Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a piece in The New Yorker about prog rock, Noah Berlatsky on white rock critics obsessed with the purity of black music, and a decade of experiments at high-low fusion


In April, 1971, Rolling Stone reviewed the début album by a band with a name better suited to a law firm: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The reviewer liked what he heard, although he couldn’t quite define it. “I suppose that your local newspaper might call it ‘jazz-influenced classical-rock,’ ” he wrote. In fact, a term was being adopted for this hybrid of highbrow and lowbrow. People called it progressive rock, or prog rock: a genre intent on proving that rock and roll didn’t have to be simple and silly—it could be complicated and silly instead. In the early nineteen-seventies, E.L.P., alongside several more or less like-minded British groups—King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, as well as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd—went, in the space of a few years, from curiosities to rock stars. This was especially true in America, where arenas filled up with crowds shouting for more, which was precisely what these bands were designed to deliver. The prog-rock pioneers embraced extravagance: odd instruments and fantastical lyrics, complex compositions and abstruse concept albums, flashy solos and flashier live shows. Concertgoers could savor a new electronic keyboard called a Mellotron, a singer dressed as a batlike alien commander, an allusion to a John Keats poem, and a philosophical allegory about humankind’s demise—all in a single song (“Watcher of the Skies,” by Genesis). In place of a guitarist, E.L.P. had Keith Emerson, a keyboard virtuoso who liked to wrestle with his customized Hammond organ onstage, and didn’t always win: during one particularly energetic performance, he was pinned beneath the massive instrument, and had to be rescued by roadies. Perhaps this, too, was an allegory.
Sanneh's piece is long-form so we won't try to quote more than a few salient excerpts but one of the observations made along the way is that prog rock was white European music in an era in which rock was still thought of as having retained its connections to black music.  Or at least a whole lot of people still thought that at the time.  In an era of cultural appropriation it seems strange how little extended discussion has been given to, say, how much cultural appropriation could be said to exist on the still-overhyped Sgt. Pepper.
The genre’s bad reputation has been remarkably durable, even though its musical legacy keeps growing. Twenty years ago, Radiohead released “OK Computer,” a landmark album that was profoundly prog: grand and dystopian, with a lead single that was more than six minutes long. But when a reporter asked one of the members whether Radiohead had been influenced by Genesis and Pink Floyd, the answer was swift and categorical: “No. We all hate progressive rock music.”
That's interesting because I went through the 1990s and early 00's thinking Radiohead was just what you'd get if you took Pinkfloyd, added some Sun Ra, put it on simmer, and rebranded it.   It would seem that prog rock is the kind of rock a certain generation has to foreswear somewhat like post-Romantic/Impressionist era composers in Europe felt obliged to damn or saint the influence of Wagner. 
Almost no one hated progressive rock as much, or as memorably, as Lester Bangs, the dyspeptic critic who saw himself as a rock-and-roll warrior, doing battle against the forces of fussiness and phoniness. In 1974, he took in an E.L.P. performance and came away appalled by the arsenal of instruments (including “two Arthurian-table-sized gongs” and “the world’s first synthesized drum kits”), by Emerson’s preening performance, and by the band’s apparent determination to smarten up rock and roll by borrowing from more respectable sources. E.L.P. had reached the Top Ten, in both Britain and America, with a live album based on its bombastic rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Bangs wanted to believe that the band members thought of themselves as vandals, gleefully desecrating the classics. Instead, Carl Palmer, the drummer, told him, “We hope, if anything, we’re encouraging the kids to listen to music that has more quality”—and “quality” was precisely the quality that Bangs loathed. He reported that the members of E.L.P. were soulless sellouts, participating in “the insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock.” Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” was, if anything, more dismissive: “These guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans.”
More than a little class resentment/conflict stuff going on there, maybe?   Loathing of attempts at fusion weren't just happening with regard to progressive rock but we'll get to that later.
Half the time when Noah Berlatsky writes something I'll think its absurd and the other half of the time it will seem to be a well-made point.  Berlatsky recently wrote about Christgau.
Cultural appropriation is, at least in part, an accusation about authenticity. When Katy Perry aspires to hip hop dance moves, she’s picking up something which isn’t hers and (perhaps more importantly) getting paid a lot for it. She looks awkward, out of place, ridiculous. She looks fake.

One person who’d no doubt be eager to weigh in on Katy Perry’s fakeness, or on anyone’s fakeness, is Baby Boomer critic Robert Christgau. Christgau is something of a legend. He’s been called the Dean of American Rock Critics, and he was the chief rock critic at the Village Voice for decades, when that was a big deal. He’s known as a contrarian—but that only makes him more representative of rock critics generally. He’s not unique, but his work is convenient shorthand for a certain critical consensus.
That consensus centers in particular around race. Like many white rock critics of his age, Christgau is obsessed with black authenticity. He has policed the borders of real black expression, praising those who are truly black, and casting scorn upon the mere poseurs.

Early in Christgau’s career, those inauthentic poseurs included Jimi Hendrix. These days Hendrix is seen as the quintessence of realness; he’s a rock touchstone, the foundational artist who confirms rocks essential blackness. Back in 1967, though, when Hendrix performed at Monterey, white critics like Christgau were turned off by Hendrix’s flamboyant performance style and, especially, by his appeal to a white audience. Christgau infamously called Hendrix “a psychedelic Uncle Tom,” though editors changed it to “just another Uncle Tom” under the misapprehension that that was somehow less offensive. Christgau also approvingly quoted another critic who said that Hendrix had a “beautiful Spade routine.”
It's a bit mixed there for me because I'm dubious at best about a lot of what is called "cultural appropriation".  But then I realize that I liked a number of the bands in the aforementioned prog-rock article.  It's been interesting to cross reference Sanneh and Berlatsky to see how critics, and not necessarily always white music critics, lambasted 1970s era experiments at fusion, whether it's in the prog rock arena or, as we'll get to in a bit, jazz-rock fusion.  Stanley Crouch was none too pleased with Bitches Brew when it was released. A lot of Davis' post Bitches Brew music didn't stick with me but Bitches Brew itself holds up beautifully.  In his sprawling Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin proposed that what incensed critics was that what Davis had done was cultivate a high-low fusion.  Up to that point experiments in jazz-classical fusions had been done and without necessarily netting a whole ton of acrimony from critical establishments.  This was, arguably, because the fusion could be considered high-high--jazz was considered a nascent classical musical idiom for African Americans (and certainly composers like Ellington (though diffident about the term "jazz" itself) aspired to create music that was respectable while also emblematic of black American experience in a way theoretically anyone and everyone could relate to). 
But whether it was a Christgau or a Crouch the purity police had things to say about any attempts at fusions. 
Sanneh mentions:
Gentle Giant was one of the bands featured on “The Progressives,” the Columbia Records compilation, which turned out to have a hidden agenda: it was, in large part, a jazz album, seemingly designed to help prog fans develop a taste for Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jazz played an important but disputed role in the story of progressive rock. While some British bands were trying to turn inward, away from American influences, others were finding ways to forge new ties between rock and jazz. [emphasis added]  Indeed, Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz-fusion group led by the English guitarist John McLaughlin (who previously played with Miles Davis), is sometimes considered an honorary prog band—at the time, the distinctions between these genres could be hazy. And in Canterbury, in the southeast of England, a cluster of interconnected bands created their own jazz-inflected hybrids: Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Hatfield & the North. These are the bands most likely to charm—and perhaps convert—listeners who think that they hate progressive rock. Unlike the swashbucklers who conquered arenas, the Canterburians were cheerfully unheroic, pairing adventurous playing with shrugging, self-deprecating lyrics about nothing much. (One Hatfield & the North song goes, “Thank all the mothers who made cups of tea. / If they didn’t care for us, we wouldn’t be / here to sing our songs and entertain. / Plug us in and turn on the mains!”) This is music animated by a spirit of playful exploration—recognizably progressive, you might say, though not terribly prog.
Berlatsky's beef with Christgau circles back to cultural appropriation but George Walker has talked about dealing with the stereotype by which people assume that because he's a black composer of a certain age he must play jazz when he composes what's broadly known as "classical". The trouble with charges of cultural appropriation is that they very often go in all directions. 
What seems to be open for continued conversation (if, at least, anybody is discussing this) the year after David Bowie died is that it sure seems as though the boundaries between prog rock and glam rock are ... fluid.  I'm not sure why The New Yorker piece describes prog rock at such length as though some of the variables in play couldn't be applicable to The Man Who Sold the World or maybe Station to Station.  Did Bowie never pass as having even possible connections to progressive rock simply because he paid homage to black American music and critics didn't feel like labeling him prog rock?  Yet Pinkfloyd seems to be effortlessly described as prog rock and their fealty to blues could scarcely have been more obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with their work. 
While there could be damning remarks made about Pinkfloyd not being prog rock because they lacked chops I am not sure I buy that line of reasoning.  After all, by the measure of sheer technical skill would Thelonious Monk not count as bebop because he didn't have the speed of Bud Powell?  That seems dubious.
While "chops of death" are important for prog rock I would venture to say that there are formal traits to be considered in prog rock.  That seems fitting given the wonky/nerdy technique obsessions of the genre and its fan base--so I would suggest that prog rock is not just about technically demanding instrumental work, it's also about experiments in what would be known as long-form compositional processes and structures.  Whether or not you think a song like "Xanadu" by the band Rush "works", there's no doubt that it's a giant song, epic in scope and scale, and has a lot of parts to it.
If anything, and I blogged about this way back at the start of this blog, the problem with a lot of progressive rock is that it is often brimming with a surfeit of ideas that, in themselves, are memorable musical ideas, but often without any clear sense of guiding structure.  To put it in cognitive terms, prog rock is often very "in the moment" for any given minute of the performance while if you were to try to draw a schematic of what the "form" of a Rush song is you might have six to eight distinguishable parts in the longer pieces, and that's even if you decide to discount any free-ranging solo as merely an in-song variation or embellishment of a previously established structural unit.
You will never run into that kind of problem with Bitches Brew.  The governing syntactics of how the Davis album works from song to song and across the album as a whole makes it easier to remember the sum of the album and its parts than I've managed, personally, to have for a lot of prog rock albums. 
So what I'll probably end with for the time being is coming back to how there's a bunch of people who loathe prog rock and a bunch of people who loathe jazz-rock fusion experiments that have emerged in the wake of Davis' landmark albums at the end of the 1960s.  What it seems was happening was that ambitious musicians were striving to arrive at was a fusion.  Leo Brouwer, a guitarist composer whose work I've admired for decades, has said that fusion is a trend in the second half of the 20th century that academic musicology and theory has largely willfully ignored.  If anything some recent articles suggest that when establishment critics for jazz or rock or classical found they could not ignore the "cross over" or "fusion" works they could lambast them.  Sometimes those attempts at fusion were just that, attempts.  A lot of what has occurred could be likened to attempts to mix vocabularies, or to transpose vocabularies into formal idioms in ways that may or may not have always worked. 
Schoenberg developed his twelve-tone technique because he believed the viable musical options of the German tradition that didn't devolve into centuries-tested cliché were nearly exhausted.  Perhaps they were exhausted and perhaps they were thoroughly and truly exhausted by the time Stockhausen was doing his thing.  Adorno's advocacy for atonality has not endeared him to later generations who have been aghast at his dismissal of jazz.  There have been some who have damned Adorno for championing atonality because he was a Marxist.  Meh, though not exactly a Marxist myself I think that's a foolish complaint about Adorno.  I think that Adorno may have really believed that the "viable" possibilities of the twelve-tone equally tempered chromatic scale had been genuninely and supremely exhausted by the German musical tradition ranging from Bach through Schoenberg.  The trouble is that just because in an information saturated cultural milieu critics regard the art form as saturated and wasted doesn't mean this is how musicians and producers will see things.  Schoenberg had plenty of good things to say about Gershwin's musicianship and went so far as to say there was still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C major, didn't he? 

Ethan Iverson has a long grab bag of quotes from jazz luminaries who discussed which works from the "classical" canon they steeped themselves in over here.

I used to be in a would-be prog rock band ... decades ago.   The band didn't exactly break up but two of the three of us got married and started families.  I joined some church that had a few young artsy types in it ... .  Over time I began to have a vaguely subterranean impression hat, in a way, the culminating ambition of a prog rock guitarist was to write a fugue for the guitar.  What could be more progressive rock than a fugue for solo guitar based on either a blues riff or some kind of Bulgarian-inspired 7/8 or 11/4 subject?  Not that I consciously thought about it in such explicit terms, but I came to realize that a lot of what prog rock aspired to do seemed to be collapsing the boundaries between the "high" of classical music as we tend to think of it and the "low" of rock/pop idioms.  It seemed that jazz rock fusion, much of which I have hated and still find hard to really enjoy was, nonetheless, also aiming for what I still consider a worthy and eventually attainable goal.  The early and middle Baroque periods were characterized by the wholesale collapse of a style that had been long ago dubbed ars perfecta.  The stylistic cohesion of the Renaissance era gave way to nascent forms of nationalism and regional stylistic and formal innovation.  It was also an era in which seismic shifts in temperament and tuning of instruments was starting to take place. 

As I get into ... a certain phase of life, it seems that over the last twenty years the declinist meme in cultural conservatism has fixated on complaining that atonality and twelve-tone music has ever, ever existed.  It's what I find I can't trust about the Roger Scruton wing of cultural criticism.  Alban Berg's Wozzeck is remarkable.  Even Scruton would have to concede there's a time and a place for atonality in music.  Penderecki may have settled into a really predictable neo-Romantic vibe but his earlier, eclecticism still holds up, most strongly in his Passion setting, for me.  Using all the avant garde musical techniques of his era to depict the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross shows that with a compelling extra-musical purpose, even the most arcane and confrontational musical devices can be put to persuasive use.  The mistake that has often been made by 20th century avant garde movements has been grabbing for formal innovations at the price of forgetting the extra-musical associative meanings that lay audiences so frequently anticipate can be available for understanding the music. 

The longevity of prog rock might not just be about what it "is" in the ears and memories of frequently not-so-admiring critics and historians but for what it was aspiring to.  Maybe Adorno and others had a point in proclaiming that twelve-tone equally tempered notes had nothing in traditional tonality left to them.  Maybe ... but as Partsch or Johnston or others on the just intonation/microtonality side of things have been saying for decades, maybe the mistake Schoenberg and his acolytes made was assuming the octave could only ever be divided up into twelve more or less equi-distant tones.  Why on earth should that be?

For those of us who can't afford the time or materials or the technique to custom-build instruments playing with justly tuned intervals we have to work with the budget and access constraints we have.  As much as I admire Ben Johnston's string quartets he never said it was "the" way to go, just the way he found interesting.  For those of us committed to working in traditional fixed pitched instruments there are other options and those other options can be explicated by the ambitions of prog rock and other types of fusion.  What's interesting to consider is how the aspiration to a new fusion of previously existing styles has been going on across the classical, jazz and rock spectrum and also across what's dubbed the white and black spectrum.  It's not even really black or white as people of every skin color explore the possibilities latent in the permeable boundaries across musical styles.  We live in a post-tonal musical world but we had a pre-tonal musical world in the Renaissance and even in the early and middle Baroque periods for a good stretch of time.  They didn't even have a consolidated equal temperament system in place, either. 

Circling back to Pinkfloyd as the band that Sanneh said was the most popular prog rock band, let's just take that as given and propose that what their music had in its favor was macro-structural simplicity.  Yet in terms of musical complexity there's nothing in even the most complex Pinkfloyd song that approaches the complexity of what Stevie Wonder did in "Living for the City" or "Contusion" in his 1970s output.  So how is it that prog rock managed to get scorned while other musicians such as Stevie Wonder and David Bowie managed to do comparable avant garde things in popular music without getting critical drubbings?  At the risk of closing on too simple an observation about 1970s experiments at fusion, what distinguished a Wonder or a Bowie as having mastered a kind of jazz/rock/avant garde fusion was macrostructural directness yielding a simple, comprehensible whole that was lacking in prog rock.  Prog rock often foundered once you got beyond the moment-to-moment virtuosity and sought out audible organizing paradigms or principles. 

But then fans of middle Baroque music may note that a whole lot of people only think of the high Baroque masters such as Handel, Bach or Telemann as standing in for the entire Baroque period.  Prog rockers could be to a potential continuing fusion of classical, jazz and rock/pop what the early Baroque composers were in another time. 

I've got another post incubating about reading through Ben Johnston's theoretical writings about music.  The preview version is that it's interesting to look at how signature moves in the classical music avant garde of the 20th century, whether its introducing aleatoric composition, mass improvisation, serializing techniques based on formulas, or dismantling the certainty of fixed functional tonal progressions could be thought of as attempting to take one of maybe a dozen standard traits in the span of the Baroque era Western musical practice and using that as a foundation to explore new musical options. 

What I think has not been discussed enough at a lay level in musicology (though, perhaps, at the academic level) is that we see this curious thing going on, while the white Western avant garde labored to build new types of music based on the reappropriation and extension of one of the aforementioned elements into classical music, these were attempts to restore with primacy a single trait that was in Baroque theory and practice; by contrast, jazz showed us a musical idiom in which all of the elements from Baroque theory and practice that had been purged through the run of the high Classic era and Romantic eras were brought back into a Western practice musical art form.  What high German idealism had strangled out of the Western art music tradition came back in a desublimated form in jazz and it scared the crap out of some establishment chroniclers of formal music education for a time.  Some reactionary types who are committed to a Western musical canon that is functionally 19th century in its devotion seem unable to accept the possibility that a whole lot of popular music in the last century rose to the level of art and if there's a pervasive tendency in those kinds of polemics I've noticed in online vitriol over the last five years or so it's that those types of people tend to lionize the 19th century at the expense of the more unstable currents and trends of the 15th through 18th centuries.

But that was supposed to be a separate post.  Meh, I'll just throw it in here at the end because I think it connects to prog rock thematically.  Baroque music was vilified as ornate, ugly and incomprehensible by contemporary critics so there's nothing new under the sun. What Baroque era music did manage to generate, which by and large progressive rock may not have as much of, is a range of theoretical treatises guiding practice and theory.  We're arguably, some say, beyond the era of rock as it stands, so prog rock may forever remain a footnote in the history of attempts at fusions that maybe didn't quite fully ... fuse.  Perhaps that's the thing about experimental music, it's easy to decide decades after the fact that the experiment failed somehow, but there's such a thing as figuring out why we may think the experiment failed and what could be done differently rather than do what rock and jazz and classical establishment critics of various stripes have tended to declare in the moment and for posterity, that it shouldn't even have been tried. 

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