[Smt-talk] prog rock symphonies

MICHAEL MORSE mwmorse at bell.net
Wed Nov 25 21:01:07 PST 2009

Dear Collected & Collective Wisdom,

  My esteemed colleague Greg Karl's list of 'prog rock' symphonies has at length inspired a streak of scepticism, or contrarianism, or perhaps fogeyism. I guess I've hesitated to indulge it because I remember how monumentally pissed off I got when I heard conservatory dunderheads who think Handel is exciting speak disparagingly of Duke Ellington's downright amazing suites of the 50s and 60s. I took their condescension to be anti-musical racism. But in retrospect, I wonder if there mightn't be a legitimate question there after all. How does The Queen's Suite or the Far East Suite relate to the history of the genre? It's pretty easy to see Berg's ingenious deployment of suite in the first scene of Wozzeck historically. Come to that, it would be not too difficult to account for Berg's use of jazz (or, more likely, "jazz") in Lulu in the contextual history of that genre generally.

  Such accounts can start with some simple, or seemingly simple, questions about antecedents and exmplars. What did berg listen to, what scores did he read? What kinds of analogies and parallels can you draw between his scene and the suites of Telemann, Bach, and others? And the same works for the jazz (or "jazz") of Lulu, I think. Does it work for the Far East Suite, though? Just for starters, like every note he ever wrote or played, Ellington's music here is eminently danceable. But: what dance types does it fit? I do get it, I think. His use of the title "suite" doesn't refer to a medley of defined dance(-rhythm) types, but a broadly connected series of movements. Sure. But the history issue nags, much as I adore those trenedous creations of his.

  And so it nags for all of Greg's examples. What do we gain, or achieve, or clarify by calling any of these works "symphony"? If we ignore, or try to, the blind alley question of "rock['s] pretensions to symphonic dimensions," and similar generic battles over mere aesthetic status, what does it add to the historiography of the genre 'symphony" or, if you prefer, the designation "symphonic," to call these works by these titles? At the most glum, I worry that maybe all we're dealing with here is a deep rooted set of syncretic presumptions that may well, at the end of the day, have little concrete to with with the music in question, and even less with music's historiography..

MW Morse

> Here are a few:
> Zappa – Greggery Peccary (Studio Tan)
> Van der Graaf Generator – A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (Pawn Hearts)
> Yes – Close to the Edge (eponymous album)
>               Gates of Delirium (Relayer)
> King Crimson – Lizard (Lizard)
>                   Larks’ Tongues in Aspic pts. 1 & 2 (eponymous album)
> Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick
> Henry Cow – Living in the Heart of the Beast (In Praise of Learning)
> Soft Machine – Virtually (Fourth) their albums tended just to have  
> numbers
>                      Hazard Profile (Bundles)
>                     Slightly All the Time (Third)
>                      Facelift (Third)
> Genesis - Supper’s Ready (Foxtrot)
>               The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (eponymous album)
> ELP - Tarkus
> Gregory Karl
> New York, NY
> curugroth at veriaon.net

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