Classical connections?

THOSE coming to my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes for the first time may notice that the author’s biography mentions a particular interest in contemporary classical music (by which I mean the second half of the twentieth century right through to today) and jazz. Indeed, I came across the band’s music in my teens, at a time of great musical exploration and foment in my life. A period in which the boundaries of what I found myself absorbed into musically were expanding, diverging and crossing over in many different directions.

Igor KhoroshevI am sure the music I had grown up with most fully, from Handel to Ravel and beyond, influenced the way I first heard Yes’s music from their ‘classic era’ – which I take principally to be 1970 to 1974 (‘The Yes Album’ through to ‘Relayer’), with a further stopping-off point in 1977 (‘Going for the One’). Nevertheless, I have always been rather sceptical about drawing too many comparisons or analogies between what Yes was doing with extended form in a rock context at that time, and (for example) elements of sonata form going back to the early classical period of the mid-eighteenth century. In reality they are quite different universes, and can happily remain so.

In the book I mention several ways in which some critics have tried to interpret the likes of ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ using formal structural language of that kind, and why I find this to be an ultimately misguided venture – if not altogether lacking in imaginative provocation towards thinking about what is going on in a very different musical environment, that of self-styled progressive rock.

It is certainly not necessary to have any background in classical music (a term I am using here in its broad, rather than historically specific, sense) in order to appreciate the music of Yes. That said, a corresponding willingness to listen attentively (rather than to seek instant gratification) will certainly bring richer rewards. In fact the overt classical connections to the different sound worlds the band has inhabited over the years are rarely overt or obvious. Even so, it is not hard to see classical references as a part of the Yes DNA.

So vocalist Jon Anderson admits to being swept away by Sibelius and earlier Stravinsky.  Peter Banks would have taken “almost anything by Benjamin Britten” onto a desert island. Bassist Chris Squire sang English church music in parishes and cathedrals. Guitarist Steve Howe listened to Dowland, Vivaldi and Bach (as well as country, jazz and rock) and cites Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream among his heroes. Rick Wakeman studied for a short while at the Royal College of Music, learning about composition and orchestration. Patrick Moraz apparently sat in classes led by Nadia Boulanger, among others, and has contributed to an album celebrating the work of John Cage. Tony Kaye talks of early experiences of classical music. Igor Khoroshev (pictured above) undertook some conservatory training – principally focusing on piano, but also studying the French horn and trombone (as well as guitar and percussion later). Trevor Rabin paid attention as far out as Zappa and Schoenberg, and his father was a conductor and principal violinist in the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. These musicians and others have undoubtedly contributed to the rich palette of influences and ideas that Yes has been able to draw upon and work with over the years.

Jean Luc PontyIn his tribute to the band on their fiftieth anniversary, legendary fusion violinist Jean Luc Ponty put it this way: “I liked the music of Yes from the very first time I discovered their music – I thought they were revolutionary. What I really liked, coming myself from a classical background, was that they were somehow doing modern music as a sort of evolution of classical music: playing long stretches, going across different moods, when at the time the trend was to do just very short three-minute songs. So that’s how I really appreciated the music of Yes.”

While the band has always determinedly pursued its own idioms and spirit, weaved into its fabric at various points are approaches to structure, arrangement, instrumentation, texture, dynamics and colour which betray classical influences without ever needing to copy or impersonate them too obviously. “Heart of the Sunrise” and “And You and I” are obvious examples. This is a good thing in my book. Rock attempts at mimicking the classics have often ended up sounding awkward, ill fitting or vulgar. By contrast, Yes was usually more interested in innovation than imitation, particularly in those early years.

Nevertheless, the use of the finale from Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’ and Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ at the beginning of their concerts always looked like a statement of intent about the scope and ambition of some of their more involved pieces. Equally there have always been quotations, intimations and hints throughout the band’s catalogue, touching everything from Brahms and Bernstein to flamenco (“Mood for a Day”) and film music. The actual involvement of orchestras or orchestral textures with the band (‘Time and a Word’, ‘Magnification’ and a few moments elsewhere – “Onward” and “Subway Walls” come immediately to mind) merits separate treatment, though it overlaps with issues raised here.

“Awaken” (from ‘Going for the One’, 1977), considered by many to be a peak in Yes’s output, has always struck me as the piece of Yes music with the most strongly noticeable classical overtones – from the double use of a circle of fifths, to the inclusion of choir, harp, crotales and church organ in the instrumentation, right through to those grand, almost Baroque climaxes either side of a meditative interlude. My late paternal grandfather, who loved music on the scale of Wagner and Mahler, was quite taken with the track when he heard me playing it one weekend afternoon, drawn in by that quietly dancing middle section.

For the most part, however, the strength of Yes music – especially in the ‘70s – is that, while rooted in rock, it managed to integrate a whole host of other musics within its own developing approach, without deporting them too brashly or obviously.  Most of this was probably as much by happenstance as by design, of course. So classical references, when we notice them, end up being but one of a range of cultural windows through which we might appreciate and receive the music of Yes.

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