Saturday, November 25, 2017

White Music

This post has been sitting on the back burner for over three months.

I will sometimes have an idea for a post but am not sure if I want to do something with it or what I want to do with it.  Well…the time has arrived for this post – and the reason will become clear shortly.

The Whitest Music Ever: Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful.  So says James Parker at The Atlantic.  Well, he might be right in what he says in the title, but right off the bat I don’t like this guy:

The trapped, eunuch ferocity of Geddy Lee’s voice, squealing inside the nonsense clockwork of Rush, disturbs me.

He is both overtly mocking Geddy Lee and covertly mocking what I consider to be Rush’s best album ever, Clockwork Angels.  Better that this guy advocated nuclear war with Russia or something. 

And from whence comes the title of this piece?

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.” Indeed. Thus did [progressive rock] divorce itself from the blues, take flight into the neoclassical, and become the whitest music ever.

The whitest music ever?  I think “King Tut” by Steve Martin is the slam dunk winner. 

But, let’s go with progressive rock, as is suggested by Mr. Parker.  No matter your preference or disdain for progressive rock, I believe we could agree that it is, perhaps, the most complicated music of this (and maybe many) generation(s). 

Multiple time signature changes; complex chords and structures; lyrics that seem to have no rhythm when read, flow beautifully when sung to the music, etc.  It takes intelligence, mental coordination, physical coordination, emotional complexity, connecting the mental and physical and emotional – far more than any music of which I am aware…well, since Bach…but I will come to this shortly. 

Those who perform progressive rock well might be the most intelligent and capable musicians on the planet; I suggest that they are virtuosos.  My personal favorites are Rush and Dream Theater (and derivatives of Dream Theater, especially Liquid Tension Experiment…and orchestras that cover same).

That James Parker connects progressive rock to the neoclassical deserves mention; one can find a little Johann Sebastian Bach at the heart of every progressive rock musician.  If you think I exaggerate either this point or my praise of the ability of progressive rock musicians, bear with me for a brief diversion.  I will make the connection.  Regarding Bach’s compositions, for example:

Modulations, changing key in the course of a piece, is another style characteristic where Bach goes beyond what was usual in his time.

Bach was generally quite specific on ornamentation in his compositions…and his ornamentation was often quite elaborate.

In music, ornaments or embellishments are musical flourishes—typically, added notes—that are not essential to carry the overall line of the melody (or harmony), but serve instead to decorate or "ornament" that line (or harmony), provide added interest and variety, and give the performer the opportunity to add expressiveness to a song or piece. Many ornaments are performed as "fast notes" around a central, main note.

In concerted playing in Bach's time the basso continuo, consisting of instruments such as organ, and/or viola da gamba and harpsichord, usually had the role of accompaniment: providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of a piece. From the late 1720s, Bach had the organ play concertante (i.e. as soloist) with the orchestra in instrumental cantata movements… and in his sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord neither instrument plays a continuo part: they are treated as equal soloists, way beyond the figured bass role.

Bach wrote virtuoso music for specific instruments, as well as music independent of instrumentation. For instance, the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin are considered the pinnacle of what has been written for this instrument, only within reach of accomplished players: the music fits the instrument, pushing it to the full scale of its possibilities, requiring virtuosity of the player, but without bravura.

Another characteristic of Bach's style is his extensive use of counterpoint, as opposed to…homophony…

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour.

Bach devoted more attention than his contemporaries to the structure of compositions.

The librettos, that is the lyrics, for his vocal compositions played an important role for Bach…writing or adapting such texts himself to make them fit in the structure of the composition he was designing…

To sum all of this up:

Since the 19th-century Bach Revival he has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

Progressive rock: a continuation of Bach.  So if The Atlantic wants to label progressive rock as “the whitest music ever,” I guess that makes the white musicians who perform and compose this stuff the most intelligent and capable musicians ever….at least since Bach.

That sounds like racist hate speech and white privilege to me.  if you find yourself after a cup of hot chocolate right about now, just remember – I’m not the one who wrote it, James Parker did.

So What’s the point?

In response to Parker’s statement, I wrote the King Tut part of this post several months ago.  So what has prompted me, after these many months, to now finish and publish this post?  Well, I will tell you: boy was I wrong about King Tut.

Slow down there, Tutankhamen – it is apparently racist, but not in the way I thought.  From Charles Burris:

According to this Newsweek account: “Steve Martin’s seminal “King Tut” sketch is being blasted as cultural appropriation by a group of students at a prestigious liberal arts college in Oregon after the classic “Saturday Night Live” parody was played in a humanities course.

Click the link and watch the video.  Probably the most hilarious three minutes you will spend today.

…the sketch is the cultural equivalent of blackface because one of the side actors emerged from a sarcophagus with his face painted gold.

Goldface…we now have to worry about goldface.


Was I ever wrong!  King Tut wasn’t the whitest music ever; it was the…goldest music ever.


  1. I've read that some African American music genres of the 90s and 2000s are actually imports originally created in Germany.

    1. Having worked for a German company for a while, having done/doing business with German firms, and have both German friendships business relationships I can tell you that German culture and black Jazz represent an interesting cultural intersection.

      Jazz was actually "verboten" under the Nazi regime, which like drugs or any other thing government tries to "ban" usually encourages people to find out "why". The German population started "underground" Jazz clubs at the time as a result.

      I really love jazz(but I also love Tool, Pink Floyd, some 80's hair "rock" and host of other genre's that some might make fun of me for appreciating).

      My former boss, a prominent German businessman in Charlotte, invited me to a Jazz event he used to organize at Johnson C. Smith college(a historically black college) that I love going to when I can make it. (they hold it once a year- my former boss just took a break organizationally)

      Talk about an eclectic group! They fly in German jazz bands/musicians to play the initial set, to be joined by the university's black student musicians later on stage.

      It's truly a fantastic event with high quality musicians. The Germans love jazz.

  2. I'll take Dream Theater and Yes over Bieber and Beyonce any day. Please forgive my whiteness.

    1. If you haven't seen it, Geddy Lee plays bass with Yes on Roundabout at their induction to the R&R HOF. Worth a look:

  3. I've got some other whiter than white music for Mr. Parker.

    But I guarantee he'll like it less...

    1. I laughed hard as soon as the title came up.

    2. They're freakin' hilariously awesome, and great music to accompany certain tasks.

      ...But if you're a Commie, or a Nazi, they'll curb stomp you. No joke.

      Oh yeah. They're white too. Like Casper-marshmallow-fluff-Stay-Puft white.

  4. Yikes. Anyone who believes in cultural appropriation exposes their complete ignorance of history and how cultures form and develop. The Bible contains a story of the Flood that bears similarities to the one from The Epic of Gilgamesh. As people interact and share experiences, ideas and stories are absorbed and reinterpreted in different ways. Music is a perfect example. Under cultural appropriation, a lot of musical forms should be banned including K-Pop, funk and pop-style hip-hop. People need to relax.

    As an aside, I found the skit corny rather than funny. It felt like it belonged on Sesame Street rather than SNL. Never been a big fan of Steve Martin though. I think he is at his best when paired with someone else to play off. I loved his movie with John Candy.

    1. Since it is easily my favorite movie of his, I am going to guess "The Jerk" doesn't rank high on your list of Steve Martin movies.


    2. I enjoyed parts of it. The Jerk is consistently ranked as his best film though so clearly you are not alone. The premise of him being a black man initially was hilarious. That movie could not get made today sadly.

    3. "I was born a poor black child..."

      Talk about cultural appropriation!

  5. Also, I actually sympathize with the author's perspective. I have a love/hate relationship with prog although I have only just been exposed to it. I agree completely with your view that it requires tremendous technical mastery and talent. However, complicated and highly technical does not automatically translate into good music. Some of it just seems to descend into pretentious incoherence for the sake of complexity (Yes being the best example). I am warming to Dream Theater though.

    Question: Is Pink Floyd considered prog rock?

    1. "Some of it just seems to descend into pretentious incoherence for the sake of complexity..."

      True enough, but better than pretentious incoherence for the sake of pretentious incoherence, which pretty much describes all of today's popular music!

      As to Pink Floyd, in my opinion they straddle progressive and psychedelic. Maybe the most libertarian lyrics out there.

    2. "True enough, but better than pretentious incoherence for the sake of pretentious incoherence, which pretty much describes all of today's popular music!"

      Very true. I concede. Ha!

      And as for Pink Floyd, I am blown away by Dark Side of the Moon.

    3. Yes, fabulous.

      But "The Wall"! Very libertarian, very anti-war.

  6. I'll come in with Gothic and Industrial as a close second for the coveted "Whitest Music Eva".

    Lameness just permeates Pop Music for a good 20+ years...It just seems that the classic pop genres have been fused with the music industries default bread and butter hip hop and variations of that sorry trash.

    Us X'ers used to take pride in the smugness of our new true Alt Indie bands were flying high under the radar. The "My Band is Better than Yours" philosophy was hardcore. Now mediocrity is King.

  7. While prog is certainly demanding from a technical point of view, no genre of music can touch the level of harmonic understanding that jazz requires. Jazz players are required to understand the same contrapuntal concepts that composers of the renaissance utilized, and apply them to the most advanced harmonic structures that confine to our 12-tone modal system. Furthermore, they must be skilled enough to utilize all of those techniques in an improvisational fashion over nearly endless scenarios. Jazz also requires an enormous amount of technical proficiency, and players are required to possess a deep understanding of groove that no rock player would ever grasp. Prog is child's play compared to the masterful art that is jazz.

    1. I am acquainted with a skilled jazz drummer, he tells me the same.

  8. One of my favorites:

    Owyhee Cowboy

  9. Now THIS is the whitest. Or at least whiter.

  10. "No matter your preference or disdain for progressive rock, I believe we could agree that it is, perhaps, the most complicated music of this (and maybe many) generation(s)."

    Best described as jazz fusion, Pat Metheny Group's albums between 1987 and 1997 win the complexity of composition award IMO, especially "Imaginary Day" (1997). Talk about white music.

    Jeff Beck's albums, especially those from the '90s, are runners up as well.

    Keep up the good work, BM.

  11. Oh man... the excitement and intensity of prog brings back loads of great memories. Easily my favorite from back then - Dixie Dregs.

    A Sampler

    Dixie Dregs - Odyssey

    Dixie Dregs Pride O' The Farm
    Dixie Dregs - The Bash

    Dixie Dregs - Take It Off The Top

    Dixie Dregs - Ice Cakes
    Dixie Dregs - Kat Food

    Acoustic classical influence:
    Dixie Dregs - Little Kids
    Dixie Dregs - Go for Baroque

    Odd time signatures:
    Dixie Dregs - Night Meets Light
    Dixie Dregs - Hereafter

    Completely Nuts counterpoint, and odd time signatures:
    Dixie Dregs - I'm Freaking Out

    Bionic - am just now getting familiar with your particular libertarian POV, esp vis-a-vis Culture. Excellent writing. Big Thanks for your efforts.