Creating Progressive Rock Music
Jerry Lucky Commentary November 2007
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2007 All Rights Reserved
I recently purchased the Transatlantic DVD “Building the Bridge” and was watching the band documentary where they were working on the music of their
second CD. They were creating the songs bit by bit, section by section, almost note for note, actually talking through all the pieces attempting to get the elements to
work together in a musical sense that isn’t necessarily mandated by traditional rock music compositional convention.
I found my self contrasting their compositional approach with another DVD where this other band was talking about how they had changed their style of writing when they acquired their own studio. They said that when they found they had virtually unlimited space and time, they simply got together and jammed…taking the best bits and working them into the finished songs. Now this is a familiar approach. It was one used by Genesis and I’m sure others. But I’m not convinced this style or process actually helped the band create their best music. Imagine if you will a small symphony orchestra getting together and jamming, hoping for some semblance of music to be the outcome of their tuning-up session! Now I know this analogy won’t get me very far, but I use it just to make a point.
One of the key ingredients for progressive rock has been its somewhat more complex structure. A structure that I’m almost positive was even in rudimentary terms written down somewhere. Anyone working on a complex piece of music would do it this way. Something would be tried and accepted or rejected based on its fit with in the overall piece. The idea of having the liberty to simply get together and jam may produce some interesting pieces of music, but I fear it is as my electronics teacher used to say, “Following the path of least resistance.”
Now it’s true that creative types will always encounter those “happy accidents” that take a piece of music to the next level, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Chris Squire of Yes talked about a number of these happy accidents with Yes. No, what I’m saying is that if you allow your selves to simply be LED by happy accidents and then follow them up to completion, I believe you are more likely to end up with weaker compositions because there’s been less thought put into them. Or perhaps better said, you rely on accident and happenstance to be the prime directive rather than a conscious thought out structure.
There are stories of how Yes built their magnum opus Close to the Edge 30-seconds at a time, an exaggeration I’m sure, but none-the-less an exaggeration based on some semblance of truth. The band works on the composition, piece by piece, getting each part to fit and flow from and into the next creating a wonderful example of symphonic progressive rock. This is certainly what Transatlantic appeared to be doing in the DVD documentary with their second recording.
Compare that to the work created by later day Genesis and you get my point. In the early days Genesis themselves created music in a similar fashion. Everyone came into the studio with their bits and pieces which were then melded together into a structured piece. Given that history we can compare their compositional approach. It was around the time they created their own studio, The Farm that they began changing their writing style. Gone were the days where pieces would be lovingly worked out note by note. This was replaced with a freer, more liberal approach where getting together and simply jamming was allowed. From this it was hoped the cream would rise to the surface to be fashioned into what was hoped would the “the best of the best” elements.
Judge for yourself but the music that resulted, proved to be increasinglyless complex, increasingly less arranged, generating increasingly less depth and ultimatly increasingly more poppy material. The individual musicianship was better than it ever had been but the musical results didn’t always demonstrate that. Yes it’s true that the band found a wider audience with this jamming approach to composition and yes they were infinitely more popular and financially successful. It can’t be denied that the lowest common denominator will have the broadest appeal. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
My point is simply this: when you change the style of composition to one which relies on simply jamming together to make music rather than actually composing a piece of music the end result is different. I won’t say better or worse because I think they serve a different purpose. But I do think the one approach creates music which is more generic, more saleable, less complex and ultimatly more disposable. That would be the jamming approach. It’s just an inherently weaker form of musical composition.
At least that’s what I think. How about you?