January 18, 2012

ALL MUSIC CREATES communities of fans, and those fans who gather together create subcultures, each with their own aesthetic style, language and social codes. There has been The Cult, and the cult of Wagner, punks, Teddy Boys, Zoot-suiters and Romantics. It has always been thus, and it has always been the most intense and fractious during adolescence, when children and changing and discovering the truth of their personalities. During high school, music is where your friends are. Everyone has a group to join.

But there’s always a fringe, and in high school that fringe, for the last forty years, has been those kids who listen to progressive rock. Their only aesthetic signifier is the gaudy, artless black concert t-shirts with logos of bands that have never truly been in fashion. No one wants to join this clique, which has been endlessly uncool, because the music itself has never been socially in vogue.

In a way, I know why. The fussy, faux-Baroque excesses of some bands can be a little embarrassing, the scope and sweep of the music can be bombastic. Nigel Tufnel, lead guitarist of Spinal Tap, is not just a parody of a heavy metal rocker, but one of Steve Howe, the exceptional guitarist of the band Yes. Progressive rock is neither more nor less prone to these things than any other style of music. Especially in pop music, mannerism comes pretty hard and fast as musicians pile on the latest, recycled trend, and a sense of bombast is essential to performing most popular music. Call it self-regard, the vanity and egocentrism that puts Sting at the front of the stage, or has Miles Davis turn his back on the audience.

Since it was never in fashion, progressive rock has never gone out of fashion, loping along somewhat unobtrusively, from its Ur-moment when John McLaughlin joined Miles Davis’ electric band to the present day, where it’s reached a point of subtle triumph. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Can, Yes, King Crimson have led not only to Radiohead — the band that made progressive rock cool — but the composer Steve Mackey’s band Big Farm, with a record expected this year, and to the excellent classical guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee working on a progressive rock album. My ears tell me that the rock element that joined with the Bang on a Can collective to produce Post-Minimalism might have had a punk attitude but it certainly had a progressive rock musicality, which is apparent not only in the muscularity of the music but the broken rhythms and pounding beats, the interlocking patterns. Progressive rock learned these from Stravinsky and Bartok and returned them to classical music, and now the elision between classical and rock is exploding on the contemporary scene.

The valedictory to all this is one of the finest recordings of 2011, Shuffle.Play.Listen from pianist Christopher O’Riley and cellist Matt Haimovitz, who separately had already (unintentionally) been making this point for years simply out of their desire to make the music that they could, and that they wanted to. O’Riley’s arrangements of Radiohead for solo piano were already an important breakthrough. They brought him a new audience, revealed how fascinating and finely made the songs are, and as O’Riley told me in conversation with Haimovitz in the fall, when his piano students heard them, they helped to validate their own taste in popular music, vis-a-vis studying classical, and gave them more confidence in enjoying what they enjoyed, be it rock or Mozart, without prejudice.

Haimovitz is an old hand at this, and something of a pioneer, driving through the country to play Bach and Jimi Hendrix on the cello in bars — and now classical in bars is almost commonplace — and putting out a series of excellent recordings that collect music from Modernist composers, collaborations with electronic artists and DJs, and arrangements of the Mahavishnu Orchestra for his all-cello group, Ucelli. He set out on this path as a way to refresh himself and his music-making, to do something personally and artistically stimulating after working his way through the classical repertoire. It was remarkable at the time, but it seemed like it took a decade for the music world to really comprehend what was going on, which is that people who go out to bars and maybe see a band or feed money into the jukebox were hearing music they knew and music they knew of but were never interested in. And they liked it.

The musical success of their individual records and their current collaboration, which they are bring to the Highline Ballroom in New York City on Sunday, January 22, for what is amazingly their first appearance here touring this material, comes from the naturalness of their approach. There’s a history of classical artists, especially singers, putting out records of ‘pop’ material, and that all seems anachronistic now. Where divas once went slumming, O’Riley and Haimovitz are playing music that they had always enjoyed, going back to their formative years as musicians, practicing their scales and their Bartok and Stravinsky and listening to Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake and Palmer. O’Riley’s arrangements bring out the sophisticate elements of rhythm and harmony that he finds in rock music, and Haimovitz’s vocalized, exquisitely singing lines in all music are hard to imagine without years of listening to songs, and singing along. Their easy improvising also highlights another invaluable service progressive rock has done for classical music, which is to return the concept of improvisation to a music that has suffered from a bizarre, self-inflicted pedagogical wound for two long.

In the end, the nerds and social outcasts have triumphed, and saved some of the most worthwhile possibilities of music. I’m casting no aspersions on the high school experiences of O’Riley, Haimovitz and their peers, but certainly they spent a great deal of time by themselves, dedicated to their instruments, or else they wouldn’t be making the music they are today. And certainly, they listened to a lot of (still) unfashionable bands while doing it. Although Sonic Youth has always been cool, and they’ve emerged as one of the greatest progressive rock bands. And even O’Riley had to admit that there music is too wonderfully complex to arrange for the duo. But what lucky men they are.

by George Grella

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