Music of Yes, II

by Peter Saint-Andre


I recently posted issue #10 of Kurt Keefner's continuing series of essays entitled A Musical Odyssey. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, which is why I've been republishing them at the Monadnock Review. And Musical Odyssey #10, consisting of reflections occasioned by his inheritance of the music collection of his recently-deceased friend, must have been especially difficult to write.

That said, I feel I must take issue with Kurt's characterization of the music of the rock band Yes. In part I feel that my reaction to Kurt's comments about Yes music is captured by the following insight of his:

I share Rand's moderate, "official" position, but not the extreme version she appears to have held in private. Against Rand's private view one thing that can be said is that Rand seems not to have considered the possibility that multiple premises might lead to the same taste, or that the same one premise might be expressed in multiple tastes.

I certainly feel that the reasons I love the music of Yes are far removed from Kurt's analysis of the psyche of Dirk Douglas. Yet I would go further and argue that Kurt has misperceived the nature of Yes music, and not just the reasons why someone might like that music. For instance, he says of his friend Dirk:

The groups most represented in his collection were Yes and Kansas. What they have in common, other than the obvious, is that both use keyboards as their foundation, both are "hyper" or strident in their pacing and emotional tone, both have pretensions to the "lyrical." The main point of difference is that Yes is more impersonal and arty where Kansas is more intimate and "sincere."

By coincidence, in the summer of 2000 I attended two performances by Yes on their tour of the U.S., and the opening band was Kansas. So I had an opportunity to see both bands up close (I had been a big Kansas fan in my early teens but had not listened to their music for many years until these two shows). To lump these two bands together is rather misguided, as I witnessed first-hand. While someone who has never listened to "progressive rock" might consider their musics to be quite similar, what struck me at the concerts were the strong differences. The best way I can put it is that the music of Yes is much more sophisticated than the music of Kansas. (And this is not simply a matter of virtuosity, although that is part of it: the musicians of Yes possess far greater mastery of their instruments than those of almost any other rock band.) For instance, Yes music, far from having keyboards as its foundation, has in reality no single foundation: their music is much more thoroughly composed, much more structurally advanced, than the music of Kansas, and the foundation or focal point of their music will shift throughout a piece from keyboards to guitar to bass to drums to some combination thereof. This is indicative of the fact that Yes has a more serious vision they are trying to convey in their music -- and, for Yes, structure and vision go hand-in-hand. Some would say that this shows Yes has "pretensions to the 'lyrical'" as Kurt says -- to me, this shows that Yes has musical ambition.

What distinguishes Yes is its motoric, almost impersonal drive and complexity. I don't think it's the impersonality as such that attracted Dirk, since most of his collection was anything but impersonal. Rather it would seem to be the machine-like drive and the complexity. (Think of the paradigmatic Yes song "Roundabout.")

I'm not sure why music that possesses structural complexity and rhythmic drive must be perceived as "motoric". Is a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue motoric? Well, in a way it is: it's not easy to listen to, it has the kind of structural complexity that makes your mind go to work. To me, Yes music has the same kind of complexity, albeit transferred to the realm of rock. Sure, sometimes Yes music has a surface sheen of classical borrowings (the guitar intro to "Roundabout" is an example, as are the church organ solos in "Close to the Edge" and "Awaken"), but more significantly I would point to the structural features of the music. And their music is not always drivingly rhythmic, either: songs like "Awaken" (from their 1977 release "Going for the One") and "To Be Over" (from their 1974 release "Relayer") are more reflective or contemplative than driving. But Yes could (and still does) rock, and I'd say that most of their music is fairly driving and intense. That's in large measure what rock is all about, after all.

One of the standard critical epithets hurled at Yes is that "it ain't rock'n'roll". To me this indicates an awfully limited view of the potential of rock music. Yes pushed the boundaries of rock with regard to instrumental virtuosity, structural complexity, lyrical vision, and the sheer scale of their works. The rock critics, more comfortable with the sophomoric prancings of a Mick Jagger, refused to do what Yes music would have forced them to do: think. The critics were not prepared to speak intelligently about works (I hesitate to call them songs) like "Close to the Edge", "The Gates of Delirium", and "Awaken" (all over fifteen minutes long), not to mention the epic album "Tales from Topographic Oceans" (consisting of four connected pieces, each of which is about twenty minutes long). So the critics abdicated their responsibilities and said Yes music is "pretentious", "arty", "not rock". To me this says more about the psycho-epistemology of the critics than anything else.

The music of Yes is often virtuosic, large-scale, structurally complex, and spiritually ambitious. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't (although to me it works more often than not). But no matter how you slice it, Yes music is light-years away from the often faux-folk stylings of the singer-songwriter movement (much of which I like anyway), from the honest noise of garage-band rock or punk music, and from the pre-fabricated product of what Joni Mitchell called "the star-maker machinery behind the popular song". And that's precisely why many Yes fans find their music so appealing. It has nothing to do with prestidigitation, razzmatazz, or the musical equivalent of a game of three-card monty. It has everything to do with having a large-scale vision, inventing musical structures to match that vision, and possessing the courage to create works of great musical ambition despite the carping of small-minded listeners and critics alike.

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