Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Genres

Posted by Mike on October 25, 2006

As an enthusiast of both literature and music, I often have the chance to compare how various fields deal with the issue of genre or classification. Probably my largest article on this issue can be found at the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock (link on right), which is something of an overview of progressive rock.

There’s a disturbing tendency, whether in progressive rock or the speculative fiction fields, to want to canonize genre, to make it something specific and well-defined. However for any definition of genre, there are always exceptions that cloud the issue. I’ve been noticing this frequently of late, particularly when writing the liner notes for Alan Sorrenti’s Aria. It became obvious that even though Aria is a record classified as progressive rock by just about anyone, it’s not really much of a rock record at all. And then in listening to some Canadian albums from the 70s I thought the same thing, particularly with albums by Charles Kaczynski and L’Engouvelent. Progressive, maybe, but neither of the sole albums by both of these artists could remotely be called rock – neither have much of what amounts to the rock backbone of bass and drums, in fact both would be closer to classical or folk music. However, I’ve never come across a conversation where the “progressive rock” canonicity of Alan Sorrenti, L’Engouvelent or Charles Kaczynski was ever in question. All seem embraced by the enthusiast, often the same enthusiast who will be the first to point out why something else is not progressive rock.

It seems obvious there is a spirit at work, above and beyond the necessity for progressive rock to be either progressive or rock. It’s what I refer to as the genre’s assimilative quality in the GEPR article. One of the first articles I ever read on art rock or progressive rock was a Tower Pulse one-pager on the best art rock albums. Noone is likely to mistake Tangerine Dream for Yes, Genesis or even Roxy Music, but the author of said article had a number of varying genres music all lumped under the classification of art rock. Of course, this article was written long before the internet, but it was obvious that the thread that tied all these disparate styles together had nothing to do with the styles themselves, but something else altogether. A spirit, if you will.

This spirit seems to date back to festivals like Woodstock and concerts put on by Bill Graham and the like. In today’s musical field, you may have a festival for the jam band crowd, a jazz festival or a progressive rock festival, but in the early days of rock, genres weren’t so delineated. Jimi Hendrix played on the same bill as Sha Na Na. Miles Davis followed Tiny Tim on stage at the Isle of Wight. Folkies played next to the rock bands and jazzers. It’s hard to imagine the academic progressive rock fan at these shows arguing with each other about who should have been there or not.

But this is what happens today. The ratings site I cocreated, Gnosis, has come under fire numerous times for not sticking to a canonical definition of progressive rock, despite the fact that even from the beginning it wasn’t designed to be a canonical progressive rock website. Despite explaining in great detail that Gnosis goes by the spirit rather than the letter, that its inclusiveness is more in the spirit of the classic Fillmore shows of the late 60s and 70s, there are those who would still be offended that Sha Na Na played at Woodstock, or more recently Steve Roach at NEARfest.

Progressive rock wasn’t created in a vacuum and, apparently considered contradictory today, it was as much of a child of popular/populist music as any experimental tendencies. To reduce it to representing a largely compositional, symphonic music (or even a strictly experimental or literally progressive music) does it a grave injustice that divorces it from its own rich genre bending history. Arguing conversely that it makes every genre “progressive rock” denies the spirit, the same spirit that assimilates Sorrenti, Kazcynski, L’Engouvelent, Malicorne, and Tangerine Dream into the pantheon of interest, even if one could stick to the letter of the law and deny Sorrenti’s inclusion on its lacking anything resembling a rock edge.

Genres exist as a method of classification, however artists resist the same classification. The spirit of art will go where it will, not stopping at the same thresholds the fans do, particularly those fans who love strawberry-kiwi smoothies and who find strawberry-kiwi juice or banana smoothies noncanonical.

It’s this spirit vs. letter that is part of the difficulty. The letter insists that progressive rock is the thread of music that dates back to the Moody Blues, through Genesis and Yes. It also insists that symphonic folk artists like L’Engoulevent are not progressive rock, after all, it doesn’t rock in any way.

The spirit works differently. It can’t be defined or explained in the same way that the mystical experience can’t be imparted. It’s generally experiential and differs from individual to individual. My definition of the “spirit” of progressive rock is going to differ from anyone reading this. I could talk about it in terms of the hermetic element “spirit,” the “spirit” of the old music festivals or even just the acknowledgement of having been a musician in a band and having periodically experienced whatever spirit it is that turned a mess into perfection for segments of time. The spirit is ambitious, it exalts. It eschews convention and definition, it creates connections that aren’t necessarily obvious. One is as likely to prove such a spirit exists as one is to prove the universality of a personal mystical experience. As soon as you can grasp what it is, it slips from the grasp and mutates. Randi’s $1 million dollars are safe.

When something loses its ambiguity, it also loses some of its mystery. Were Gnosis to come out and render a strict definition for inclusion, it’s not only jazz, electronic, pop and folk that will come under fire, but those records assumed as canon by a majority. The story of Genesis in the bible works beautifully as myth, legend or metaphor, but taken literally it becomes an abomination to common sense and scientific evidence, in itself creating far more rules than it solves in order to render its literalism reasonable. Genre is similar, as soon as the rules are defined and delineated, it becomes the exclusive gatekeeper, rendering subtlety and sublimity worthless. Literalism is anathema to art, it suffocates and constricts, whether artist or critic.

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2 Responses to “Genres”

  1. wallace said

    Excellent think through,Mike.

    Would it be okay to paste this over to Galactic Zoo forum?

    And good to see your finally back at reviewing the music!

  2. Mike said

    Thanks Wallace, nice to hear from you, and sure, no problem. If you want to direct them to the page, it’s:

    https://mikesprattle.wordpress.com/2006/10/25/genres/

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