No Solo Prog

Roger Scruton writes in “Music Goes Solo”:

The big change, it seems to me, came when music began to be packaged for home consumption – home consumption, without home production. The gramophone and the radio did some of this work. But it was completed by the iPod, and the habit, which children now acquire from the earliest age, of walking around with their music in their ears, regardless of what else they are doing. Music is no long something you stop to listen to, so as to pass, with whatever degree of wonder, from the world of ordinary causality into this sphere of freedom. Still less is it something that you take time off to play, or to make with your friends. It has been brought down to earth, so as to flow around everyday things, like rainwater on the pavement, demanding no effort either to make it or to hear it, as much a part of the background as the weather or the sound of traffic.

Some of the consequences of this are often remarked on: the fact that children are no longer motivated to learn musical instruments or to sing, whether alone or in choirs; the fact the musical tastes remain static, insulated from judgment, since the iPod only presents you with the things that you like; the fact that children only half attend to the things they are doing, just as they only half attend to the things that are sounding in their ear. But that last point is perhaps the most important. Thanks to the packaging of music we are entering a new world of half attention, a world where everything is done, read, understood, engaged with by half, the other half being the musical tapestry on which the thing of the moment is pinned.

Should we worry about this? And if so, is there anything we can do about it? One major difficulty in confronting the phenomenon is that – precisely because people are plugged into their music from morn to night – it is no longer possible to separate people from their music. We cannot  invite them to stand back from their music in a posture of critical judgment.

A few observations about prog:

When done right, prog demands total attention and total immersion from the listener. (Long song lengths are merely a sign that prog grants no concessions on this point; namely, its classical demand for full musical attention.)

Prog demands musical excellence on the part of the instrumentalists. (The renowned virtuosity of prog’s best players is well known, as is their propensity for group collaborations that are opposed to the lone “soloist” mentality.)

Prog takes technology and self-consciously subordinates it to its musical purposes. (Towers of keyboard gear, for example, are tamed and brought into the service of a transformed rock idiom. And frequently this occurs during concept albums that take as their explicit theme the confrontation of humanity with technological threats and tyrannical regimes.)

And finally, prog takes pride its judgmental, critical mentality. Prog listeners are happy to argue for the superiority of their favorite genre and for their favorite artists within that genre. Progarchists love to debate the critical merits of proggy musical achievement. Disputations about artistic merit still thrive in the prog corner.

So, perhaps what Friedrich Hölderlin observed — an observation that Heidegger frequently liked to bring in to his meditations on technology — may be glimpsed as the promise of prog:

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

And even if one can enjoy prog alone, it still propels one to public discussion of it. In this way, it may also be seen as — by its very nature — no solo music.


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