A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George RR Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. When delivered to his US publishers the book weighed in at over 1,000 pages so the decision was taken to publish it in the UK in two parts or volumes. So this is the third book, part two, titled, ‘Blood and Gold’. Ie the fourth physical book in the series.

Why are these books so compelling?

Epic Martin has brought into existence an absolutely vast new world, fully imagined in every detail, from the sound of the horses to the names of the continents, from the theology and practice of not one but several religions to the decorations on each knight’s shield. It is an awesome achievement, and a joy and delight for readers with a taste for this sort of thing to be drawn into this wonderfully complete and encyclopedic realm of the imagination. Returning after a break reading some books about music, I was immediately back there, in Westeros, in the world of fear and violence, conspiracies and sorcery, and on tenterhooks awaiting the next shocking surprise.

Number of characters A big feature of the books is the hundreds of characters. Each part of Westeros is dominated by a handful of big name families – the Baratheons, Greyjoys, Starks, Lannisters, Freys come immediately to mind – each of these Houses has scores of subsidiary branches which intertwine as dynastic marriages are arranged – and between all the Big Families are minor noble houses, the so-called bannermen who owe allegiance to a Major House, and these in turn have countless intertwined genealogies. The result is that in his five books to date Martin has named over 1,000 characters, as well as innumerable unnamed smallfolk who generally meet a grisly end. Charles Dickens created just short of a thousand named characters in his 14 novels. Martin has bested him in just five.

Cult Martin’s world is so big it’s spawned a host of secondary contributors – wikis and fanclubs, conventions and merchandise, the hit HBO TV series, cookery books and board games, and a number of fantasy illustrators who’ve given visual life to Martin’s stunning imaginings. Artist and musician Ted Nasmith has made some wonderful pictures of key locations in the Ice and Fire saga, like the one below, of the great Ice Wall which separates the kingdom of Westeros from the frozen North, home to wildlings, cannibals, wargs and the terrifying ‘Others’.

'Castle Black and the Wall' by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

‘Castle Black and the Wall’ by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

See more images of A Song of Ice and Fire on Ted Nasmith’s website.

Thriller Though filed under Fantasy, these books deploy the techniques of a thriller: each chapter doesn’t so much move the narrative on as deliver a punch. New and shocking things are continually occurring leaving you on continual tenterhooks as to the next outrageous event. These shocks are part of the larger worldview of stunning brutality, where characters are routinely raped, murdered, tortured, eviscerated or cynically betrayed – and all they themselves think about is scheming, sex or murder.

Multiple POVs Each chapter follows a specific character: the complicated action of ‘Blood and Gold’ is seen from about ten different viewpoints. This allows Martin to move the reader at great speed, very effectively, to completely disparate parts of the fantasy world of Westeros, to allow the reader to witness key developments taking place in the five or so major strands of plot. Like cuts in a TV series, the technique makes for speed of events, and for suspense. You are whisked away from one character just as something vital occurs – and it might be 50 or 100 pages before you return to their part of the plotline.

In this book, the chapter characters are:

  • Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Samwell Tarly.
Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style The default setting of the style is clear and spare and functional:

“When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow.”     (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting: the most persistent and slightly irritating one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. He is like to be angry. He has near finished the task. Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing. But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

“Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well.”                                                                                                                                   (p.195)

Coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a creative and enjoyable aspect of his style:

  • New words sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (makers of wildfire, a kind of napalm), holdfast.
  • New combinations sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  weirwood (ancient holy woods), ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot, skinchanger, godswood.

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms, just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. And the more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of the fantasy world.

Another is the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly, but by sheer repetition comes to seem the natural term.

Names The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. Thus Jon Snow’s fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jamie Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel. Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras.

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, and yet bracingly alien and explosive.

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The Worldview is shockingly brutal. These books have more in common with Hannibal Lecter than JRR Tolkien. Key characters who we’ve grown to like or at least sympathise with over the previous 2,000 pages of text are brutally snuffed out in a few lines: the young hero stabbed through the heart, the mother whose throat is cut and body thrown naked into the river, the young girl who learns to stab bandits in the belly, the friendly whore who is whipped through the streets, the hero whose sword hand is unceremoniously chopped off, the gallant knight whose face is punched in by a giant, the noble father who is abruptly beheaded, the bard whose tongue is cut out. And these are the leading characters. The secondary characters are killed in scores of ways and by the thousand, burned to death or drowned in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, crushed by mammoths, stabbed by wildlings, shot through the throat with arrows, cut down, hacked to pieces, on almost every page.

Intrigue Allegedly Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses with its complicated intriguing and politicking, backstabbing and machiavellianism. Maybe. But the characters in the Song demonstrate depths of cynical manipulation which owe more to the 21st century than the 15th. Also, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a drawback or a strength, but they are all cynical and manipulative in the same kind of way. The trouble with real life is people are strange and hard to read. Whether you’re chatting up a guest at a party or hiring a new chief executive it’s the hardest thing in the world to read other people, who are continually surprising with their unpredictable combinations of acuteness and obtuseness. Lord Tywin, Cersei, Danaerys, Robb Stark, Catelin, Theon Greyjoy, Lord Mormont, Varys, Petyr Littlefinger, Bronn the sellsword – they all think the same – they are all playing the same game, the Game of Thrones.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Killing off Most of the key players in the Wars of the Roses which, apparently, was one of Martin’s inspirations, lived reasonably long lives. I think the events of the Song have covered a year, during which half of the key players – and a lot of the ones I really liked – have been killed off. I begin to wonder whether Martin will run out of characters before the series ends. On the other hand, these surprise executions very effectively add to the tension. After he’s bumped off a few real favourites, you realise no-one is safe. It makes the books all the more gripping.

Sex The brutality includes the attitude to sex. Both men and women share an essentially male view of sex – functional and brutal and phallocentric. Men routinely get hard and immediately enter their women with no foreplay. Martin makes all the characters use the f word with abandon and on a few occasions the c word. And these are the royal families ie the most highly bred people in this world. Morality starts cruel and brutal at the top of this society and gets worse as you descend. Every woman is permanently at risk of rape. Any man can be murdered at any point, by his lord and master, his brother, his father, his son. No-one is safe.

Pagan In a way these books are a massive advert for Christianity. Though three or four religions are described in Westeros (the religion of the first men, the religion of the children of the forests, the religion of the Seven gods, and the new religion of Light), none of them at all restrain their adherents from astronomical cruelty and barbarism. At the end of his hugely enjoyable and politically savvy History of Christianity (1976), the (Roman Catholic) historian, Paul Johnson, makes the case that human history of the past 2,000 years has been pretty bloodthirsty and appalling – but without the restraining influence of Christianity it would have been a whole lot worse. Whatever you think of that as a defence of Christianity, George RR Martin’s Westeros could be said to be an unflinching depiction of what Europe would have looked like without any restraining religious or cultural influences at all. It is in many (OK, most) ways a vision of Hell.

Check out George RR Martin’s blog.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and is now out on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

Webern and the Second Viennese School @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

29 January 2013

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the latest in the year-long Rest Is Noise festival. These early weeks are focusing on the composers of the Second Viennese School ie Schoenberg the father and Berg and Webern his students, who began to write their influential works in the years just before the Great War. If Schoenberg is the transitional figure who picks up late Romantic chromaticism and moves into the territory of pure atonality, his students began at that position and explored its ramifications. Berg was able to use atonality to build surprisingly large structures including his brilliant Violin Concerto and even two operas, ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Webern, on the other hand, is famous in musical history for developing the ideas of atonality and serialism into works of astonishing compression and brevity. Many of his works are only a minute long, with no melody, no harmony, just the rigour of his mathematical application of the method of serialism.

I remember first learning about this and expecting the resulting music to be harsh and dissonant – and so being astonished to encounter the precise, crystalline structures of these micro-pieces, sharp and unearthly like stars in a cold sky.

The performance was by the London Sinfonietta with Baldur Brönnimann conductor, Sarah Gabriel soprano and Lightmap video design. Sarah’s singing was impassioned. She wore a stunning strapless dress in the first half, and another black velvet number in part two. The video was a continual projection in the background of b&w footage of pre-War Vienna and images of the composers, along with texts in German and English of the songs, quotes from the composers including one from Webern from which one word at a time slowly faded as the music played.

Videos at classical concerts seem to be the fashion – there was a video at Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, the film of Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican, and during the other weekend’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival Hall they projected a loop of b&w images of the century.

It was interesting to hear Schoenberg’s orchestral pieces for the second time in a fortnight, in a different and more edgy arrangement. But both Berg and Schoenberg seem normal next to the other worldly miniaturism of Webern. No-one else has ever written so intensely. Every note is vital. In a post-concert panel discussion the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, said it’s tricky to conduct because everything you do spoils it, it has such Platonic purity.

Discussion panel This after-concert panel was excellent, including an academic expert on Webern, Baldur the conductor, Peter the viola player and Netia Jones who produced the video. They all had interesting things to say. The viola player said the music is so intense because behind every phrase, behind every pair of notes, is the entire German tradition. The academic pointed out that Webern saw himself as a Romantic – his inspiration came from an obsessive worship of Nature and high mountains as well as mourning for his dead mother. In other words, as Baldur emphasises, the 1950s and 60s did Webern a disservice by making him the messiah of the new religion of atonality, performing his music as mathematically strict and antiseptic. Now, 50 years later, he said, we can see the music more fully, stripped of 60s ideology, as deriving directly from its Romantic German antecedents in its concern with expressivity, albeit taken to unprecedented heights.

My favourite work was the three little pieces for cello. It makes so much difference to see these works performed live. The drama and intensity of real performers producing these extraordinary sounds really hit you as they can’t on a recording.

Anton Webern: 3 Lieder
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Anton Webern: 6 Pieces for orchestra, Op.6
Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for small orchestra, Op.10
Anton Webern: 3 Volkstexte (Three Traditional Rhymes) for soprano & ensemble, Op.17
Anton Webern: Symphony, Op.21
Alban Berg: 4 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Anton Webern: 3 Little Pieces for cello & piano, Op.11
Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24

Black and white photo of Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Rest is Noise 1: Here comes the 20th century

21 and 22 January 2013

When Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank, finished reading American critic’s history of classical music in the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, she was so impressed she rang up the author. “Hey Alex. How’s about we put on a year long festival of music at London’s premiere art complex in celebration of your book? We should be able to rustle up nearly 100 concerts devoted entirely to 20th century music, plus loads of spinoff events. And let’s scatter through the year a series of 12 study weekends, where we invite leading historians, art critics and musicologists to explore the cultural milieu of pre-War Vienna, Paris in the 20s, Weimar Germany, music under the dictatorships and other key moments. Whaddya say?”

Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 saw the first in-depth weekend, titled The Big Bang, designed to explore the music of pre-War Vienna, dominated by the giants Strauss and Mahler, but with the new sounds of Arnold Schoenberg beginning to disturb the peace.

Saturday 21 January

Here Comes The Twentieth Century The Right Honourable The Baroness Williams of Crosby (Shirley Williams to you or me) belied her 82 years to present a sweeping overview of the 20th century. Necessarily a high level review it was striking for on the one hand retreading some overfamiliar terrain – Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen from the Great War – on the other completely omitting the Bolshevik Revolution and the chaos all across central Europe after the Great War. Why, I thought as I sat in the splendid Queen Elizabeth Hall, didn’t they invite a historian to do this? But towards the end she surprised me again by choosing to focus not on our ongoing anxieties, but on three great moments of hope: Martin Luther King’s Civil Right movement; Gorbachev letting the Berlin Wall come down; Nelson Mandela walking free to seal a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. Her point was, Change can happen, political processes can improve the world. This fed back to her dwelling on the post-war founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time I thought it was light on historical detail, a week later I realise it was really about this positive, liberal vision.

Still, no denying the 20th century was the century of catastrophe; Leonard Bernstein called it the Century of Death. 20 million dead in the Great War. 60 million dead in the Second World War. 30 million killed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Without doubt the most catastrophic century in human history and also the most complex. Almost impossible to reconcile the billions of individual stories, achievements, discoveries and art works with the complex political and social movements all round the busy globe. It’s almost enough to make you ashamed to have been born into such a terrible century. Following Dame Shirley was…

Alex Ross, the man himself whose brilliant book started all this, Alex turns out to be a smart, suave, bullet-headed young American, personable, polite and dazzlingly knowledgeable. He delivered an hour and a quarter lecture which you can listen to on the South Bank website. I think he’s appearing four times over the year, so in each speech has to cover four of the twelve themed weekends, so this first address stretched long to cover Schoenberg, the nationalist and folk movements, and 1920s Paris. His key point is that listeners accept all the techniques of the supposedly difficult Second Viennese School, when it’s presented in film scores – but balk at them when presented in the concert hall, and then pondered why this should be. In this speech and the next day’s Q&A what emerged is the tremendous conservatism of the classical music world and its audience; as a rule of thumb classical music can be taken as about 60 years behind the times. Looking around at the grey-haired audience, and remembering the deep squareness of all the classical musicians I’ve ever known, I’m not surprised.

Alex mentioned the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, but eventually returning at which point the distraught painter set fire to his paintings, stabbed himself and hanged himself in front of a full-length mirror in his studio. Schoenberg was finalising his Second String Quartet with its intense, angsty sound, so everyone can do some amateur psychology about this typical overwrought episode from the heart of Teutonic Expressionism.

After these two start-up lectures, we the audience had a choice of events to go to. For example, throughout the weekend they were screening the BBC’s new three-part series about 20th century music, The Sound and The Fury. I figured I can see this on  when it’s shown in February. There are ‘Sound bites’ – hour slots containing four x fifteen minute presentations about key figures of the (early) twentieth century eg the Wright brothers, Marie Curie etc. I chose:

The Birth of the Modern In a packed house in the Level 5 Function room in the Festival Hall for a presentation by art historian Tag Gronberg about art in prewar Vienna. This started with Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss and explored the tensions between Klimt and the Sezessionists, the Austrian wing of Art Nouveau known locally as the Jugendstil – and their opponents like the satirist Karl Krauss and the architect Adolf Loos, who rejected  Klimt’s fine decoration in favour of plain truth, Loos’s plain functional building anticipating the clarity of the Bauhaus and all 20th century Modernist architecture. The audience was old, as in most art galleries plenty of grey haired ladies looking at pictures of naked men and women and drinking in a lecture about sex, love and the decorative arts.

Lisa Appignanesi: Freud and the Modern Age Ms Appignanesi was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to literature. She has written widely on Freud and gender. A vivacious, laughing lady with big auburn hair like Rula Lenska, Ms Appignanesi gave a rather disappointingly basic introduction to Freud, skimming over the early publications and basic ideas, while recommending her books which were on bookstands located around the foyer.

Main points were that, though Freud prided himself on his ability in language and his works are often thought of as being more literary than scientific – he was musically null. He liked the obvious greats of the day but had little or nothing to say about music. If Ms Appignanesi had referenced any psychoanalyst who has applied Freud to music, or developed her own thoughts about psychoanalysis and music, it would have been useful. Instead we learned that prewar Vienna was awash with artistic movements, that Freud’s ideas have shaped the century, that he spent a few hours psychoanalysing Mahler on a famous walk, and learned that Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, left him during the composition of the Second String Quartet and, you’ll never guess what happened!!

Resisting the lure of a Sound Bites session including the Birth of Radio, I stayed in the foyer of the QEH for –

Listen to this – a listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by Head of Music at the South Bank, Gillian Moore. Either playing chords herself on the grand piano or introducing clips from CD, Gillian explained in detail the music of Salome (Richard Strauss’s radical opera which was being performed later that evening), its deliberate use of barbarism, atonal chords etc, before moving on to explain the hyperchromaticism which was turning into atonality in Schoenberg.

5.30 and I was full, and so didn’t go on to the evening concert, a concert performance of Strauss’s opera ‘Salome’, centrepiece of the first chapter of Alex’s book – let alone to the interesting-looking Ida Barr’s Music Hall Night Club which followed through till midnight. What a varied and interesting day, and all for £10!

Sunday 22 January

Breakfast with Schoenberg – Focus on Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet Back in the foyer at 10.15 for a very interesting hour-long explanation of the structure and technique of this transitional work. Presented by Fraser Trainer with an actual string quartet (musicians from Aurora Orchestra) on stage who played short fragments illustrating Fraser’s points. The cellist, Oliver, also added points of his own, including the interesting facts that Schoenberg’s music carries the most detailed instructions for the player; instructions to play notes in novel positions ie at the bridge on string instruments thus creating an eerie sound with strange overtones. Fraser’s enthusiasm was infectious. This was great!

Except. For some reason he and Gillian Moore from yesterday both tended to apologise for talking about keys and chords and scales; and when they demonstrated them tended to do so in a hurry, as if ashamed or embarrassed. Why? Who do you think is attending this weekend? It smacked of a very British philistinism and embarrassment, fear of being even a teeny bit intellectual or demanding. In fact both presentations would have benefited from a relaxed ten minute introduction explaining how basic triadic harmony works in classical music or pop songs, with a few easy examples. Once this is established it’s easier to show how the chording of Wagner, Strauss et al becomes more and more complicated – extended tonality, as it’s called – until it starts to compromise harmonic language and you begin to lose the sense of a tonal centre ie it’s hard for your ear to hear which key the music is in, where’s it’s meant to return ‘home’ to give the sense of completeness as in a Mozart piece. It’s this tonal drift which creates unease and anxiety, the predominant emotions of the broader cultural Expressionism of these years, and the angsty sound which the average listener associates with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to this day.

Of course Fraser told us the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter, Richard Gerstl – and did you hear what happened when she finally returnd to composer? You’ll never guess!!!

Alex Ross in conversation with Jude Kelly Back in the sumptuous Queen Elizabeth Hall head of the Southbank, Jude, asked Alex a number of questions before questions from the floor. Among many points I remember:

  • the tragedy of America rejecting its black heritage, jazz – there was a crossover moment in the 20s and 30s but it was rejected, and America’s greatest folk tradition was fatefully barred from its classical composers
  • what is it about classical music that is so offputting?  Both discussed the offputtingness of the Concert Hall with its nineteenth century architecture, its intimidating dress codes etc. Jude asked if there were any black people in the audience? There was one Asian guy, no one of African descent. I didn’t see any black people all weekend apart from a few security guards and assistants.

You can hear the full conversation here.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire Back in the performance space behind the Royal Festival Hall bar, students from the Royal Northern College of Music performed Schoenberg’s half hour masterpiece, 21 poems spoken by the folk character Pierrot, divided into three thematic groups, set to music. Three different young ladies sang, wearing black outfits with white facepainting and makeup – Natasha Best, Rosie Middleton and Emma Stannard. The distinguishing thing about the music is Schoenberg’s deployment of Sprechstimme ie a style half way between singing and speaking where the voice swoops and dives between notes, creating a strange otherworldy affect, which matches the strange words of the deluded Pierrot looking up at the imaginary moon.

The Air of Other Planets: Understanding Schoenberg’s Journey into Atonality presented by Julian Johnson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. Suave and posh Professor Johnson once again told the story of Schoenberg’s wife running off, then returning and the distraught painter setting fire to his paintings then hanging himself. Fourth time I’ve heard this story. Is it really the only thing to say about Schoenberg?.

The professor assumed this great offputtingness in Schoenberg as the premise of his presentation before leading off into an exploration of the issues. To be honest I was full up and don’t remember much. the best moment was a question from the audience at the end: a youngish man said he’s no great musical expert but he doesn’t see what’s so difficult about Schoenberg!. To him Schoenberg sounds like the soundtrack to any number of horror movies, thrillers or psycho films; jazz incorporated atonality in the 60s, rock bands did it in the 70s. If you approach him like that you can swallow him whole without blinking. What Schoenberg problem?

It’s true. You have to approach the Second Viennese School from the extremely conservative, ears-closed, up-tight bourgeois classical position to be daunted by them. In other words, you have to be the typical classical music audience as described by Alex and Jude this morning. If, like me, you were brought  up on the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Clash as well as The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien and so on, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg sound either pretty familiar or fairly easy to swallow. It’s only putting them into the antiseptic and reverential concert hall that their music begins to sound out of place.

You have to have lived a very sheltered musical life, in other words, to find these guys ‘difficult’. Much more difficult to listen to is something like Les Noces’ by Stravinsky. And hardest of all is something like the orchestral works of Bruckner or Nielsen or Sibelius at his worst. Incredibly long and awesomely boring, I’ve never made my way to the end of one. Whereas Webern with a whole suite in 5 minutes, was made for the ipod age.

Schoenberg’s daughter A major reason for attending Day 2 of this weekend was to see Ms Moore and Professor Johnson in conversation with Nuria Schoenberg Nono, 80 years old this year and not only daughter to the great Arnold but wife to the Italian Modernist composer Luigi Nono. Unfortunately she was too ill to attend. Maybe she would have told us the story about Mathilde running off with the painter Richard Gerstl but then abandoning him whereupon he… oh, but I don’t want to spoil the story for you…

Conclusions Ross is an amazing man who wears his encyclopedic knowledge with grace and elegance. The festival is an epic and unprecedented project. Why, in a year dedicated to embedding 20th century music into its historical context – are there no historians? The art lecture was so-so. The Freud one was disappointing. The musical analysis was riveting and I wanted it to be more confident and genuinely didactic, teaching me slowly and thoroughly how this music is made and how to appreciate it.

But for organising these and all the other events coming up during 2013 – Well done, South Bank!

The festival continues for the rest of the year.

Of course, an enterprise like this runs the risk of being accused of dumbing down or glossing over complexities. That’s certainly what I felt about the Freud lecture, and felt was being demonstrated in the repetition of the same tired stories about Schoenberg. See the comments on this Guardian page for quite fierce accusations of dumbing down.

Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern @ the Royal Festival Hall

23 January 2013

To the Royal Festival Hall to see ‘Extreme Expression‘, one of the 92 concerts featured in their fabulous year-long festival of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise. Far from being extreme these three pieces represent the lush last years of Germanic Romanticism before Schoenberg and his acolytes opened the door to atonality and then to Serialism.

Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind – idyll for orchestra
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Interval
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The Webern is a very early (1904) ten-minute piece of late Romanticism inspired by stays in the country, and suppressed by the later, wildly radical composer, until rediscovered in the 1960s. It shows what Webern might have been, a pasticheur of the Tradition, of the dominant musical Austrian, Richard Strauss – full of jaunty tunes and lush orchestration. Lovely, but dead.

The Schoenberg (1909) comprises five short pieces which experiment with atonality, timbre, unusual dynamics and sounds ie moving beyond the rich chromaticism of Mahler and Strauss. Their first audiences were outraged by Schoenberg’s deliberate rejection of melody, harmony, smooth orchestration in favour of impenetrable logic, abrupt changes of timbre and assonance, sudden eruptions of loudness, pieces ending on half finished phrases. But to the listener in 2013 it seems full of special affects which will be plundered by composers of film and TV music for countless thrillers and sci fi movies.

‘The Song of the Earth’ by Mahler is the name he gave to a symphonic setting of six songs. It follows his Eighth Symphony, though Mahler was superstitious about calling it his 9th. (All Germanic composers lived in the long shadow of Beethoven and his unsurpassable Ninth Symphony.)

Despite some shorter, jovial drinking songs among the first five, the piece is dominated by the half-hour long final song, ‘Das Abschied’, or ‘The Farewell’, the last of Mahler’s mournful meditations on death. The whole was premiered in November 1911, after the composer’s death in May of that year.

It was pretty much the last symphony in the great German tradition which stretched back to Haydn. After Mahler, Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern were to take German music to completely new places, while composers like Eissler and Weill concentrated on songs and Paul Hindemith did his own thing. Then it’s Stockhausen!

So this concert was about the peak, the acme, the zenith of the German symphonic tradition – and the moment of its dissolution and abrupt, mysterious disappearance. The last words of The Farewell (which Mahler himself wrote) take on a biographical resonance for the dead composer, but also for the entire tradition:

“The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in Spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon! Endless… endless…”

The three pieces were performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder, joined by mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and tenor Paul Groves for Das Lied. The Webern was pretty; the Schoenberg was fascinating but not radical enough; the first five songs of Das Lied I’ve always thought trivial and non-descript, full of Mahler mannerisms but without the melodies or big themes which make his earlier songs and symphonies. But Der Abschied was absolutely tremendous. Lilli Paasikivi was just fabulous, moving and trembling with the music, and there was special applause for key instruments the flute, clarinet and horn, all of whom played delicately and wonderfully during the quiet, almost silent passages of this marvellous piece.

The concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, so you should be able to hear it here.

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock by Paul Stump (1997)

20 January 2013

Stump’s thesis is that Pr0gressive or Prog Rock – think Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer – has been unjustly vilified and eclipsed from ‘histories’ of rock and pop and needs to be reinterpreted and restored. This book was written in 1996 and a lot has happened by way of rehabilitating old rock bands in the past 17 years. I see from a quick surf of Amazon that there are in fact plenty of books on the subject, and plenty of these bands’ LPs are being rereleased, or rerereleased in remastered format or in expensive box sets etc. In fact, quite a few of these bands are still recording albums and touring!

Whatever you think of it, Prog certainly has a place in the social and musical history of the UK. This book sets out to shed light on both and more. First, what characterises Prog? In fact what does Prog mean?

  • Progressive. It meant Progress. It meant that sometime around 1967 the pop song was unzipped: the model of the pop chart, the album of pop hits and the concert where the performer performed his or her pop hits, was blown wide apart. Young pop musicians in many countries began experimenting musically – incorporating elements of modern jazz or classical music; lyrically – exploring the use of modern poetry, avant garde textual experiments etc; sizewise – recording ever longer songs or recording ever longer improvisations and jams; product-wise – forming small, fugitive record labels, marketing and distributing records themselves; performance-wise – bypassing the old club circuit to perform to halls full of drunk students and warehouses full of stoned hippies.
  • Progressive The assumption was that all of this experimentation, on every level, was moving forward. New forms, new multimedia, new sounds, new instruments, new combinations, new ways of thinking about songs or tracks or jams or sounds – it was felt all this was leading forward, onwards and upwards towards some great new musical synthesis.
  • “Progressive rock was the soundtrack to the counter-cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and the period’s gallant pipedream of thoroughgoing societal and cultural transformation.”
  • Progressive The jam and the solo were about extensive self-expression and the accompanying hippy movement was about finding yourself, dropping out of the rat race, returning to the country, finding deeper meaning and spirituality etc
  • Progressive So the musical experimentation went hand in hand with personal, psychological, social and political experimentation. The music was the soundtrack to a social and cultural movement. Arguably, the social movement reached a dead end around the time the music did – sometime in 1974/75 depending on where you were sitting.

Characteristics of Progressive Rock:

  • Traditional rock music instruments – drums, bass, guitar, singer, generally with an organ or early synthesiser thrown in; onto this base might be added any number of new instruments, sounds and colours…
  • but stripped of blues structures or inflections. Surprising given that they started out in blues bands, but there are no blues structures or licks in Genesis or Yes. It’s very white music.
  • Blues were replaced by jazz or classical influences – either the organised chaos of Free Jazz (The Soft Machine), or the adaptation of classical to Rock rhythms (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) or just the use of actual symphony orchestras (Moody Blues and then everyone else)
  • Long numbers, sometimes very long numbers, often spreading out to become ‘concept albums’ on a single theme or story. Classic concept albums include:
    • The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966)
    • The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966)
    • The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • The Who’s The Who Sell Out (1967)
    • The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967)
    • Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus (1971)
    • Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972)
    • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
    • Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
    • Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
    • Wish You Were Here (1975)
    • Animals (1977)
    • The Wall (1979)
  • … and characterised, especially live, by long jams and long individual solos
  • Pretentious subject matter – think Yes’s incomprehensible hippy fantasies, Peter Gabriel’s art school stories, ELP’s shocking bombast, Dark Side of the Moon ‘tackling’ the themes of Life and Death
  • Drugs like marijuana and LSD were widely used and encouraged the creation and consumpton of a particular type of music – one that was long, repetitive, developing changes and variations over repetitive structures
  • Spiritual. The drugs also encouraged both the bands and their fans to believe that the creation and consumption of this long, freeform experimental music was akin to a religious experience. The hippy movement set great store by the idea of self-expression and personal liberation, to be achieved through sex, drugs and great rock music. Fans and musicians alike hankered ” after a rock-derived Sublime which forms the core of Progressive rock music.”
  • English. It’s very English. With quite a lot of well-educated public schoolboy English men, led by Genesis almost all from Charterhouse (one year boarding fee £32,000)
  • White – not a black face in sight. Stump quotes various performers saying it wasn’t overt racism, but many of these bands wanted to incorporate Western classical forms which had zero  black input or performers.
  • Male – after all consumers of Prog and Rock tended to be (often university-educated) young white men – while consumers of chart pop music tended to be more downmarket young women, apparently.
  • Snobbery. Prog’s overwhelmingly white, often college-educated, male fans tended to look down on all other forms of rock and pop as junk, as not ‘serious’, ‘demanding’, difficult’, as too commercial, as having ‘sold out’ to The Man etc. This trope of an exclusive cohort of male initiates can be found across virtually all societies in all times. I revisited the Tate Britain exhibition of the PreRaphaelites this morning, another gang of young English men determined to reject the mass-market art and the exploitative industrial society of their time in order to create an Art which was more ‘demanding’, more ‘true’ etc. And who, of course, ended up being the Grand Old Men which a younger generation was to rebel against…

Stump’s book starts with jazz and the longhair Bohemian scene of the early and mid 1960s. You had to really tuned in to have heard let alone understood the New Thing, the free jazz being played by everyone’s hero John Coltrane and – further out into abstract music – Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders etc. These guys had taken jazz improvisation into wild new places, as a listen to Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ makes clear.

John Coltrane There’s a recognisable band – drums, bass, trumpet, saxaphone – and a structure of sorts – ensemble playing and solos alternating. But everything after that – the ‘tune’, the ‘melody’, even the rhythm, seem undetermined, in flux, leading to a raucous listening experience unlike anything else that had probably ever happened. This track is 40 minutes long and has to be listened all the way through to get the full disorientating affect.

‘Ascension’ by John Coltrane on YouTube

Improvisation and soloing had been a part of country and blues for the whole century – but the New Thing took it to new heights of virtuosity and aural demandingness. What’s impressive at this distance is how close behind the most advanced rock acts were. Ascension was recorded in 1965 and released in 1966 by which time a young Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead were, in their different ways, ready to do similar things – long soloing improvisations frequently bordering on chaos.

King Crimson You can hear some lovely electric band chaos at the end of the title track of ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Stump dates the start of Prog to this album, released in October 1969. King Crimson – brainchild of guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp – shot to fame when they supported the Rolling Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, in front of 500,000 people.The contrast between the delicately orchestrated whimsy of most of the track and the superloud distorted guitar of the choruses, the pretentiousness of the lyrics and then the pure chaos noise at the end, is pure Prog.

‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ on YouTube

Crimson’s first four albums contain traditional songs of hippy tweeness, about knights and ladies etc which burst into episodes of heavy guitar rock. The latter three albums become more musically uncompromising, with freer improvisation, delivering a more intense aural experience. After ‘Red’ in 1974 Fripp dissolved the group, believing he’d reached the end of the road. Though they reformed three years later, and continued releasing albums through the 80s, 90s and 00s, they never recaptured the Zeitgeist, the sense of surfing the wave and shaping its direction, which they had in the early 70s. They were Prog Rock without the confident sense of exciting Progress which you can sense in the exuberance of the early albums. Prog without the Progress.

  • In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
  • In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
  • Lizard (1970)
  • Islands (1971)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
  • Starless and Bible Black (1974)
  • Red (1974)

KC maintained a formidable commitment to aural experiment and difficulty. But most of the other famous Prog bands came from pop or blues backgrounds and were saturated in conventional harmonics and songwriting traditions. Very few of them could begin in apparent chaos and carry on for 40 minutes as the Coltrane track does. Most gave some kind of nod to the structures and cliches of pop. The most hidebound, traditional and, uncoincidentally, by far the most successful, is…

Pink Floyd Although Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) is probably the most famous ‘concept album’ of all time, Floyd themselves stand a little to the side of Prog. Most Proggers tried to be musically more adventurous and sophisticated than Floyd’s fairly basic tunes and harmonics. Most of us can play Floyd’s simple 3 or 4 chord structures on piano or guitar. What they pioneered was sophisticated use of studio technology at a time when the technology was changing at breakneck speed. The songs are passe and use childishly simple changes of dynamics (first soft – then loud – then soft again), but the way they are extended and segued using sound affects, and the band’s skills in the studio, meant they pioneered techniques and technology which created new possibilities for their epigones.

‘Us and Them’ by Pink Floyd on YouTube

  • The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
  • A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
  • Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)
  • Ummagumma (studio and live, 1969)
  • Atom Heart Mother (1970)
  • Meddle (1971)
  • Obscured by Clouds (1972)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
  • Wish You Were Here (1975)

Many of the longer tracks are improvisations around a simple modal pulse played by Roger Waters’ bass, generally an octave of E or D, for example the famous ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ (1968). Child’s play compared to anything by Yes, Genesis or Crimson.

‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ performed live by Pink Floyd on YouTube

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Greg Lake played bass and sang on the first King Crimson album (1969) but then left a band he thought had no future to form a ‘supergroup’ with Keith Emerson, the manically extrovert organist from The Nice and Carl Palmer, the hyperactive drummer from Atomic Rooster. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) was born and quickly released a sequence of albums which became a byword for pompousness, pretentiousness and bombast. Long, long tracks with heavy thumping rhythms, dominated by Emerson’s demented Hammond organ and Moog synthesiser, lyrics about the end of the world, or heavyhanded adaptations of popular classics (Fanfare for the Common Man, Pictures at an Exhibition, Jerusalem). They became one of the most successful acts in the world, pioneered stadium rock and earned a fortune.

  • Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970)
  • Tarkus (1971)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
  • Trilogy (1972)
  • Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

The track ‘Tarkus’ from their concept album of the same name illustrates what was so so wrong with this band.

‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube

Genesis Maybe Genesis are better known than Floyd to the general public because of the crossover pop hits they had when fronted by Phil Collins in the 1980s and 90s. But purist fans hark back to the earliest years, 1969-74, when the band was fronted by Peter Gabriel who also wrote many of the songs:

  • From Genesis to Revelation (1969)
  • Trespass (1970)
  • Nursery Cryme (1971)
  • Foxtrot (1972)
  • Selling England by the Pound (1973)
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Genesis’s music has almost no blues or soul or rock and roll techniques in it at all. Of course it has a rock layout – drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, singer – but the music is extraordinarily inventive without resorting to anything people thought of as blues cliches. Genesis are often thought of as a very English band. Stump seeks to explain: partly it’s the subject matter: Peter Gabriel’s songs, which dominate the early albums, convey a kind of essence of English 6th form/art college whimsy – songs about a magical music box, the giant hogweed as invader England, a song about a Rachman-type rackrent landlord (‘The Knife’), or the thrilling song based on Arthur C Clarke’s very English sci-fi classic ‘Childhood’s End’ (1973).

‘Watcher of the Skies’ by Genesis on YouTube

I knew that the band had met at the elite public school, Charterhouse. Stump adds the fact that Charterhouse has a famous musical department and choir. All the band were soaked in the English choir and hymnal tradition. This explains their musical style with its tendency for the guitar and keyboard to elaborate chords with arpeggios and fugue structures, giving a stately, classical air to even quite raucous passages.

Yes The personnel of these bands were often very fluid. (Floyd again stands out as an exception for the group’s stability; after Dave Gilmour joined in 1968 they stayed with the same 4 musicians up to their Live 8 reunion in 2005). King Crimson, on the other hand, changed personnel and sound with every record, something which hampered them developing a steady following. Yes had a fairly stable memberhood formed round the core of singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (although their drummer, Bill Bruford, who had joined Yes in June 1968, left in the summer of 1972 to join King Crimson.)

Yes are as famous for their album covers by the artist Roger Dean as for their music, like this cover for the 1971 album ‘Fragile’.

Their early albums are striking for the long tracks very carefully arranged from numerous small fragments which are seamlessly joined, for the sound of Jon Anderson’s falsetto vocals and the driving bass of Chris Squire, for Chris Howe’s prodigious virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitar. and for the hippy incomprehensibility of the lyrics.

  • Yes (1969)
  • Time and a Word (1970)
  • The Yes Album (1971)
  • Fragile (1971)
  • Close to the Edge (1972)
  • Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
  • Relayer (1974)

‘Siberian Khatru’ by Yes on YouTube

The End of Prog There were three ends:

1. Punk 

The first punk singles were released in Summer 1976 and suddenly a younger generation of performers and punters realised you didn’t have to be a virtuoso like Robert Fripp or Rick Wakefield or Chris Howe to get on stage and perform a song which spoke to you and your hearers’ lives and emotions. Also songs didn’t have to be half an hour long with extended solos, and be all about the end of the world or knights and fairies or Starship Troopers. They could be short and punchy and about nicking cars, finding a job, about the boring, drunk, sometimes violent urban scene which most English people actually inhabit. Culturally, Punk Rock destroyed the imaginative worldview which underpinned Prog. It was like the Emperor’s new Clothes: once one person pointed out the emperor was naked, the whole artifice with its pomp, its pretentions and its sacred cows, came crashing down.

On the street, vast numbers of young people wanted other sorts of music, whether it was soul, disco, heavy metal, ska, two-tone, reggae, the  chilled-out Californian sounds of the Eagles or James Taylor – and then suddenly the completely new worldview of Punk burst onto the scene. Punk wasn’t just a music but an aesthetic. It made the gritty street scenes, the urban decay of developed countries, it made poverty, aggression, loutish thuggish je m’en foutisme, cool and stylish. The editor of punk fanzine Sniffin Glue famously threw any single which lasted more than 3 minutes out the window.

2. Death of progressive politics

Progressive politics collapsed. Whether it was hard politics of post 68 revolutionaries or the soft utopianism of the hippies, both were strangled by the economic collapse of the early 70s. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab countries quadrupled the price of oil plunging the developed world into a depression which lasted nearly a decade. Radical politics and hippy druggy alternative lifestyles dragged on, but without the confidence with which they’d begun back in the booming 1960s. In one sense Punk was just being honest about the crappy urban world of unemployment and street fighting which it saw out the window. The bands became multimillionaire tax exiles phoning in their solos from Switzerland and arguing about royalties. Whatever idealism they had at the start had vanished by the mid-70s.

3. Out of steam 

Stump’s book suggests that Prog was running out of steam before well Punk exploded.

Peter Gabriel left Genesis in June 1975, exhausted by writing most of the big ‘concept’ album ‘The Lamb lies Down on Broadway’, and a long American tour. Robert Fripp dissolved King Crimson in September 1974, exhausted and disillusioned by the ‘rock’ world. Pink Floyd‘s multimillion smash album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) was followed by the less-popular ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) which is a sour meditation on the band’s embittered alienation from their fans and the exploitative music business. There’s a big gap between Yes‘s ‘Relayer’ (1974) and its successor, ‘Going for the One’ (1977), as if they’d run out of inspiration. In 1974 Emerson, Lake and Palmer, at one stage vying with Led Zeppelin as biggest grossing rock band in the world, released ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973), toured it in 1974, then took a sabbatical. It turned into a 3 year break and when they returned with Works I in 1977 the world had moved on and they were never to recapture their success. The Incredible String Band, the influential experimental folk band which had issued hugely successful albums since their 1967 debut, broke up in 1974. In summer 1975 Gong, maybe the archetypal hippy band, lost founder member Daevid Allen and two other core members.

On the broader Rock scene, John Lennon, a Master presence who helped oversee the transition of pop from Royal Variety entertainment to experimental Rock, retired from music in October 1975 after the birth of his son, Sean, and after delivering diminishing returns with his solo career. And a real Giant of 20th century music, Miles Davis, also retired in the summer of 1975, exhausted from decades of substance abuse. If you listen to his musical progress in the early 70s it’s hard to avoid the conclusion he had painted himself into a corner with increasingly rackety electronic jazz. In his last concerts he stopped playing trumpet altogether and leant his elbows on an electric organ, glaring at the audience.

Bit of a sweeping conclusion, but it is suggestive that somehow the explosion of creativity which began sometime in the 1960s, around 1966/67 – which saw widespread experiments in musical form and structure, in instrumentation, in crossing over genres, the transformation of recording technology, the transformation of venues from sweaty clubs to vast American stadiums –  these enormous changes in the creation, marketing, selling, performance and consumption of the new genre of Rock Music, had taken place and been consolidated. The experimental phase was over. A new phase of stadium rock, an established genre with its own expectations, populated by transAtlantic rock gods, was well in place by about 1973. The open-ended experimental progressiveness these bands had pioneered had ground to a halt.

4. Or… did Prog die?

The thing that strikes me most about reading this book and revisiting these old bands is – they still exist! To my surprise, they either reformed later in the 70s or 80s or just continued writing and recording music. What else could they do? In the 80s, swept aside by Punk, new Wave, then the New Romantics not to mention hiphop and World Music, they must have seemed a forlorn hope and I imagine sales collapsed. But they persisted, and recorded and toured through the 90s and into the 00s. The invention of the CD must have been a boon for musicians who liked making album-long tracks of music – and better digital quality must have helped people understand the subtleties of composition and instrumentation which had been muffled on vinyl. But then the advent of the internet must have also been a lease of life – allowing as it did the establishment of worldwide communities of fans, the publication of concert footage or rare tracks – the creation, in other words, of a whole new online audience.

Now there are annual Prog awards, festivals, magazines, and newer young Prog bands, and from all sorts of disparate countries. Back in 1980, who on earth would have imagined that Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, the various bits of Pink Floyd, would still be recording and touring over 40 years after most of them were formed.

Big caveat

I’ve only discussed the most famous Prog bands, the ones I’m (over)familiar with. Stump’s book is extremely useful for listing and describing and analysing music by a host of other bands of the period, including:

  • The Moody Blues
  • The Strawbs
  • The Incredible String Band
  • The Nice
  • Soft Machine
  • Caravan
  • Gong
  • Gentle Giant
  • Henry Cow
  • Renaissance
  • Van de Graaf Generator
  • Tangerine Dream

A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George RR Martin (2000)

17 January 2012

A Storm of Swords is book three of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. This one book is divided into two volumes, presumably because volume one’s 569 pages plus volume two’s 554 pages would have made a pretty unmanageable 1,123 page book. Plus the maps. Plus the 53 pages listing the characters.

Part one of ‘A Storm of Swords’ is titled ‘Steel and Snow’. As with the two previous books in the series the novel follows quite a few complex plotlines, embracing hundreds of characters scattered over two continents of his fantasy world, Westeros and Essos:

  • Beyond the ice wall Jon Snow has abandoned his comrades of the Night Watch, pretending to join the wildlings or Free Men who live in violent anarchy in the frozen North. Their leader, Mance Rayder, has assembled a ramshackle army of anarchists and psychopaths to break through the great Ice Wall and invade Westeros but around them are gathering the Others, undead zombies who rise from their tombs, garbed in black ashes with bright blue eyes, who can’t be killed by normal weapons.
  • In the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, the ironical dwarf Tyrion recovers consciousness after helping cruel 13 year old King Joffrey Lannister’s forces to victory in the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay in which the army and navy of the pretender Stannis Baratheon are destroyed in a great conflagration of dragonfire.
Photo of Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Meanwhile Robb Stark, erstwhile King of the North, makes a terrible tactical mistake by not carrying out his promise to marry the daughter of Lord Frey, ruler of the key crossing of the Trident river, the Two Twins. Instead he marries for love an unknown 18 year old beauty, Jeyne Westerling, thus alienating his key ally in the North.
  • Thirteen year old Sansa Stark is still held hostage by Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing and betrothed to the vicious 14-year old king Joffrey although, during the course of the book her fate is changed, as a new dynastic arrangement is made for King Joffrey and Sansa finds herself reassigned to marry the dwarf Tyrion.
Photo of Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The tone of the whole book lifts with the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, father to Cersei and Tyrion and Jamei. Cold and relentless, he is a surprisingly reassuring figure because he isn’t cruel or sadistic; every strategy is carefully planned and Tywin moves in a permanent web of plans, schemes, plots, alliances and manouevres. His cunning at least has a purpose unlike the unspeakable nastiness of the vile Joffrey and the demented Cersei.
  • Arya Stark continues her odyssey as an anonymous serving girl in the vast ruins of Harrenhal – until she manages to escape (killing a guard in the process) and heads North back to her home castle, Winterfell.
  • And Daenerys Targaryan, widow of Khal Drogo, and owner of three baby dragons who symbolise the rising of new magic in a world fast heading towards Winter and catastrophe, buys – or liberates – an army of the ‘Unsullied’ – eunuchs trained to obey unquestioningly and never feel pain – with which to return and conquer what she regards as her rightful kingdom, the Westeros which all the other characters in the book are fighting and scheming for.
Photo of Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of  ‘A Clash of Kings’, the second novel in the series, which aired in the States and on Sky Atlantic last year. The dvd of GoT series 2 is available now.

Series 3, based on the this book, will start broadcasting on Sky Atlantic on 1 April this year.

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