This post has been sitting on the back burner for over three months.
I will sometimes have an idea for a post but am not sure if I want to do something with it or what I want to do with it. Well…the time has arrived for this post – and the reason will become clear shortly.
The Whitest Music Ever: Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful. So says James Parker at The Atlantic. Well, he might be right in what he says in the title, but right off the bat I don’t like this guy:
The trapped, eunuch ferocity of Geddy Lee’s voice, squealing inside the nonsense clockwork of Rush, disturbs me.
He is both overtly mocking Geddy Lee and covertly mocking what I consider to be Rush’s best album ever, Clockwork Angels. Better that this guy advocated nuclear war with Russia or something.
And from whence comes the title of this piece?
“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.” Indeed. Thus did [progressive rock] divorce itself from the blues, take flight into the neoclassical, and become the whitest music ever.
The whitest music ever? I think “King Tut” by Steve Martin is the slam dunk winner.
But, let’s go with progressive rock, as is suggested by Mr. Parker. No matter your preference or disdain for progressive rock, I believe we could agree that it is, perhaps, the most complicated music of this (and maybe many) generation(s).
Multiple time signature changes; complex chords and structures; lyrics that seem to have no rhythm when read, flow beautifully when sung to the music, etc. It takes intelligence, mental coordination, physical coordination, emotional complexity, connecting the mental and physical and emotional – far more than any music of which I am aware…well, since Bach…but I will come to this shortly.
Those who perform progressive rock well might be the most intelligent and capable musicians on the planet; I suggest that they are virtuosos. My personal favorites are Rush and Dream Theater (and derivatives of Dream Theater, especially Liquid Tension Experiment…and orchestras that cover same).
That James Parker connects progressive rock to the neoclassical deserves mention; one can find a little Johann Sebastian Bach at the heart of every progressive rock musician. If you think I exaggerate either this point or my praise of the ability of progressive rock musicians, bear with me for a brief diversion. I will make the connection. Regarding Bach’s compositions, for example:
Modulations, changing key in the course of a piece, is another style characteristic where Bach goes beyond what was usual in his time.
Bach was generally quite specific on ornamentation in his compositions…and his ornamentation was often quite elaborate.
In music, ornaments or embellishments are musical flourishes—typically, added notes—that are not essential to carry the overall line of the melody (or harmony), but serve instead to decorate or “ornament” that line (or harmony), provide added interest and variety, and give the performer the opportunity to add expressiveness to a song or piece. Many ornaments are performed as “fast notes” around a central, main note.
In concerted playing in Bach’s time the basso continuo, consisting of instruments such as organ, and/or viola da gamba and harpsichord, usually had the role of accompaniment: providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of a piece. From the late 1720s, Bach had the organ play concertante (i.e. as soloist) with the orchestra in instrumental cantata movements… and in his sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord neither instrument plays a continuo part: they are treated as equal soloists, way beyond the figured bass role.
Bach wrote virtuoso music for specific instruments, as well as music independent of instrumentation. For instance, the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin are considered the pinnacle of what has been written for this instrument, only within reach of accomplished players: the music fits the instrument, pushing it to the full scale of its possibilities, requiring virtuosity of the player, but without bravura.
Another characteristic of Bach’s style is his extensive use of counterpoint, as opposed to…homophony…
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour.
Bach devoted more attention than his contemporaries to the structure of compositions.
The librettos, that is the lyrics, for his vocal compositions played an important role for Bach…writing or adapting such texts himself to make them fit in the structure of the composition he was designing…
To sum all of this up:
Since the 19th-century Bach Revival he has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.
Progressive rock: a continuation of Bach. So if The Atlantic wants to label progressive rock as “the whitest music ever,” I guess that makes the white musicians who perform and compose this stuff the most intelligent and capable musicians ever….at least since Bach.
That sounds like racist hate speech and white privilege to me. if you find yourself after a cup of hot chocolate right about now, just remember – I’m not the one who wrote it, James Parker did.
So What’s the point?
In response to Parker’s statement, I wrote the King Tut part of this post several months ago. So what has prompted me, after these many months, to now finish and publish this post? Well, I will tell you: boy was I wrong about King Tut.
Slow down there, Tutankhamen – it is apparently racist, but not in the way I thought. From Charles Burris:
According to this Newsweek account: “Steve Martin’s seminal “King Tut” sketch is being blasted as cultural appropriation by a group of students at a prestigious liberal arts college in Oregon after the classic “Saturday Night Live” parody was played in a humanities course.
Click the link and watch the video. Probably the most hilarious three minutes you will spend today.
…the sketch is the cultural equivalent of blackface because one of the side actors emerged from a sarcophagus with his face painted gold.
Goldface…we now have to worry about goldface.
Was I ever wrong! King Tut wasn’t the whitest music ever; it was the…goldest music ever.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.