[Smt-talk] prog rock symphonies

Greg Karl curugroth at verizon.net
Sat Nov 28 12:26:04 PST 2009

Michael Morse asks several related questions about using the words  
symphony and symphonic in describing works of progressive rock:

Morse: What do we gain, or achieve, or clarify by calling any of  
these works "symphony"?

By _calling_ these works symphonies we probably achieve little and  
clarify nothing. (I had the word symphony in the subject line only  
because I was responding to a question from a colleague who sought  
large-scale instrumental works of this kind, especially those with  
symphonic dimensions, forces, or pretensions.) Yet there may be  
something to gain by examining large-scale works of “alternative art  
music” and traditional symphonic works in the same light. The point I  
ultimately wish to make, however, is perhaps better approached by  
first considering prog-rock in relation to Indian classical music.

Many of King Crimson’s free improvisations unfolded in a roughly  
three-part pattern. (Hear the title track and “We’ll Let You Know”  
from the album _Starless and Bible Black_, and “Providence” from  
_Red_). The first part is inchoate, exploratory, and without clearly  
defined meter. It establishes a mode; the second has a fixed tactus  
and here melodic kernels tend to coalesce; the third is marked by the  
entry of heavy drums and the setting of a definite groove. Now there  
are clear parallels between this format and the alap-jod-gat pattern  
of Indian music. A question arises: Did King Crimson consciously  
adopt/adapt this format from a foreign tradition, or did it emerge  
“naturally,” as an expedient in imposing order and a sense of  
teleology during the act of improvisation--one obvious enough to have  
occurred independently in multiple cultures? In the first case there  
would be a mundane and culture-specific historiographic explanation.  
In the second case one might be more inclined to see a universal  
principal working at the heart of disparate improvisatory traditions.  
But in any case, cross-cultural parallels of this kind potentially  
raise interesting questions about what is essential or intentional  
and what is merely contingent or pragmatic in the art of both cultures.

Now back to the original thread. Consider the two prog-rock works  
from my list best fitting the symphonic bill in a formal sense: Soft  
Machine’s _Virtually_ and King Crimson’s _Larks’ Tongues in Aspic_.  
Both are thematically unified multimovement works with long dramatic  
arcs. They create tension and conflict and ultimately resolution on a  
grand scale. Given that they share a fundamental aesthetic  
orientation with their symphonic counterparts (roughly, music as a  
drama of inner life), it might be interesting to examine how they  
create, develop and resolve their tensions and conflicts in light of  
archetypal works of the classical repertoire. The two parts of  
_Larks’ Tongues in Aspic_ on the eponymous album follow the familiar  
struggle-to-victory archetype of Beethoven’s Fifth, but the  
contrasting thematic elements creating dramatic oppositions in the  
first movements arise out of completely different formal traditions  
(popular song forms vs. sonata form). The four movements of  
_Virtually_ play out a dramatic pattern with no parallels I am aware  
of in the classical tradition, but it is a pattern that might  
effectively be adapted to symphonic music (the first and final  
movements are a prologue and epilogue whose principal motives are  
related by retrograde inversion; the second movement is the main  
locus of dramatic tension and in the third the plot culminates in an  
epiphanic solo for fuzz bass by the work’s composer, Hugh Hopper.) It  
would probably be impossible to determine what these formal  
experiments in prog-rock owe to the classical symphonic tradition.  
But it is interesting to me to see how similar aesthetic aims can be  
approached from such disparate starting points and cultural  

As for what Professor Tymoczko had in mind when he asked for examples  
of symphonic prog-rock, I have no idea.

Greg Karl
New York, NY
curugroth at verizon.net

On Nov 26, 2009, at 12:01 AM, MICHAEL MORSE wrote:

> 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 Suiterelate 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
> Peterborough
> > 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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