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Symphony to Synths

Prog Rock - the Classical Influence, Part 5 of 7

Chapter 6 – ... And We Have The Technique

“With that level of technical skill, we were suddenly light years ahead of everybody, because we were no longer three chords and a back beat”. Bill Bruford (2015)

Having the technology at your disposal is one thing, but it helps if you have the musical chops to fully harness that technology, and prog in particular boasts more than its fair share of virtuosos.

Whilst musicians like Rick Wakeman and multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear (keyboardist with Gentle Giant) are classically trained, others including Keith Emerson and Steve Howe are naturally-gifted players. In addition to formal training, many progressive rock musicians, like their classical music counterparts, are able to read and write music.

One of the defining aspects of classical music, is that through musical notation it has been preserved over the years, ensuring that every performance remains faithful to the composer’s intentions, regardless of who performs it and where. This is unparalleled in other genres like rock, blues and jazz, where freedom of expression is paramount, although prog comes close.

Take the 2013 line-up of Yes for example, who play the "classic" albums from the 70s in their entirety. Any self-respecting fan attending one of their shows would reasonably expect Close To The Edge to sound just as it did on the original album, even though only two members (Steve Howe and Chris Squire) were present at that recording. Like classical musicians, prog musicians are noted for their ability to accurately recreate often complex music on stage.

Whilst technical ability brings with it a natural desire for experimentation, in prog the ensemble performance usually takes precedence over that of the individual. In that respect it has a stronger affinity with classical music than it does jazz or blues for example, where indulgent solos are an accepted part of the performance. A high level of discipline is also essential if the sounds produced in the studio are going to be convincingly conveyed on stage.

In addition to their proficiency with electric instruments, many prog musicians are noted for their abilities with acoustic instruments, especially piano and guitar. Prior to digital keyboards, a grand piano was a regular feature in the recording studio during the 1970s, especially for virtuosos like Emerson and Wakeman, although it was usually impractical to take it out on the road. Guitarists like Steve Howe and Steve Hackett regularly feature classical guitar solos in their sets, like Mood For A Day and Horizons respectively, and although self-penned, they could easily have been composed by a classical maestro.

Prog guitarists also experimented in other areas. In addition to new chord combinations, they developed a fluid lead guitar technique, often blending with the keyboards to create an immersive symphonic soundscape. The Steve Hackett and Tony Banks partnership in Genesis is one that readily comes to mind, and I would also recommend the debut album from The Enid, In The Region Of The Summer Stars (1976) for its sheer lyricism and musicality.

Bass players were not to be outdone, developing playing techniques that challenged the perception of the bass as a rhythm-only instrument. Influenced by the likes of Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, musicians like Chris Squire pioneered the bass as a lead instrument, something later adapted by other players like Jon Camp of Renaissance and Jonas Reingold of The Flower Kings.

Whilst the playing styles developed in the 1970s have influenced many of today’s musicians, the current prog scene is distinguished by an abundance of multi-instrumentalists. During the 70s Mike Oldfield regularly topped the music awards in this category, but these days you are spoilt for choice with talented individuals like Robert Reed, Neal Morse, Dave Bainbridge and Steve Unruh all noted for their guitar and keyboard abilities (not to mention almost anything else they care to turn their hand to).

Robert Reed - Sanctuary II album cover Dave Brainbridge - Celestial Fire album cover Steve Unruh - Challenging Gravity album cover

Chapter 7: Orchestral Manoeuvres

The original plan was for Peter Knight to do the real Dvořák stuff in between our rock Dvořák bits, and I just knew we’d be crap at that!” Justin Hayward (2013).

With the development of the album in the 1960s, the desire to expand musical horizons and the electronic keyboards that were still in their infancy, a logical step was to employ the services of an orchestra, to add instrumental depth that may otherwise be lacking. This was nothing new of course, popular artists, especially easy-listening singers, had been backed by orchestras (or strings at least) since recording began. For rock musicians however, the opportunity to combine the band with an orchestra was an intriguing, if not always successful experiment. For prog artists in particular, a full size orchestra would in theory add weight and grandeur, and even a degree of respectably, comparable with a classical work.

In 1967 The Moody Blues were engaged by Decca Records to record a rock version of Dvořák's New World Symphony. The band and arranger Peter Knight had other ideas however, and Days Of Future Passed (1967) became a suite of original songs, albeit with a classical twist with the band augmented by a contract orchestra made up of classical musicians. Justin Hayward’s iconic Nights In White Satin in particular benefited from a soaring orchestral finale, although this is absent from the version released as a single.

Ironically when Days Of Future Passed was recorded, Moodies’ keyboardist Mike Pinder was already pioneering the Mellotron as a lead instrument, producing one of the most convincing symphonic sounds of the late 60s and early 70s. Listen to his composition The Voyage suite on the album On The Threshold Of A Dream (1969) which sounds like a grandiose hybrid of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and Maurice (father of Jean Michel) Jarre’s Lawrence Of Arabia theme.

The first time a rock band and a full orchestra performed live together is reputed to be Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1969, conducted by respected classical maestro Sir Malcolm Arnold. Whilst organist Jon Lord’s composition in three movements is strong, for me the performance is not wholly successful, with the disparity between the lushness of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the band’s blunt, hard rock rhythms all too obvious.

A band who established a reputation for touring and recording with a full orchestra in their early period was Barclay James Harvest, especially for their second album Once Again (1971). It contains one of their most famous songs, the sweeping Mocking Bird, which although uncredited at the time, is deemed to have been co-written by the director of the BJH orchestra Robert John Godfrey who would go on to form The Enid in 1973.

Other bands would occasionally use an orchestra for a one-off show or album, such as Caravan whose live album Caravan and the New Symphonia (1974) contained one of their most celebrated pieces, the 14-minute For Richard. The arranger and conductor was Martyn Ford who also assembled the orchestra for the band’s excellent fifth studio album For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night (1973). 

One man who perhaps did more than most in popularising the rock and classical connection during the 70s was Rick Wakeman. Following the classically baroque instrumental album The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (1973), Rick employed the full might of the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir to record Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974) at the Royal Festival Hall (a venue normally associated with classical concerts). Although an original work, Rick couldn’t resist inserting (for comic relief rather than dramatic effect) an excerpt from In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. Similarly tongue in cheek, during the Yes concerts of the early 70s Wakeman’s solo medley included a Mellotron version of Handel’s Messiah, which can be heard on Yessongs (1973).

Following in the footsteps of Procol Harum and BJH, the aptly named Renaissance became synonymous with the use of orchestras. Whilst numerous acts experimented with an orchestra before reverting back to the standard rock ensemble, the combination of orchestra, classically trained pianist John Tout’s romantic flourishes and Annie Haslam’s distinctive soprano became the band’s identifiable sound. The formula was used to good effect across several albums, with the 25-minute Song Of Scheherazade from Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975) justifiably regarded as one of the most successful marriages of classical and rock. The man responsible for the orchestral arrangement, Tony Cox, also worked on the second Yes album Time And A Word (1970).

In 1976 The Alan Parsons Project released their debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination Edgar Allan Poe which included the ambitious 16-minute instrumental suite The Fall Of The House Of Usher. In five movements, Prelude, Arrival, Intermezzo, Pavane and Fall, it’s a near perfect marriage of Debussy-inspired orchestrations and rock instrumentation.

For me however, the most accomplished classical composition by a prog artist is Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1. In three movements, it takes up the first side of the ELP album Works Volume 1 (1977) and features Emerson on grand piano, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. ELP’s popular adaptation of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is also included on Works, which is appropriate given that Emerson’s concerto and the band’s Pirates from the same album have a strong Copland influence. Never a band to do things by halves, when ELP embarked on the subsequent tour, a full size orchestra went along for the ride, with serious financial consequences.

In 1999 Rick Wakeman vainly attempted to recreate the success of 1974’s Journey album, with the release of Return to the Centre of the Earth which, despite the combined presence of the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir and several high profile guests, is a disappointingly lacklustre affair.

In 2001 Yes were reinventing themselves for the new millennium with the release of Magnification, a patchy attempt to incorporate an orchestra for the first time since 1970’s Time and a Word album. The subsequent tour was much better, resulting in Symphonic Live (2002), one of Yes’ most watchable DVDs. The sight of the ageing proggers, backed by the young and clearly enthusiastic orchestra members, is a real joy.

Genesis are one of the few mainstream prog bands from the classic era not to have worked with an orchestra, even though late 19th and early 20th century music had a profound influence on principal songwriter Tony Banks, especially Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich. In 2004 he made amends of sorts with the release of Seven: A Suite for Orchestra, featuring Banks on piano, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a successful attempt to move away from his trademark keyboard sound, and in 2012 Six Pieces for Orchestra followed, this time performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (an orchestra noted for covers of popular movie themes). Both albums had the distinction of being released by the classical music label Naxos.

Buoyed by the neo-prog movement of the 80s, there was no shortage of prog bands in the 90s and noughties, although they were less inclined to take on the logistical and economic burden of an orchestra. Even ELP, who by the mid-seventies were a very wealthy concern, found it financially crippling when they toured with a full orchestra in 1977. And recording a full size orchestra is a skilled undertaking. Whilst sounding powerful in a concert hall, getting 100 musicians to sound like 100 musicians in the studio is another matter.

With the advances in digital keyboards and recording technology it’s possible to make less, sound like more, and therefore more practical to take a standard guitar, keyboards, bass, and percussion ensemble and add a few key ingredients such as a violin, flute, oboe and saxophone, to create your own orchestra. It certainly worked on the pioneering solo albums by Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett for example, and it’s a tradition continued to the present day, by the likes of Guy Manning and Phideaux.

Notable diversions include Octavarium (2005) by Dream Theater. Whilst not one of their most celebrated albums, a 15-piece orchestra is very effective during the Floydian intro and the stately finale of the 24-minute, five-part title track.

Another recent offering and personal favourite of mine is the moving 1000 Wishes ‘rock opera’ by Dutch band PBII, featuring the Hague Youth Symphony Orchestra. A studio recording and a live DVD both appeared in 2013.

I’m going to end this chapter however, with mention of a triumphant concert at the Birmingham Symphony Hall in October 2011 featuring that most symphonic of bands, The Enid. Supported by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, it was one of those glorious and unique one-offs, with the splendour of the occasion (mostly) captured on the band’s 2012 CD release.


Table of Contents

  • Part 1:
    • Prologue
    • Chapter 1: In the Beginning
  • Part 2:
    • Chapter 2: Borrowing From the Classics
  • Part 3:
    • Chapter 3: Strawberry Bricks
  • Part 4:
    • Chapter 4: Close To The Edge – a modern symphony
    • Chapter 5: We have the technology...
  • Part 5:
    • Chapter 6: ... and we have the technique
    • Chapter 7: Orchestral Manoeuvres
  • Part 6:
    • Chapter 8: Pretentious, moi?
    • Chapter 9: A Night at the Opera
  • Part 7:
    • Chapter 10: Classifying Rock
    • Epilogue
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