Defining the Kind of Music Known as Prog

The term “progressive rock” or “prog” as a genre of music is very difficult to define indeed. From 1995 to 2000, I sang and played piano and keyboards in a band known as “Jacob’s Ladder” to UCCP Ellinwood-Malate Church insiders and “Blue Fusion” to very few people, some of which are now prominent figures in today’s  Filipino progressive rock scene (they probably have forgotten all about us by now). It was difficult for me to explain what prog is as most of what I would tell people would deem insufficient. Fast forward to today’s day and age, being way more knowledgeable now than when I was playing back then, I can try and attempt to define what prog really is.

Back in those days when I played with Jacob’s Ladder/Blue Fusion, I recall some people asking me, “Pare, ano ba ang tugtugan nyo?” (rough English translation: “Dude, what sort of music does your band play?”). I would typically answer three words: Gospel, Alternative and Progressive Rock. The followup question to that would be, “Pare, ano ba yung progressive rock?” (“Progressive rock? What’s that, dude?). I would then cough up some cliche answer like, “It’s the most unique kind of rock music there is,” “It’s like classical meets jazz meets rock”, blah, blah, blah. I would also give some examples like Dream Theater, Rush, Yes, Kansas, Genesis, etc., etc., all to the confusion of the person who I was talking to.

Sometimes there are people who would say something like, “Oh, and so it’s like Arkarna, Incubus…,” and that kind of crap. I would respectfully reply, “No. Arkarna is not prog. Think of something like Dream Theater and all the crapload of bands I talked to you about.” I then receive a blank stare afterwards until me and my bandmates  start playing whatever horrible prog composition we had just concocted.

Anyway, before you get sleepy from all my anecdotes, let us examine what people typically say about what prog is and then see if that is really a unique quality in progressive rock:

  1. It’s rock that is heavily influenced by classical music rather than blues – It’s true that progressive rock is heavily influenced by classical music with some examples being Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes. However, it would be difficult for me to find a prog fan who would classify Yngwie Malmsteen, ABBA and The Polyphonic Spree as progressive rock acts. Yngwie Malmsteen is obviously classically influenced with his Nicolo Paganini posturing and Baroque-inspired compositions. ABBA? Just listen to “Money, Money, Money” and you’ll hear the classical influence. The Polyphonic Spree have that symphonic flair. The point is that you can argue the classical influence but if you define progressive rock in that manner, you might as well classify all sorts of music as prog. After all, plenty of stuff that you hear from radio-friendly pop to obscure prog basically follow common practice period tonality.
  2. It’s rock that features heavy use of odd time signatures. Okay. Progressive rock does indeed use a lot of odd time signatures like my favorites 5/4 and 7/8 as well as 11/8, 7/4, 15/16, etc. Would you consider a band like Soundgarden to be prog just because “Spoonman” is in 7/4? Many prog rock fans won’t.
  3. Prog features virtuoso musicianship . Again, we see virtuosos even in radio-friendly genres. For example, certain J-Pop songs feature virtuosic musical passages within a radio-friendly format. A die-hard prog fan, despite his appreciation, wouldn’t call that prog at all.
  4. Prog incorporates influences from musical disciplines from all over the world. Isn’t that what people call “World” music nowadays?
  5. Prog music is typically lengthy and would not fit the radio format. So does classical music, jazz, and jam band music.
  6. Prog has lengthy instrumental passages. And so does “real” jazz and a lot of classical stuff.
  7. Prog is the kind of music that the masses don’t hear every day. Hmm, in today’s time, most of what we call “art” or “classical” music fits this description along with avant-garde jazz, “ethnic” music, etc.

I can go on and on about how people would typically define what prog is and any inquisitive music lover will offer up a counter-argument that would state that such a quality may also apply to other kinds of music as well. Have you heard of something called “Pronk” (prog combined with its former antithesis, namely punk)?

As you can see, can you really say that progressive rock is a definite genre? In some respects, yes, but the qualities that are said to make it distinct are not exclusive traits. No wonder why Robert Fripp and bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree have reservations about calling their music progressive rock.

In my personal opinion, if there would be a real definition of what progressive rock is, I would go back to why the term was coined in the first place. I would take into account the adjective “progressive”. I would say that progressive rock is a kind of music that features change and growth. It’s the kind of music that takes you on a conceptual journey. Its artists are not afraid to push boundaries and try out new things and approaches whether it be attempts in using unique/niche musical instruments, extended instrumental techniques and controlled physiological noises. It’s the kind of music that “progresses” that’s why it’s called progressive rock in the first place. It simply cannot be a genre that can be confined within a musicological discourse or a record executive’s marketing scheme.

As a parting word, any serious fan of progressive rock should think about this. If we define progressive rock according to parameters that have been historically established as being prog, aren’t we confining prog into a sort of a box and therefore causing it to stop being progressive at all? Maybe this is the kind of thinking Rush had when they decided to go for shorter songs after finishing “Hemispheres.

The Music You Need, The Music You Want, The Music You Love

Is playing the music you love a worthwhile endeavor? The optimist musician would instantly answer a big YES! The pessimist would say NO. Both views have their equally valid points that are worth exploring. By evaluating such things will we find answers to what’s the kind of music a musician needs to write and perform and the sort of music he/she would want and love to write and perform.

Why do certain people such as myself become musicians in the first place? The first reason that comes to my mind is that music expresses what mere words could never express. The second reason is that music is universal. Life is simply dull without music. Can you keep paying attention to a movie or a TV series that doesn’t even have a tone or a chord hit of sort? Unless you are deprived of hearing, you would never even consider such media to be entertainment. Even some people who have been deemed clinically deaf like Ludwig Van Beethoven and virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie have very deep appreciation for music. The third reason is that music provides both mental and physical stimuli that would excite any person on the planet. Even the most tone deaf of people love hearing a single song or two. You could easily say for these reasons and many more that writing and playing the music you love is a noble and worthwhile endeavor.

The deepest aspiration of every composer (such as myself) would be to receive appreciation for the work he or she personally believes is his or her real musical voice. The sad reality in this world that’s ruled by the whims of many is that only a very few could make a living off of it. More often than not, composers are forced to compromise their musical aspirations in order to be able to pay the bills. Otherwise, composers like myself would be the starving artists upholding Bohemian ideals. In many regards, ideals are worth holding on to but this nagging question still remains: What worth would ideals be when your stomach is rumbling from hunger?

According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, biological needs provide the groundwork for reaching higher goals and aspirations. This is pretty obvious. If you are undernourished, you will get sick and then die without even getting the chance to do anything else. You simply won’t succeed preaching to any person who is suffering from hunger. Satiate his hunger and he’ll probably lend you an ear or two. In a similar light, composers and all other musicians would face such problems too. It’s all good that you would want to be able to express your art, but if you don’t have the financial means to do so then how could you do it in the first place? From my experience, it is very common for many musicians to take on other jobs as an aid to express their art. I used to have a corporate job three years ago while trying to record what I thought for myself are my personal masterpieces of progressive rock and art music. Some would wait tables waiting for that big break to happen.

At the present time, I have all these musical ideas for original prog, classical, jazz compositions but I have to pimp myself into working music jobs that are  far from my ideals. I’m lucky that making music in the multimedia sector provides more freedom but it’s not the exact kind of freedom I would want personally as an artist. It feels like it’s close but no cigar. I got to eat, pay the bills and support my family and the chances of keeping my son from going hungry with the powers of progressive rock is very slim. I would think that many musicians think the same way and then go on to explore things like jingle making, writing the next big hit, and all those sort of commercial music jobs because of more immediate concerns than meeting lofty goals.

This reminds me of my first day training as an independent karaoke MIDI producer. Just a few hours ago, I was being trained by RJ Sy, bassist of the Karl Roy Band. It was a shock for me to hear that RJ never earned a single cent from playing with Karl Roy. With Karl Roy being a legend in the Philippine rock music scene, it is baffling and unfair. While the people who can’t even write a song earn millions with their second-rate versions of hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s and even up to the present time, bands like the Karl Roy Band are performing and writing music pro bono. RJ would admit that playing with Karl Roy was indeed musically satisfying, but it would never take care of his expenses. It couldn’t even pay for a bottle of beer he would enjoy in the venue where he’s playing.

I remember the time that I played with my old band known to UCCP Ellinwood-Malate Church insiders as Jacob’s Ladder and known to the outside as Blue Fusion. Back in the late 90s up until the last quarter of 2000, we tagged along with Filipino progressive metal kings Eternal Now for a couple of gigs. If my memory serves me right, audience numbers would never exceed 20 during those days! I remember having that disappointed look upon seeing how empty looking the bars were. Despite the musical joy and fulfillment playing progressive rock brings, nobody in the Philippines would give the genre the attention and respect it deserves. I still played the gigs just for the love and appreciation I have for prog. It is very likely that people both inside and outside the church have forgotten about Jacob’s Ladder or Blue Fusion or whatever name you would call those five teenaged musicians who thought that they were among the few who played prog rock in the country.

There are times that being coerced into having to write or play the music that you “need” is a good thing in certain respects. You get to learn a lot of things. MIDI production and music transcription provides excellent education by experience. I’ve learned a lot of things since I started transcribing for Kuya Cesar (Cesar S. Wycoco) and Tatay Romy (Romy San Mateo). My experiences writing music for multimedia applications were more than stimulating. I also think my ongoing training as a MIDI producer would add an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge to my expanding arsenal of techniques.

So, what would be the conclusion to all of my ramblings about music? I think that all musicians have to fulfill immediate needs using honest means whether it be in the music sector or elsewhere. It’s stupid to say that you don’t need to earn money. How else could you purchase your musical instruments and gear without it? More importantly, how can you keep yourself from going hungry without earning a single cent?

It’s also important to say that meeting those immediate needs would pave the way towards reaching any musician’s musical ideals. When you no longer worry about how to pay for your house, your car, your child’s college fund, etc., then of course you would be free to pursue writing that magnum opus you’ve been dreaming about. You could say that the Eraserheads would not have been able to write a concept album like “Fruitcake” without first recording “Ultraelectromagneticpop!”. The Who’s “Tommy” would never have come to life had they forgotten to write “My Generation”. Dream Theater would not have been able to write “Scenes From A Memory” without “Pull Me Under” opening up opportunities for them. You could say that it’s necessary to go and delve into the music you need before pursuing the music you want and love. It’s the bitter reality of life as a musician but the rewards awaiting those who persevere are sweet.

When will my reward come? That I do not know but I’m hoping it’s out there somewhere.

Cats Have Taken Over My Cottage Industry Studio Facility

My cats have assumed control over my audio equipment as I was coming up with this musical idea:


Sadie: “I don’t care what you’re doing. I’m taking a nap over here. I could care less about your volume controls or your effects pedal.”

Willow: “Nice bouncy keys. Interesting….”

Alex: “Wanna wank, wank, wank? Forget about it! It’s time for me to chew on these nice looking cables.”