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Prog rock: A certain quality of time

Prog rock = a certain quality of time


Before writing a longer paper in 2012, I would like to propose some ideas about the relations between prog rock and the time(s). These tracks could (maybe) be relevant for any type of prog rock, today as yesterday and, of course, they can certainly fit with other interpretations about the “nature” of progressive rock.


a) The length of the notes

In many types of progressive rock, and particularly during the seventies, we find instruments which were not so common in many sorts of other rock styles ; woodwinds, strings, acoustic piano, harpsichord, electric keyboards, synthetisers. Think of the flute (Genesis and Jethro Tull), the mellotron (King Crimson of course), synthetizers (ELP, Gong, Klaus Schulze and many others), organ (Van der Graaf, Canterbury bands) classical instrumentarium (PFM, Gentle Giant or Henry Cow), piano (Renaissance), dulcimer, mandoline, nylon or 12 strings guitars (Yes and Genesis again), etc. These instruments have at least two remarkable characteristics. Firstly, they were already used in folk rock, psychedelic pop or rock and classical music. Secondly, many of them allow to increase the lenght of sounds. One can also note than many "prog guitarists" have used effects which gave them the possibility to play very long notes (think of Robert Fripp, Phill Miller or Richard Pinhas for instance). In other words, prog rock seems to have has a deep affinity with instruments which allow to play long sounds. That's why I would say that this style has in common with classical orchestration (and music) a pronounced taste for the legato ; to dissolve, more or less, the pulsation or more exactly to play with the flow of musical time. The fact that many prog bands use asymmetric time-signatures and love to subvert common beats (think of Bruford or Chris Cutler playing 4/4) corroborates this interpretation. In other words, if it's true that we can dance on “Starless and Bible Black” (King Crimson) or “Celebration” (PFM) the beat is not exactly the same that the beat of “Spanish Bombs” (The Clash) or “Superfly” (Curtis Mayfield) for instance. I don't want to tell that Crimson is better (as a matter of fact I really love the Clash and Mayfied) but simply show a specificity, in my opinion very significative, of this musical world. 


b) Long distance(s)

My second point, directly connected with the previous, concerns the lenghts of the music itself and  the types of spaces and stories we find in the lyrics of many prog bands.  Of course, the prog rock did not invent long musical pieces (classical music and Coltrane did the job before) or concept albums (Beatles, Pretty Things -SF Sorrow- Who or Kinks already explored this field during the late sixties). But, what was a component among others for other acts and styles becomes a fondation, an essential component of the vocabulary of prog rock. In this music you don't only find long songs (“Suppers Ready” from Genesis lasts 22' 53, Mekanik Destructiv Kommando from Magma takes two sides of a LP), but also long stories, sagas, mythologies, situated in large areas/spaces/periods: forests/galaxies, middle-age, the first steps of the humanity and so on. This appetite for long durations shows again a proximity with some characteristics of classical music and particularly with opera. What interests me here is not to suggest that prog rock would be a sort of new classical music or to legitimate (or disqualify!) this style but simply to point that this music unfolds, extends the legato in every aspects ; prog musicians and listeners likes when sounds, songs (with or without vocals), stories, spaces are extended, elongated. In a certain way, prog rock reinvents the legato which allowed (some) composers (Bruckner, Malher or Richard Strauss for instance) to slow down and dissolve the tempo, to propose a space-time where the beat of history, engines, cities (i e modernity) were suspended, modified, to build an imaginary voyage. And as the metronome, invented when Beethoven's legato became a reference, and the conductor allowed to dissolve the beat, I want to propose the idea that it's the rythmic section which is the metronome and the conductor in prog rock, the element which, by contrast, gives us the possibility to discern the long sounds. 

To summarize, I would say that I see prog rock as a specific way to perform and appreciate time in rock music. If an “ontology” of prog rock exists - which means we can connect different musics and call them “prog”- it's maybe here that we can find it. Futhermore, with this point of view we could have a better understanding of the negative stereotypes about prog rock : long solos, not enough danse, too much discourses, too much sophistication and so on. Here again, the goal wouldn't be to excuse or attack these blames but to use them for revealing the differences between prog rock and the other styles. I know it's a lot of work but I like it I like it yes I do.


François Ribac (november 2011)

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