"To Let It Be without Pretense": Canon, Fugue, and Imitation in Progressive Rock 1968-1979

By Lundberg, Mattias | Music Theory Online, September 2014 | Go to article overview

"To Let It Be without Pretense": Canon, Fugue, and Imitation in Progressive Rock 1968-1979


Lundberg, Mattias, Music Theory Online


[1] Recent socio-musicological interpretations of the progressive-rock movement in the late 60s and early 70s may be separated into two main historiographical strands. The first aligns with the informal historiography proposed in music criticism and sociology throughout the 80s and 90s. According to this interpretation, the bands involved were middle-class social agents seeking acceptance from their elders on the grounds of authoritative cultural capital deriving from the appropriation of classical and traditional musical elements (or, in the case of working-class musicians, as striving for increased cultural capital and socio-economic ascent).(1) Such apparent aspirations for cultural accreditation have often been viewed as an anomaly in the so-called counterculture movement, which was otherwise characterized by critique (or outright rejection) of all expressions of reverence for the individual artist, historical conventions, and middle-class values, and a mistrust of powerful institutions and mores.(2) Sheinbaum has posited an "inversion of musical values" within the late 60s and early 70s counterculture, suggesting that its dominant musical aesthetic favored simple structures over more complicated ones, repetition over development, and stimulation of the body over stimulation of the mind (2002, 24-27). When viewed in light of such interpretative paradigms, musical elements such as canon, imitation, and fugue are construed by many scholars as somehow inherently in conflict with the cultural context in which progressive rock appeared. This interpretative trope, for many years predominant, may be summed up by charges of "pretension" and "self-indulgence" against progressive rock.

[2] The other main socio-musicological strand of progressive-rock historiography has developed only in more recent years. Writers who subscribe to this view describe progressive-rock groups as speaking from within the counterculture while nonetheless relying on aesthetic and stylistic elements and compositional strategies from the Western classical tradition, and offering at times severe social critique and challenges aimed at the cultural establishment, indeed at the very authorities and institutional cultures by which they were schooled musically and intellectually. Some writers have focused on what Keister and Smith (2008, 435-36) call "the nasty side of progressive rock," unearthing or rediscovering dissident political, social, and ethical topoi in the otherwise lofty and abstract lyrics and highly ambitious music of these bands.(3) Here the balance of power between high-brow and low-brow is shifted, by claiming-as Keister and Smith do-that it was in fact popular culture that bestowed cultural capital onto the waning tradition of Western classical music, rather than vice versa.(4) This historiographical strand is held together by "contention," i.e. tension between the established bourgeois culture and the counterculture. Such an analytical stance interprets contrapuntal writing in progressive rock as a traditional tool handed down from predecessors for ready use, just like any other means of musical expression that can be taught and perfected.

[3] In the following discussion I suggest first that the use of contrapuntal writing in progressive rock occupies a clearly definable and different ground from more general references to Western classical music in the genre such as instrumentation, timbre, large-scale form, motivic development, virtuosity, etc. Contrapuntal writing is a distinct and perennial tradition that tends to eschew the flamboyance and outward grandiosity identified as key elements in earlier discourses of progressive rock (in negative or positive terms, depending on the author); by definition, in this context at least, it is entirely detached from the domain of improvisation.(5) I will furthermore argue that contrapuntal writing is used in some instances as a deep principle of structural organization, where the contrapuntal devices are at the heart of the song, but that it occasionally also figures as surface allusion with a number of different associative implications. …

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