Friday, April 07, 2006

Classical Rock

During the heyday of the 70's, before Disco melted down the creativity level of music to drum beats and homogonized dance music, and before the rebellion of the three chord reaction to the dumbing down of music, the Punk DIY movement, the stellar sphere of sound was Progressive Rock.

That is rock music that was longer than two or three minute radio spots. Rock Music influenced by Classical music, and by the idea of the 'Concept Album', the idea of creating a symphonic sound out of rock and telling a story where the whole album spoke to a singular idea or theme.

The Who created Tommy a Rock Opera, and later Quadraphenia as less popular rock opera, Jethro Tull had created Thick As A Brick, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer integrated organ music and pre-synthesiser sounds.

ELP originated out of King Crimson and the classical music sound of Keith Emerson's earlier band the Nice, which rockified classical and symphonic music through the use of the electric organ, the percursor to the synthesizer. One of Emersons best rock classical albums is entitled the Five Bridges Suite, took several well known classical compositions and Rockified them, sped them up and underscored the basso sound using electric organ and moog synthesizer. The Bridges are tonal overlaps in classical music. Thus Rock music went from pop sound to full symphonic sound.

Tarkus, ELP's second album was a rock version of Hungarian modernist composer Bela Bartok's work without credit. Their third Album was the rock version of Russian modernist Mussgorsky's Pictures at an exhibition.

Moody Blues were one of the first bands to really work with a symphonic orchestra with their first album and hit single, Knights in White Satin.

Deep Purple would follow up with their concept album Deep Purple in Rock which again contained longer 6-9 minute songs, including the hauntingly beautiful Child in Time, recorded like the Moody Blues had, with the London Sympthonic Orchestra.

In Europe Vangelis first concept album with his band Aphrodites Child; 666 was released as an unheard of double album, live recording which was a musical concept album about the Anti-Christ, Babalon and the book of Revelations, which included famed Greek Actress Irene Papas singing the part of Babalon.

My favorite band of this period is Rennaissance, whose rock motifs are based on Russian composers. Russian Classical music by its inherent nature has been and is modernist, daring to create sound poems and aural stories, using themes to tell stories, not merely using the music to express an inner ideal.

Rennaissance picked up on this as the Folk revival was kicking off in England, and as concept albums, the creation of Progressive or Experimental rock, was begining.

I just picked up the live two CD collection of their performances which were released in the late 1990's almost twenty years after their performances were recorded. The complete collection of their work has yet to make it to CD. So look for them on vinal.

I reccomend the link above on Progressive Rock from Wikipedia, though I must say that while they show the progression from the early rock concept bands such as the Yardbirds, from whence Renaissance originated, and which gave birth to such bands as Led Zepplin, they missed one of the most influential of the Classical, Jazz, Rock crossover musicians, who really should be credited with being the father of the concept album and Progressive Rock, none other than Frank Zappa.

His only hit single Peaches in Regalia is a wholy unique and original modern classical piece of instrumental music. Zappa was influenced by the fifties modernist composer Edgard Varese, whose compostion Ameriques is a stunning combination of modern symphonic music and jazz with a continual police siren in the background, and was written in the 1920's!!

Now compare that with Leonard Bernstiens paen to America, West Side Story, and you can see the paths that modern classical/symphonic music was moving towards, where we end up in the seventies with its merger into Progressive Rock.

Varese and Zappa created tone poems, and Zappa was as egotistical an orchestra leader as ever one could find in the Classical realm. In fact his clashes with that other symphonic egotist, conductor Zubin Meta (whose 1812 Oveture with small live cannons is still the ne plus ultra version of the composition) during 200 Motels is well documented, indeed why Zappa placed Meta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concentration camp setting in his movie. Nasty.

What Zappa has never been given credit for is his guitar playing. He was one of the best guitar players of his generation. And it is perhaps his classical approach to the instrument that deminished the appreciation of his abilities. Becuase he approached his guitar playing like his composing and his leading his band like a conductor, his tightly controled playing did not appear wild, arm swinging, hair flinging, style that was so popular amongst other expressive rock musicians that led to his underappreciation as a guitarist.

What Zappa got from Varese was the concept of the Idee Fixe, "
Some of Edgard Varese's later works make use of the 'Idee Fixe', a fixed theme, repeated certain times in a work. "

Through out his work a common Idee Fixe will appear repeatedly, this is a the very essence of modernist classical music, and Zappa was not only a Rock and Roll guitarist but the very essence of a modern classical composer.

By the 1980's Progressive rock was having a well deserved revival in the works of Genesis, the Quebec band Harmonium, the electronic works of Vangelis, and his team up Jon Anderson former lead singer of Yes, to create thematic concept albums like the Friends of Mr. Cairo, heralded the return of the concept album and the revival of Progressive Rock.

The Alan Parsons Project overlapped many of the concept albums coming out in the eighties, where Parsons had worked with folk musicians like Al Stewart, again there is the connection between the English Folk revival and Progressive Rock, and Pink Floyd, before coming out with his own Concept ablums with the Project.

But it was short lived revival as the ninties diminished all new sound into a wave of unoriginal remastering of 'found' sounds and the diminuation again of music to the drum beat machine staccato of Hip Hop.

Underscoring all this is the continual return to the classical roots of music, its symphonic sound, that ability to layer sound to create depth and imagery. Whether it was with the eight track revolution of the Beatles sound on Sgt. Peppers or the Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesty's Request, both concept albums, or with the later use of synthesizer, the progressive sound in rock was its imitation of and merger with symphonic music.

As Bakunin once joked when asked if his anarchist revolution would get rid of all culture, he replied, "No we will keep Beethoven's 5th." It was the progressive and radical music of its day. An elegy to human reason. As it remains today.

Reason to Rock: Rock Music as Art Form
A Web Book by Herb Bowie










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5 comments:

Balbulican said...

"His only hit single Peaches in Regalia..."

It seems churlish of me to disagree (especially in response to such fun post) but I must remind you that Willie the Pimp (from the same album), Jewish Princess, and of course Valley Girl all charted reasonably well (for Zappa).

Amazing that the same brain managed to generate Camarillo Brillo AND The Yellow Shark, isn't it?

eugene plawiuk said...

Damn man you are right. Willie the Pimp didn't make it to the top 40 charts though in my memory, of course you know what they say about that. Valley Girl was of course a hit in the eighties, which proves my point about the revival at that time.
Camarillo Brillo, a brilliant piece from a brilliant album, myself I want to grow up to be a Dental Floss Rancher from Montana, with Zircon encrusted Tweezers. That and we all like to make Dynamo Humm....oh dear we are getting obscure now....

freeman said...

Willie the Pimp making the top 40 charts?!? I realize that many people may have been more musically open-minded in the late '60s and early '70s, but they weren't THAT open-minded. Well, at least not Americans.

The entire Hot Rats album was essentially a bust in the States, although it did reach the charts in Britain. Zappa was already more well recieved on the other side of the Atlantic, especially for his music that was more complex. People don't make money composing serious music in America. People like Britney Spears make money.

Balbulican said...

You're right about Willie not charting, of course. It did get a lot of play. Oddly, though, it was melodically the least adventurous cut on the album - just one chord (and probably that's why he didn't return to it as often as he did Peaches). Great solo, though.

I confess there are some pieces of the Canon that I've never really managed to penetrate, and unfortunately the last "official" release of new material, Civilization, was one of them. I wish he'd lived long enough to carry out his proposed collaboration with the Chieftains. That would have been beyond bizarre.

"Arf", she said.

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