Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Progressive Music and You

I commonly hear of bands being referred to as being “progressive” or in the style of “progressive rock.” What irks me about this is that many critics who throw around those terms aren’t savvy as to what they really mean, at least in the context of music. While my ideas may not be truth, either, they are based on common threads that exist between bands that are, appropriately so, associated with the genre. I truthfully do not know the origin of the term, and can only base my argument on the elements in the set of progressive music bands, such as Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis.

Let me be clear – artists like Beck and Radiohead are not progressive. Neither are Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other similar bands. They may have been influential, and sure, they may have “progressed” music forwards through invention of new styles and sounds, but they are not “progressive music” in the same vain as Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis. They are simply unique and talented alternative bands.

So, then, let’s get at the heart of what progressive music is. Do you remember in English classes when you were learning how to write an essay? You probably learned the common structure of “thesis, support point 1, support point 2, etc, conclusion”. Similarly, most musicians learn music in either the classical sonata form or the modern rock form, which I’ll focus on here. Most modern rock songs have a very simple formula: intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, solo, chorus, end. There are some simple variations, such as intro, verse 1, verse 2, chorus, solo, chorus, end and so on. The point here is that there is an accepted “form” that most artists follow for songwriting.

Now, let’s return back to English class. Suppose we altered the essay structure, and moved to a more organic or even poetic form, in which you just allowed the essay to go where it wanted to, each point building on the previous one but not necessarily relating to the original theme - just letting the mind flow. This style might be called “progressive” writing, in that within a piece of writing thoughts progress from one to another. Note that this definition has nothing to do with other writings out there – the word progressive only captured the behavior within a single piece. To repeat, it has nothing to do with influence or progress in literature at large – only the progressive writing structure within the document.

Now let’s apply that same concept to music, and we’ve got it. Progressive music refers to a style in which artists abandoned “common” song structures and moved to a more organic setup, letting the music flow where it “needed to go” and not being bound to rules about song forms. As a result, song lengths tended to move from the 3-5 minute range to the 10+ minute range and many songs became less pop-oriented and more “difficult” to grasp.

While Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis are considered as pioneers of this form (check out Yes’s album Close To The Edge if you want a good idea of progressive music), there are indeed several modern bands who truly are progressive (and are not Beck or Radiohead). Two worthy of mention are Tool and The Mars Volta. Listening to Tool’s Aenima or Lateralus album, you can see how each song (and the whole albums) represents a musical journey organically evolving from note to note. Sure, there are repeated themes and recurring choruses throughout, but only in so much as they relate to the previous element (a natural evolution back to the original theme). The Mars Volta’s De-loused in the Comatorium and Frances The Mute albums are equally progressive in nature.

So before you start classifying anything and everything as being progressive music, remember where the roots of the term come from. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not to say that many alternative bands aren’t good, influential, and/or unique – it has nothing to do with that. It’s just to say that if you’re going to classify a band, make sure you know what you’re classifying them as…

Monday, May 16, 2005

In Search of The Greatest

In the catalog of all music across all genres, is it impossible to make a declaration as to the “greatest single piece of music ever”? A daunting task, yes, but, maybe surprisingly, I contend that there is indeed a single piece that can make that claim – the 9th symphony of Ludwig Van Beethoven in D Minor.

This piece, at once majestic, at once playful, at once beautiful, at once dark and foreboding, should be listed amongst not only the greatest works in music but also one of the greatest single achievements by man. Consider that this work represents one of, if not the, greatest and most important composers at his greatest. And then realize that much of it (not all, as is often thought) was composed by a man who was entirely deaf.

Strictly examining the music, there are other pieces that may be able to make a run for this title: Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” or Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” as examples. That is not to suggest, in any way, that musically this is an average piece – it’s just in great company. Only part of my arguments here rest in the music, and thus I’m not going to go through an in depth analysis of the music. However, you can find many analyses out there which demonstrate the strength of the notes themselves (here's a good place to start).

Outside of the raw score, its impact on music runs far and wide. Here, I will highlight two ideas as support. The first is in the development of musical form. This symphony does not follow the common sonata form throughout, and while not the first to do so, it is one of the cornerstone pieces in the migration from the classical period to the romantic period of music. The importance of this cannot be simply expressed – try to imagine a world in which music was based on defined rules and not the music of the heart or soul. In this world, there could be no “Kind of Blue” or “Love Supreme”, there could be no Led Zeppelin “IV”, there could be no “Joshua Tree”. The romantics opened the door for all of this, and Beethoven’s 9th was instrumental (pun fully intended) to making it happen.

The second area of impact has to do with influence on other musicians. As simple evidence, both Brahms and Mahler, two amazing symphonic composers in their own right, expressed concern and intimidation about even attempting to write a symphony after having heard Beethoven’s work. Imagine that - for a great composer to say that he didn’t even want to try to write a symphony just supports the respect that they had for the piece. They all knew that the greatest symphony had already been written.

Let me try to put all of these arguments in a more modern context. Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player to date. Put in the same sentence with names like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, you have a similar group of people to their genre as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were to music. So now, let’s look at Jordan’s greatest performances – the “flu” game against Utah in ’98 or his dropping of 55 against Phoenix in the ’93 finals. Pick one. Now imagine he did the same thing, but with closing his eyes on every shot. Musician composing while deaf – hearing the music in his head, just like basketball player playing with his eyes closed – seeing the basket in his mind.

Okay, and now imagine that guys like Lebron James, Carmello Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and some of the other upcoming stars, all said that they were hesitant about even playing the game after seeing Jordan – already having seen the greatest player and performance made it not worth it to even try.

Hopefully you’re getting a sense of why this symphony is the greatest piece of music ever. Don’t believe me? Listen to it again…

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

And now for my encores...

The term “encore” has evolved from its pure form in modern rock music. The traditionalist view is that an encore is a request from the audience for extra or repeated music (opera arias were often immediately repeated as encores), in excess of the planned performance. In today’s rock concerts, encores have become commonplace; so much so that artists plan on them and even plan their sets keeping encores in mind, sometimes even saving their best music or performances for the encores.

I’m on the fence about my feeling around this. I find it overly presumptuous for a band to plan a concert in this manner, regardless of expected audience behavior. Yes, audiences almost always request encores for the headlining band, but I believe that a band should still remain humbled about receiving such requests such that the still deliver a “complete” performance during the regular set.

For example, a few days ago I saw U2 on the Vertigo Tour. It was a typical U2 concert full of pops and whistles – I’ll likely type up more thoughts on this show at a later time. However, after finishing up their 17-song set, filled with hits across most of their career and a collection of new songs, they left the stage with a politically-charged version of “One”. It wasn’t in question whether they would come back out for a few more songs.

When they did come back out a minute or two later, they had changed outfits (at least Bono had) and moved through another set of 3 Auchtung Baby songs, fully equipped with visuals for each song (save for “Mysterious Ways” in which the band performed under simple red lighting). I wondered to myself whether or not this was truly an encore or just another “bonus” set. Certainly this was prepared (they’ve done it every night over their 4-show stretch in Chicago) and I felt like even if the audience didn’t request an encore, they were going to play these songs.

After the Auchtung Baby bonus set, the band left the stage again, only to return for a few more songs. In this final set, or 2nd encore, only one of the three songs felt truly like an encore: the second song, “Yahweh”, was led by The Edge on acoustic guitar and had no visual backing – only the band on the catwalk playing through a scaled down version of the album’s closer. This struck me as a truly authentic encore in that the band was “done” with the concert for all practical purposes and catered to the audience’s requests for more music by playing all that they had left, even though they had no prepared performance for this song. However, what followed “Yahweh” proved otherwise - they proceeded to play “40”, an old favorite set closer of theirs. It was clear by their performance of this song that they had planned on playing it and planned on ending the concert with it (for those who were there, note the stage ‘exit’ choreography as evidence). This is a great song, and yes, is an ideal song to close an evening with. I ask, then, why they did not play it at the end of the regular set.

In recent concerts, I have seen bands save their biggest hits or crowd-pleasers (“40”, for example) for encores. This tells me that the band simply assumed they would play encores. On the other hand, I have also seen several bands not playing encores at all anymore (Nine Inch Nails and Tool as two more recent examples). By pouring everything into their regular set, the audience certainly asked for more music in the obligatory fashion but wasn’t disappointed in not getting the encore request – the concert felt complete.

See what I’m saying is that I believe an artist should really lay it out there during their set, during their regular set, and not hold anything back. If the audience really wants more, there should be a certain level of humility coupled with it from the band’s side. With that, a performance during an encore should never feel like it was “prepared” or expected. There can be great beauty in seeing a band perform some unprepared songs in this “raw” format, and thus encores can still be a very powerful forum for good music to the audience’s delight.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Welcome. I'm not sure what I'm going to write here, but I think it's safe to say that generally speaking it's going to be about music in some shape or the other. I'm hoping to use this as a forum to gather my thoughts about topics such as music appreciation in the context of classical, jazz, and rock, album reviews, concert reviews, classical recordings, etc.

I always welcome healthy discussions about these things, so hopefully something I say will spark ideas in you, in agreement or disagreement...