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02 What is Progressive Music?


This article is from the Progressive Music FAQ, by Phil Kime(Philip@kime.org.uk) with numerous contributions by others.

02 What is Progressive Music?

"Progressive rock was what happened in the early 70's when certain
brilliant instrumentalists got fed up with playing three-and-a-half
minute long songs about teenage love. Unfortunately, this led them
to start playing ten-and-a-half minute long songs about nothing in

-- Geoff Nicholson, `Big Noises: Rock Guitar in the 1990s', Quadrant
Books, 1991.

Humour aside, there are probably as many answers as there
are people reading this, and all answers contain some insight
into the question and concepts involved. The word "progressive"
has been defined to mean "forward moving", "widening in scope",
"changing in increments" and so on. However, in order to understand
what is meant by "progressive music", one must look beyond the
dictionary to the usage it has in circles where the term is common
currency. Hereafter, we shall forgo the scare-quotes and fearlessly
use the term "progressive" with wanton abandon as this should help
reduce any reservations that people feel about the more irrelevant
connotations. You will often see the term "progressive rock"
used as a term intended to cover the same field as "progressive
music". "progressive rock" is a common phrase that is generally not
meant to restrict the concept to rock-related examples. Indeed,
you sometime see, for example, people refer to ambient Eno as
"progressive rock". Please remember this is now a mnemonic term
that no longer has strictly compositional meaning. It refers to
progressive music in the same way that "juice" is sometimes used
to refer to any soft drink (at least where I currently live in
Edinburgh, Scotland).

For terms of discussion on rec.music.progressive(r.m.p), most
progressive music is based to some degree on: 70's Art Rock,
Canterbury, Psychedelic, Fusion, Krautrock, Classical Rock, Folk,
Space Rock, RIO, and Zeuhl Music (for a definition of these terms,
see FAQ 4) and/or many other forms of music that mainstream music is,
in many cases, completely oblivious of. Recently, in the last 10-15
years, the mainstream media has used the word progressive to describe
college music, alternative pop, and other forms of music. While this
is a common use of the word, it is not the use we are referring to
on this newsgroup. If you are reading this for the first time and
you feel progressive music focuses on bands such as The Smiths,
The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and/or one of the many
bands showcased on MTV's "120 Minutes" or "Alternative Nation",
you will probably prefer to read alt.music.alternative.

Naturally, one of the first desires of someone approaching this area
is to find some characteristic that defines a given piece of music
as progressive. Unfortunately, as is the case with most concepts,
there is certainly no one feature that all music deemed progressive
share. However, this detracts nothing from the comfortable use
of the word on r.m.p. Why might this be? There are two reasons
I think. Firstly, the word is best defined in its use by people
versed in uttering it. This is the case with many words and the
time-worn Wittgenstein comments regarding the impossibility of
providing a definition that specifies all and only all of things
that answer to the concept "game" are germane here. All games
share no single feature that does not allow non games under the
concept as well. So it is with "progressive". Not all progressive
music shares a common characteristic but one can trace commonalties
between arbitrary instances of the term, thus creating a huge web
of interconnected instances. For example, it is hard to find direct
commonalties between Brian Eno and Dr Nerve but one might easily
trace common threads by way of intermediate examples. In this
way we can account for the coherency of a taste that includes
both. Occasionally, you will see debates on r.m.p about what
"progressive" means which is healthy and expected. However, as you
will quickly realise, that there is a surprisingly unified sense of
what "belongs" on r.m.p - one which transcends attempts to provide
an impossibly brief nutshell definition. Having said that, you can
obtain an idea of what people mean by the term "progressive" if you
entertain descriptions like "complex", "intricate", "innovative",
"challenging" and so forth. Obviously none of these, even if taken
in combination, are necessary or sufficient to categorically define
the term. Glibly, we may say that progressive music is what sounds
like other progressive music. This is not a vicious circle as
there as accepted exemplars, for example early Genesis, Yes and
King Crimson that we may use as the basis for analogy. One must be
very careful not to use such accepted canons as the only exemplars
otherwise you are ignoring the central feature of such a term as
"progressive": that is has no central defining terms. In the end,
it is up to the listener to draw boundaries where they see fit, if
they see fit at all; it is merely useful to know where others have
come to draw boundaries so as to avoid confusion and unnecessary
problems. One happy attitude that you will find on r.m.pis that there
is a general consensus that it is the music that is important, and
not what you decide to label it so feel free to test the waters and
ask if you are considering discussing something you are suspicious
may be more relevantly discussed elsewhere. People who spend a lot
of time attempting to label certain instances of music are probably
more interested in taxonomy than music.

As mentioned above, the reason there is so much disagreement about
what music is progressive and how progressive it really is, is that
the term is used to describe many ostensibly different styles of
music. Many innovative and unclassifiable musics are included under
the progressive umbrella, which leads to a lot of confusion. So,
regardless of how you feel about labelling and the boundaries of the
term, when you read r.m.p., keep in mind that many people reading the
group many be coming from a completely different musical background,
and may be listening for different reasons. The term is absolutely
not limited to early Yes and Genesis. People who think this tend to
be very surprised when they first hear Henry Cow, Magma or Univers
Zero. Popular media is generally guilty for this common attitude
as this is mostly what they talk about when they undertake one of
those pointless, inaccurate and laughably insulting "Progressive
Rock Retrospective" articles. Progressive music is that which is
discussed on r.m.p. If you can appreciate this without thinking that
I am making any claims of eminence for r.m.p, then you understand
the state of play I think.

You need a CD player. Most re-issues of lost music and most new
releases are produced for CD only. Personally, I have spent a
small fortune since discovering r.m.p and the area in general and
I consider it some of the best investments I have ever made. Do
not be intimidated by people with huge collections, encyclopaedic
knowledge as r.m.p is a friendly place where the overriding concern
is to promote the enjoyment of some of the finest music ever made
that you would simply never otherwise hear about. I am continually
amazed at the degree of interconnection between the artists, bands
and music in what is an hugely eclectic field. I find this very
satisfying as it corroborates the intuition that there is something
unifying about the field as a whole. You will find shared members,
houses, instruments etc. amongst bands you came to from radically
different directions but which are all deemed progressive.

One thing that people find suprising when their musical horizons
are broadened is that there are different ways of listening to music
depending on its characteristics. The commonly accepted sub-genres
listed in FAQ 4 often concentrate on different aspects of music. For
example, much RIO has a penchant for rhythm and requires a different
attitude in the listener to textural ambient music which may be
focusing completely on sonority to the exclusion of rhythm. The mark
of an experienced listener is being able to switch between these
different focuses quickly and not to criticise music for paying no
attention to something it is not even attempting to address. No one
form of music can address all interesting aspects of music. This
leads me to suggest that the mature and reasoned listener who is
truly interested in music will have tastes more diverse than many
people would be able to imagine. Progressive music, I have found,
addresses a particularly wide spectrum of interesting attributes.

One more thing. There is a pernicious tendency for some people to
regard progressive music as the jewel in the crown of the music. This
is simply nonsense from people with narrow musical experience. Many
experienced progressive music enthusiasts have very wise tastes
indeed and you will catch a glimpse of these from time to time. I
have done so and they have lead to very fruitful and rewarding music
explorations in many different directions. Progressive music is a
small corner of music as a whole. I encourage everyone to explore
as widely as possible. Having said this, I and presumably you as
you are reading this, suspect progressive music is a particularly
interesting corner to explore.


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