The Mysticism of Long Tracks

One of the characteristics which is often used as a characterization of Progressive Rock is the length of the musical pieces. The hearts of many Prog fans are beating higher when songs with a length of more than 7 minutes are listed on a record sleeve.

If we want to investigate the origin of this association, we must look at the best and most acknowledged Prog works. Among these, there is indeed a large number of long pieces which sometimes more than 20 minutes playing time, although e.g. the classic Prog band Gentle Giant had only a few long pieces in their repertoire.

I would like to take as an example for my analysis a true Prog-classic, in which the specific characteristics and immanent possibilities of a long Prog-composition show very well. It is the piece "Close to the Edge" from the group Yes.

If we first carry out a rough structural analysis of the work, we find that this song is evidently composed of many different parts. After repeated hearing, several song-like parts can be identified, which are repeated several times and are found in different parts of the work.

In gross subdivision the sequence of parts is the following:

After an introduction, which appears to be improvised, but follows a structural concept in which some fragments of the main themes of the song are already insinuated, the first main instrumental theme emerges, which is varied by changing harmonic references.

This is followed by a song structure  consisting of two verses and a refrain (down by the edge - round by the corner). The parts themselves are of a similar basic character and are joined together in different combinations.

The refrain, however, is not played in the same way every time, but is subject to certain changes that play an important role in the composition.

The refrain itself consists of several theme fragments which are used in several permutations at several points in the song. It forms, so to speak, the adhesive between the individual parts, since it has been "made fit" to all verses of the song.

It is presumed that it was composed by combination of the choruses form two different original songs (one each by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe).

The sequence of the first song part is the following:

  • Verse type 1
  • Chorus with transition 1 (not right away ...)
  • Verse type 2
  • Chorus with transition 2 (Seasons will pass you by - I get up, I get down ...)
  • Verse type 1
  • Short riff-like variation of the Chorus
  • Verse type 2
  • Chorus with transition 2 (shorter than above)

This is followed by a transitional part in which, as a counter-voice, the instrumental main theme of the intro was superimposed.

The transition leads into an atmospheric part, a kind of sound and noise collage with tape-recordings of rippling water, from which a further decently instrumented song develops, with beautiful choral counter-voices within the verses.

The chorus of the middle section is a variation of the already known second transition of the first chorus (I get up I get down), which increases in loudness and transforms into a bombastic church organ part, which impresses more by its powerful sound than by musical complexity.

This is followed by a variation of the main instrumental theme with a different sound, followed by an organ solo on the verse type with a riff-like short version of the chorus.

Finally, the first verse type is repeated with vocals, this time directly followed by verse type 2 and the chorus with transition 2.

To increase the final effect, the usual sequence is interrupted after "Seasons will pass you by", and a rhythmically shortened variation of the line "Close to the edge - round by the corner" is inserted, which is repeated three times in ascending third jumps and finally lead into the " I get up - I get down "-refrain, in the form, as already known from the quiet middle part of the piece (before the church organ part).

In addition, the emotional brightness of the final parts is enhanced by a modified harmonization with string chords, which have a stronger major-key character.

This concludes the structural analysis of "Cose to the Edge".

The interested reader will have noticed during lecture of the sometimes cumbersome description that the classical assignment of the song components in verse, refrain, transition, middle section, etc., can no longer be carried out without difficulty.

The individual fragments always experience new variations at different positions in the composition, are provided with continuations, additional riffs and counter - voices, so that in the present example, a dense network of different thematic fragments results, which eludes a superficial analysis but nevertheless conveys a certain closeness of the overall structure.

Such a long complex form opens its full potential to the listener only after repeated listening. You literally have to crawl into the composition to explore it. At first, only the catchy parts get stuck in the memory, but each new hearing of the song reveals new facets which have not yet been consciously perceived before. The higher the complexity, the higher is the probability that the listener will record different, simultaneously played melody lines not as separate information, but as a resulting whole.

This can lead to an "emotional depth", which can hardly be described generally, since it is perceived differently by each listener, depending on taste and musical background. In any case, this "emotional depth" is associated with long songs by many Prog fans, since the probability of high structural complexity is generally greater in longer compositions, and in this group of listeners certain "emotional key experiences" are usually triggered by the reception of longer works.

In general, it can be concluded that longer works offer the possibility to extend a composition beyond simple song structures and to draw longer tension curves. For this purpose also musical ideas can be used which, in the classical sense, do not represent verse or refrain and only create the desired effect in interaction with other parts. By this technique, step-like structures become possible, in which each part is leading to the next one and a gradual compression and tensional increase of the music takes place.

Ideally, all parts of the composition are related in some way and relate to each other. Such a self-similar structure is characteristic of most classical Western compositional principles, such as the fugue.

In a fugue, the main theme, initially introduced, is melodically and harmonically varied ("implemented") in several cycles. At the end of these permutations, the main theme can again be repeated , or a second theme, the fragments of which are already insinuated in the first theme, even in the background in the form of a bassline or in the form of the chords used, so that a gradually transition from one theme to another is carried out.

This elegant technique is a very difficult task for the not classically trained composer, as he is usually encountered in rock, because it presupposes a high level of creative abstraction. The mastery of musical notation or a computer program (sequencer) is very helpful, as it allows the necessary overview during the composition process. At the same time, for a good result, a certain similarity of the musical themes used in terms of basic mood, chord structure, tempo and rhythm is necessary.

Fugue-like compositions are found in many songs of Gentle Giant, in which even short riffs and ornaments are derived from the main themes. Other examples are, but not so consistently, ELP's "The Endless Enigma" and "Close to the Edge" by Yes.

The described way of composition is, however, rarely to be found even in Prog. The reason for this is, in my opinion, the fact that it is an immense and sometimes tantalizing exercise to rework such a song-structure over and over again, until a consistent and aesthetically satisfying composition emerges.

It much easier, of course, to simply take several parts and assemble them in some way, so that they form a long piece. In fact, we also find in many recognized good Prog works an open structure in the way that simply several song fragments and instrumental parts are put together without any thematic elaboration or cyclical feedback.

In an open structure,  however, it is much more difficult to achieve a consistency of the composition as a whole. Nevertheless, some of such works as "Thick as a Brick" by Jethro Tull, "The Gates of Delirium" by Yes, or "Supper's Ready" by Genesis are recognized as outstanding in the Prog community.

It must be said, of course, that the structure of a composition plays only a subordinate role for the emotional reception of a work. In this respect the character and quality of the actual theme material are much more important to the listener.

If the themes are bad, even the best elaboration cannot improve much, while good themes themselves sound good already in a simple suite-like sequence. Many bands try to conceal the lack of skills or consistency of composition with a bombastic, overproduced sound and all sorts of effects. But although the polished studio sound is pleasant at the first glance, the song will leave a stale feeling to the Prog listener if such essential aspects of composition and the quality of the used material are lacking.

In "Thick as a Brick", for example, the opposite is the case: all the themes are of excellent quality and the excellent transitions and breaks between the parts are so well composed that the lack of cohesion is by no means distracting. I have known this work for more than 40 years, and it still holds certain moments of surprise, because it is hardly possible to internalize the complex sequence of the many parts and breaks in such a way that a fatigue effect could occur.

At the first hearing, this work will certainly overwhelm most listeners. Many of such long songs must have been internalized, and their long-lasting value must have been appreciated by the listener in order to have the patience to endure the "disorientation" during the first few times of listening before an extended Prog song begins to settle in the brain of the listener.

The more frequently individual themes are repeated within the song, the more catchy will be the song and the easier its reception. At the same time, however, it loses its longevity for the listener. Here the art lies in in keeping a certain balance between the extremes.

In the above example, the initial listening experience is still relatively pleasant, as Jethro Tull usually use quite catchy themes. In "The Gates of Delirium" by Yes, it is certainly more difficult to find the access, and it was thanks to the spirit of the 70ties and the declared will of the Yes fans to intensively internalize their new music that this work was so widely distributed. Under other circumstances, even fans of the group would not have been willing to follow into such spheres through stony, unpredictable paths.

According to various interviews, both Jethro Tull during composition of “Thick as a Brick” and  “Yes” during composition of "Close to the Edge" did not have an exact idea, even at the beginning of the recording, of ​​how their composition would develop and conclude. This was because their compositions were still ongoing when they began to record them and the parts were not recorded at once. The individual recorded segments were later pieced together in the studio. The fact that this approach cannot always produce outstanding works is inherent to the adopted process.

What happens when a highly-talented band attempts to write long pieces for a bombastic concept, but at the same time there is not enough outstanding material, can be seen on Yes' following album "Tales from Topographic Oceans". The album’s music flows very pleasantly, but over longer periods it feels as if musical themes are somehow second best, that the material selection process, which would have been adequate to the high ideals of the concept, was insufficient.

I suppose that in this example there was not enough time or motivation to let the work properly mature. From my own experience I know that composing such long pieces requires a high degree of patience, time, and, last but not least, diligence (apart from the fact that enough ideas and songwriting skills have to be available).

In case sufficient good ideas, sufficient time, and the necessary will are available, the mere intention to write a long piece of music, can be immensely inspiring to the composer's creativity.

If, at the beginning of the composition process, a stock of potential verses, chorusses, riffs, themes, etc. were accumulated, the next step must be to investigate in all possible permutations, which parts may fit together and in which sequence. At this point of the process there is always the problem to find suitable transitions between the individual parts, because the intention is to write a “nice longtrack”.

But this precisely is the characteristic creative opportunity for the composer of a long Prog song. He is "forced" to find a good musical transitions, the quality of which should be in no way inferior to the parts to be connected. These transitions will usually consist of several sequences that allow a gradual approach to the rhythmically or harmonically different target theme. For this purpose, usually a large number of potential possibilities is available.

In rare cases, two parts happen to fit so well together that they can be placed directly against each other without adversely affecting the flow or tension of the song. Under certain circumstances, such a direct change may even be very attractive as a surprising contrast occurs and a collage-type character may be desired at the respective point of the song.

But in most cases, the composer will have to invent a more elegant transition, which of course is associated with more "trial-and-error" work.

In hindsight, it is often precisely these unplanned transitional parts, sometimes arising from embarrassment, which are felt to be particularly attractive in the finished piece. Their way of development requires that they contain certain peculiarities, such as modulations, breaks, rhythmic gradations, ritardandi, etc.

Another effect which is frequently found at this point is that the sequence originally intended as a brief transition  mutates and grows, possibly even gives birth to a new "ingenius" theme, which can completely change the current provisional structure of the composition and possibly give the piece a distinctly different character.

I have often seen that an musical idea which has emerged in this way has established itself as the main theme of the composition, while the part which was originally intended to be connected by it, was left it out in the end.

The described effects create a high degree of variety, harmonious and rhythmic diversity, which is a prerequisite for the longevity and emotional depth of the composition.

In these specific conditions lies the reason for the "mysticism of the long tracks".

At the end of this chapter, I should like to consider a specific difficulty which often occurs when writing long pieces of music.

If a long work is intended to tie the attention of the listener over the entire running time, care must be taken to ensure that an adequate arc of tension arises. It is above all important that some form of development takes place, e.g. that the piece is compacted rythmically. On the other hand it is “deadly” for the arc of tension when two or more parts of a similar character follow one another. At the latest, if after two verse-like parts still a third verse-like part follows, the listener will surely be close to boredom.

Just as unfavorable is a too frequent up and down of the tension arcs (Whenever the listener has already anticipated the closure of the song, a new beginning follows and the piece threatens to meander aimlessly).

On the other hand, several ups and downs in the arc of tension are unavoidable in very long compositions, so that for my perception the temporal upper limit for a prog composition is about 25 minutes. This corresponds to 3 to 4 global wave peaks in the total arc of tension. Above this limit, even a very good composition falls apart for the listener into individual segments and is no longer perceived as a coherent whole.