Back in the day, Anthony Cartouche and I were somewhat into … I don’t know what we called it; progressive rock, art rock, whatever. There was a period when Yes way up on our agenda. From Fragile through Yessongs, we eagerly awaited every release (and every new Roger Dean cover). Their material from this period doesn’t get much airplay because a lot of it is too long for today’s radio programmers. With the exception of truncated versions of a few songs like “Roundabout” or “I’ve Seen All Good People,” they tended to be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes long.
It’s kind of too bad, because it was an era with the kind of ambition you just don’t hear anymore. Sure, it tended towards pretentiousness, but at least they tried.
So thank goodness again for XM Radio, which over the last week has played all eighteen minutes and forty-two seconds of “Close To The Edge” at least twice.
Well it’s interesting for me because shortly after this and “Tales From Topographic Oceans” I gave up listening to rock music almost entirely for about ten years. Hearing it now I can see very clearly what it was I was looking for in musical experience, and how the Yes guys were trying to put something like it out there. Also interesting because it points out the built-in characteristics of popular music that make it impossible to achieve what they were trying to do — at least in the way they were trying to do it.
That’s pretty opaque, isn’t it? Let me explain.
One thing that indelibly labels a casual listener from someone who really knows music is how they use the word “song.” Listening to a Brahms symphony, say that you “like this song” and you’ll immediately mark yourself as someone who won’t be taken seriously.
That’s because “song” is to “symphony” as “painting” is to “sculpture.” Don’t think it’s a judgment of quality or purpose; it’s a differentiation between two different things. If you looked at the Mona Lisa and gushed over what a wonderful “sculpture” it was, well, it would be difficult to do much more than smile politely at you and disengage from the conversation at the first opportunity.
A song is one of many musical forms. Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any to start with. Songs are vocal settings of a specific text, one that is usually poetic, frequently with a number of stanzas or verses alternating with repeated choruses (optional), sometimes an introduction or coda, or a bridge leading from the last chorus to the last verse.
Think of the overall structure of a typical popular song, and you’ve got the model for everything from Schubert to Britney Spears’ latest: an introduction, a verse, another verse, a chorus, another verse, a chorus, a bridge, verse and out.
Other musical forms are very different. Music conservatory students probably spend two solid semesters learning about them in all their permutations. It’s a difficult subject with a steep learning curve, but once you get up there the view is sensational. Among the more common are sonata-allegro; rondo; theme and variations; fugues; minuet and trio (or similar A-B-A forms). These common units can be combined into multiple-movement works like symphonies or concertos. A typical concerto might have a first movement sonata-allegro, a second slow movement in an ABA or variations form, and a concluding rondo. For example.
Frank Zappa was trying to do new things back then, too. I never really got into him, he always seemed too tongue-in-cheek for me. A few guys in college were deeply into this band named “Gentle Giant,” but by then I was too cool for rock music at all. (Note: that was a tongue-in-cheek remark.)
Now a song can have a great deal of inner complexity. But structurally it is what it is and can’t be something more. And this is where Yes hits the wall. Within the strictures and commercial limitations of popular music, the possibility for really interesting development and growth is pretty limited — and these remain songs. By virtue of not having any thematic material shorter than four bars to develop, they’re limited to simple modulations and reharmonizations. Fine as far as it goes, but it’s not Brahms’ Fourth. Plus, a lot of what I thought were their cooler musical effects were derivative of stuff done 100 years before.
Still, it was good to hear the old stuff again. It gave me a little bit of insight, and nostalgia even. Go figure. But if Proust could get six novels out of a cookie, I can linger over an old album side a little.
Maybe I can find “Topographic Oceans” on Limewire or something.