a heretic. lol

        But you might say speaking in tongues runs in my family. So I have had my touches with the Encompassing where all language fell away into the Abyss and then a “speaking” that makes nonsense of all human logos welled up out of me (generally scaring the bejeesus out of folks with me). This was the ekstasia of glossolalia wherein the Logos speaks to the Logos in the profound rhythm of voice that makes no sense to language and therefore deprivileges it.

        I think you might find some very good cross currents in Jaspers writings about Ciphers and Possible Existenz to help create a bridge that intensifies the point you want to make about the logocentric. While Jaspers speaks of Transcendenz, it is better to think of it as the leaping-out of consciousness-as-such via the possibility of Existenz. Consciousness-as-such can reduce to Consciousness-Overall. This is done by the totalizing of a conception, such as the tyranny of the cognitive word over the ek-static utterance/sound OVERALL else.

        This fits Deleuze’s doing-metaphysics because he is actually following Jaspers and Jaspers’ Nietzsche. Most make a mistake when they start trying to figure out the influence of Heidegger in this area. It is Jaspers. This leaping-out is a breaking-open. So Deleuze would prefer to think of his doing-metaphysics as literally finding the meta-hodos (way-beyond; method) to break-open our actuality to the fullness of possibility.

        After such a breaking-open/leaping-out, there is a Cipher that remains. For Heraclitus, this is Logos; for Parmenides, Ontos; for Plato, to Agathon; for Paul, Christus; etc etc etc throughout human history. Jaspers prefers to take Anselm’s definition of God and give this to the Comprehensive Whole which he refers to as the Encompassing: That for which there is none greater.

        In doing this, metaphysics becomes an existential doing rather than a methodological system. It is only when Ciphers or other ideas are reified and become totalizing that the field of their appearance, consciousness, becomes constrained in what we might with Heidegger call a Gestell. That enframing is a constraining that rejects all that it cannot contain.

        Well, I have rambled on enough. I would like to talk more about this. I am glad you posted on Tool. It reactivated in me thoughts that had become too, too sedimented.

        Tranquilitas et bonum vobiscum frater meum.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences with glossolalia, and many thanks also for your recovery of an ecstatic logos. I didn’t know about your Pentacostal background, although I did know about your Catholicism and your heresy, which I’ve always found inspiring and, of course, dangerous :)

    I’m looking forward to talking with you more about Jaspers and the breaking-open. The term “the Encompassing” has always sounded alluring to me. I’ve never read anything I didn’t like from Jaspers, and yet I never got very deeply into his thought. I’m excited to learn more about the Jaspers-Deleuze connections as well.

    Here’s to the sediment and its reactivation.

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