[Smt-talk] prog rock symphonies

MICHAEL MORSE mwmorse at bell.net
Sun Nov 29 06:49:28 PST 2009

Maitre Greg Karl said:

> By _calling_ these works symphonies we probably achieve little and  
> clarify nothing. [...] Yet there may be  
> something to gain by examining large-scale works of “alternative art  
> music” and traditional symphonic works in the same light. 
Right. There are senses in which generic histories comprise much more than sound labels and perceived traditional continuities. Sociology, social history, and the history of ideas, for example, need to consider the kinds of impact of large multi-part works  in potentially quite different ways; the 'Wagnerian' dimensions and aspects of non-operatic experiences, in everything from the Nuremberg rallies to Heavy Metal concerts is a case in point. To be sure, much of this work is fairly dreadful, with the adjective 'Wagnerian' functioning as little more than a artistically baseless cypher for 'loud, politically dubious or repulsive gathering of lots of people.' But I certainly don't think that genre histories are the basis for absolute intellectual legislation.

> Many of King Crimson’s free improvisations unfolded in a roughly  
> three-part pattern.  [Greg's acute narrative excised]
It seems overwhelmingly likely that King Crimson would have heard enough Indian music to have adapted the jor-alap-gat design for their music. As I suggested, and this example seems a perfect case in point, absent complex series of cultural connections between a set sounds, a performance, and other sounds as a tradition, the connection is ideational and syncretic. I realize, too, that such $1.25 analytic terms are in fact fairly crude, amounting to little more on their face than "if you you use an Indian musical design and play it on guitars, why that's [just] syncretism!" However coarse, though, such a gesture is rather vital, if generic history as such is to make any sense. A syncretic performance is, rough but demonstrably, I think, one which partakes of some or few aspects of traditional sound creation patterns, basing itself instead on the ideas of sounds rather than the sounds themselves. 

  It's hard to say this without sounding critical, even snide. But syncretism has been a tremendous positive force in musical history, because the "idea"--of Indian music, of exotic music, of black music--has been more than enough to furnish great inspiration to musicians. John Coltrane's "India" and his version of "My Favorite Things" are plainly inspired by his encounters with Ravi Shankar, but equally plainly have little to do with Indian music as such, ie as a coherent history of enculturating sounds. That statement is neither an aesthetic judgment nor a comment on Coltrane's putative aspirations. To call a performance "syncretic" is not a put-down!

  Thus I quite agree here:
>  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  
> institutions.

Syncretic stories wear their contradictions on their sleeves. When the formal idea(s) and inherited ideas and conventions pull in disparate directions, musicologists have their work cut out for them. As I tried to say to Brian Robison, that work needn't entail lots of donuts and walking a beat..

MW Morse
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