TCS Daily


The Liberation of Art

By S.T. Karnick - October 26, 2005 12:00 AM

The ultimate limitation on artistic achievement in any society is the imagination and technical ability of the artists. However, an additional limit is the ability of the economy to support it.

The marketplace, after all, is an aesthetically and morally neutral mechanism, and there is no reason that we should expect it to foster great art. Pleasure is fairly easy to quantify and distribute, but moral and spiritual greatness are not. Hence, markets are a fine way to provide entertainment, but the highest art frequently is not a mass market phenomenon. It has typically required the support of patrons.

Art can benefit, however, from the unparalleled capacity of markets to link producers with consumers and vice versa. The marketplace can find art and sustain it, but the process depends on the ability of artists to identify and take advantage of the opportunities the market affords -- and of consumers to seek out the best that is available.

It is always pleasing to see artists strive to move beyond the boundaries of what has the most obvious commercial appeal, and it is especially good to see market forces and technological change make such works more readily available. The widespread availability of digital technology has reduced recording costs radically, shrinking the recording studio so that the mixing board now fits into a notebook computer. This has liberated artists to pursue musical ambitions that only highly subsidized orchestras could afford in the past.

Several recent music releases ably represent this trend.

The Inconsolable Secret is a new two-CD release by the American progressive rock group Glass Hammer. It illustrates what is now possible. The album (sound samples available here), the band's eighth studio production, was independently produced and is distributed by the musicians themselves, as are all of the band's releases.

The music was composed by Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, and the lyrics are by Babb. Schendel plays a wide variety of keyboards and guitars, and Babb sings and plays keyboards and bass guitar. The lyrics and musical concepts are based on The Lay of Lirazel, a 20,000-word narrative poem written by Babb, which is included as a computer file on disc one of the two-disc set. (Full disclosure: this author helped edit the poem.)

Disc one consists of two songs averaging twenty minutes in length, The music employs the basic progressive rock setup of drums, bass guitar, a wide variety of keyboards, guitars, assorted male and female vocals, etc. Both songs are highly complex, with musical themes arising and recurring in varying instrumentation and unexpected combinations. For example, the first song, "Maker of Crowns," opens with arpeggiated chords on piano, soon joined by a mysterious-sounding mellotron orchestra. Then the full band kicks in, led by staccato chords on Hammond organ, followed by arpeggiated chords on that same instrument, accompanied by electric guitar. The entire song is driven by excellent keyboard work, and the vocal melodies are interesting and make full use of the male singers' rather limited range.

Disc two is even more ambitious. The musical styles range from intelligent art rock to medieval, classical, and early romantic music, with several passages reminiscent of early twentieth century composers such as Ravel, Debussy, and Vaughn Williams. These sections have the beauty of great classical music. "Morrigan's Song" is fully medieval in character, with a very appealing use of recorders. "The High Place" incorporates harp and a vocal choir. "Walking Toward Doom" uses full orchestra and chorus and no modern instruments, and it sounds exactly like what the title suggests: a composition that would fit well on the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings movies.

In a more familiar format, the English band Arena offers a progressive-metal sound that combines heavy guitars with sophisticated keyboards, complex interplay of melodies, and dramatic vocals. Their latest release, Pepper's Ghost, consists of seven songs (ranging from four to thirteen minutes) that tell colorful stories set in the Victorian era. The narratives, given graphic-novel treatment in the artwork insert, deal with exorcisms, premonitions, time travel, serial killings, black magic, and other heavy-metal fare, but the Victorian setting makes for a very interesting variation. The music is appropriately grand, dramatic, and operatic, and was done without the support of a major record label.

On Precious Seconds, also produced for a small label, the English band Tr3nity features philosophical lyrics, earnest vocals, swirling washes of keyboards, and melodic, blues-based guitar solos in long songs that passionately express the dilemmas of living in a postmodern world of fleeting emotional connections and uncertain values. The music is highly accessible and deliberately catchy and melodic, occasionally reminiscent of bands such Pink Floyd and Kansas but with a sound all its own. As with Arena, the grandeur the band is able to create is a testament to the widespread availability of sophisticated recording technology at relatively low cost.

Like Tr3nity, the Florida band Little Atlas combines melodicism, philosophical depth, and musical sophistication. The vocal melodies on their second and most recent album, Wanderlust, are significantly catchier than those of most major-label pop groups, and the arrangements, featuring complex interplay between guitars and keyboards, eccentric rhythms, unusual chord progressions, and quick changes of tempo, make most rock music seem stuffy by comparison.

One of the first bands to showcase the ability of new technologies to make complex, progressive, rock music possible for independent artists was Spock's Beard, a California-based band led by the immensely talented singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and guitarist Neal Morse. Starting in the early 1990s, Spock's Beard pioneered a sound combining the extreme melodic appeal of the Beatles with the instrumental virtuosity and sonic complexity of progressive bands such as Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Their sound ranged merrily from calypso to Close to the Edge.

After leading the band since its inception, Morse left the group a couple of years ago to pursue a solo career. The group has released two new studio albums that move the band toward a more progressive-metal orientation while retaining the members' passion for melodicism. Octane, the band's latest release, includes a long suite, "A Flash Before My Eyes," in which the band illustrates the last moment of a modern American man's life as it races before his eyes after an automobile accident. Ranging from pop to metal to folk and classical-inspired passages, Octane illustrates the wide range of music possible as technology allows independent artists to explore new sonic territory.

Now pursuing a solo career, Morse recently released his third rock album since leaving Spock's Beard. The new release, called ?, follows the pattern of Brian Wilson's brilliant album SMiLE in presenting an album-long suite of songs in which recurring musical and lyrical ideas tie the entire piece together into a coherent and moving whole. But whereas Wilson's sound was pop-based and dipped liberally into older forms of popular American music for its inspiration, Morse's album sticks largely to more contemporary influences.

Artistry of this sort will probably never approach the popularity of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, but the lowering of recording and distribution costs (thanks to the information revolution) is making such work increasingly viable. That's something the market does exceedingly well.

S. T. Karnick is an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and Editor of The Reform Club blog.

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