Prog and the violin (posted 1/6/14)
By ProgBlog, Jun 1 2014 07:08PM
Sometime in 1978 or 1979 in a Zoology class at Goldsmiths’, Jo Wallace and Karen Fraser were discussing the use of the violin in rock music, not getting much further than the Fabulous Poodles and the Electric Light Orchestra, who were not remotely prog. I don’t think they even included Slade, where bassist Jim Lea had previously played in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, or Hawkwind who in their most prog period, and they have never been a prog band, included Simon House on violin. There’s a possibility that their friend Susan Aspinall (a botanist who I later found out was into prog) might have been able to help them out with some suggestions. I remembered this conversation recently, perhaps prompted by seeing RPI band La Coscienza di Zeno at Prog Résiste, who included violin, or by one of the CDs I was bought at Prog Résiste, the excellent Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Höstsonaten, where the violin is used primarily as a melodic lead instrument in the context of a rock interpretation of classical music. I thought the concept deserved revisiting, just sticking to prog acts.
If you consider the origins of progressive rock, a melting pot of influences including European romantic music, the violin has some claim to be a prog instrument, though it hardly features in bands from the golden era. Excluding the mix of rock band and orchestra (The Nice’s Five Bridges Suite, for example) I first heard violin on Birds of Fire. If you’ll allow me a little latitude, I maintain that there’s a very close relationship between jazz rock and prog. The Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised blistering exchanges between guitar, Moog and Jerry Goodman’s violin to stunning effect though years later when I bought a Flock CD I was disappointed with the song writing. I probably heard Geoffrey Richardson on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night around the time of its release but it wasn’t until I started buying Caravan albums in the 80s that I really appreciated his contribution. I started listening to King Crimson in 1974, so after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, my next true exposure to prog violin was via the ’72-’74 incarnation of Crimson, and from David Cross to Eddie Jobson who did the studio overdubs for USA.
I first came across Darryl Way as a guest musician on the track Opus 1065 from Birds by Trace. Trace supported Curved Air on tour in 1975 and keyboard player Rick van der Linden expressed an appreciation of Way’s mastery of the violin, acknowledging a shared ability to improvise around a classical music theme. The drummer on Birds was prog journeyman Ian Mosley, formerly of Darryl Way’s Wolf. Darryl Way also appeared on Heavy Horses, as a guest on the title track and on Acres Wild and also in 1978, he released his first solo album, Concerto for Electric Violin, with an orchestra synthesized by former Curved Air band mate Francis Monkman, which I remember being premiered on ITV’s highly-regarded culture programme The South Bank Show and I bought it soon after my arrival in London at the end of the 70s. My first Curved Air Album was Air Conditioning, bought second-hand from Record and Tape Exchange for £1 in the early 80s and I’ve since added Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Midnight Wire, plus Canis Lupus on CD.
The supergroup UK formed in 1977 and featured Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. They released two studio albums and a live set recorded in Japan and the reduced-size line-up of the second Album, Danger Money, toured supporting Jethro Tull who were very much at the height of their commercial appeal. Subsequently, Ian Anderson asked Jobson to appear on what started out as a solo venture but was released as ‘A’ under the Jethro Tull banner. I’d chart the quality of the music, from the eponymous UK debut to A as a linear decline; UK was a great album, a very strong progressive rock album tinged with jazz. The departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth meant that Danger Money and the live album from that tour, Night After Night were weaker and the live album contains some very middle-of-the-road material. I find A very poor fare. At the time of its release many prog acts had either disappeared (temporarily or permanently) or adopted a more commercial sound. The short songs on A seemed to attempt to match prevailing tastes and watching them live from the gods at the Albert Hall did nothing to change my mind about the quality of the material.
The departure of Hugh Banton and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator prompted a rethink by Peter Hammill and he drafted in Graham Smith from Charisma label-mates String Driven Thing on violin. Nick Potter, absent since the recording of H to He returned on bass. The resulting sound on The Quiet Zone The Pleasure Dome is far less full than on any of the preceding albums, coming across as more urgent and direct, almost punk. Peter Hammill’s use of a violinist continued after the demise of Van der Graaf on both solo albums and during the tours of his solo material when he collaborated with Stuart Gordon.
There’s more violin in progressivo Italiano. My first exposure to RPI was PFM’s live album Cook which features the excellent multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani on, amongst other things, violin. Violin is quite prominent throughout the album but it is used to best effect on Alta Loma Five Till Nine where the band play an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Parent’s note: This song is brilliant for entertaining young children, bouncing them up and down to the rhythm on your knee. Following the departure of Pagani, PFM brought in another violinist for Jet Lag, Gregory Bloch. I understood that there was a strong tradition of Italian prog and that bands like Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator were incredibly successful in Italy, though it wasn’t until the advent of online music retailers that I was able to start buying examples from the Italian sub-genre. Introducing the family to the delights of Venice and Rome (2005, 2006 and 2007) allowed me to seek out record stores and ask the owners about prog bands. By this time it was also possible to read about RPI both in books and on fan sites so I had a good idea of what to look for. Aside from PFM, Quella Vecchia Locanda were possibly the most famous of the violin-featuring bands. I prefer their first, eponymous album with violinist Donald Lax to their second album Il Tempo Della Gioia from 1974, with Claudio Filice taking on violin duties. The first album is full of energy and, though the band took care producing their follow-up, there’s a feeling of melancholy that contradicts the album’s title, A Time of Joy. Celeste used violin on their excellent Principe di Giorno which has something of a cross between early Genesis and Wind and Wuthering Genesis. My copy is a second-hand Japanese import bought for me in Rome by an Italian transplant surgeon who spent 6 months at Guy’s. Jacopo, thanks very much.
I was listening to 1313 by Univers Zero on my way to and from work yesterday, for the first time since I'd played it when I originally bought the download in March 2010. I'd forgotten how closely the music resembled Henry Cow and I forgot to mention in the blog that violin and viola, played by Fred Frith, feature prominently in Henry Cow music. My copy of Leg End is an American Virgin Records release bought in 1980 that suffers from background noise throughout, though it's only evident in quiet sections
I also omitted Gentle Giant. Ray Shulman is responsible for violin and viola and the best examples of his work are on side two of In A Glass House, where the instrument appears on all three tracks, and the Breakdown in Brussels section on their live album Playing the Fool. The inadvertent intermission brought about by a power supply problem to the keyboards is filled with a rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown by Ray Shulman on violin and Gary Green on acoustic guitar