Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sample Definition Paper

Students, please find below a sample draft of a definition paper.  Do note that the topic of the paper is not one that is admissible for your own work; as I explained during class time, I retain some genres for just such uses as this, that I can provide examples for you without writing your papers for you.

Keep in mind that this is a draft.  The prewriting I have done has been largely in terms of thinking about the subject, though I have sketched a few ideas out in classroom examples and in my own response to the diagnostic prompt I had you address.

Progressive rock is a genre of music that enjoyed the height of its popularity in the mid to late 1970s.  It is typified by songs longer than is typical of rock music, intellectualized lyrics, use of usually-orchestral instruments, and unusual-for-rock rhythmic constructions.  Songs which typify the genre include Muse's "Knights of Cydonia," Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick," and Kansas' "Miracles out of Nowhere."

Muse's music post-dates the prominence of progressive rock by several decades, though the band's "Knights of Cydonia" still represents the features of progressive rock.  Unlike most rock songs of its own time, which play for three to four minutes, "Knights of Cydonia" is approximately six minutes in length, nearly double most of its contemporaries.  Its lyrics call into question the competence of deity and the validity of authority, noting that "God / Falls asleep on the job. / ... / When fools can be kings."  They address a counter-cultural idea that appears in much academic writing, which seeks to undermine traditional notions of rightness-because-someone-said-so and expose them to examination.  Since they mimic "higher" intellectual activities, the lyrics become more intellectual than is otherwise common.

In addition, the song's instrumentation relies heavily on synthesizers, which are admittedly not among the most Classical of instruments, but the synthesizers are tuned throughout the song to mimic the brassy fanfares of trumpets.  Such fanfares pervade Classical music (the "William Tell Overture" comes to mind), as do the arpeggiated triplets that accompany the main melodic lines of the song throughout.  While arpeggiation is not uncommon in rock (Van Halen offers many examples, for instance), most rock operates in twos and fours rather than in the threes of Muse's underlying accompaniment.  The appearance in "Knights of Cydonia" of a triplet-driven accompaniment line marks the song's unusual rhythmic content and contributes to its representation of the progressive rock genre.

The much earlier "Thick as a Brick" is a more prominent representative of the genre.  The band which performs it, Jethro Tull, formed in the late 1960s and has continued to play since; the song itself appeared in the mid 1970s, at the height of progressive rock's popularity.  And the song is long, playing for more than forty minutes in total, some ten times the common four-minute length of popular songs at the time.

The lyrics are also unusual.  While poetry appears in song lyrics for as long as either art form can be said to have existed, the lyrics of "Thick as a Brick" partake of some of the less-structured poetic forms, relying on slant rhyme and irregular line-length.  Such forms are often perceived as being more difficult to employ effectively, making the composition of the song's lyrics more intellectual an exercise than is often the case for songwriters.  Also, the simple length of the song demands more material to fill it, provision of which necessarily requires more mental effort to perform.

The band, Jethro Tull, is noted especially for the flute-playing of band leader Ian Anderson.  His work on the woodwind instrument is featured prominently in the song, imparting an almost-gentle overlay to the melodic lines.  Flutes do not often appear in rock music--though it is notable that some of the most famous rock songs use such instrumentation--but are prevalent in even the darkest and heaviest Classical music.  That "Thick as a Brick" employs one is one of the more obvious of the ways in which it represents the progressive rock genre.

Rhythmically, the song also represents the genre.  Throughout, stoppages in play occur, which are devices more commonly used in the grand conclusions of major orchestral works than in rock music.  Too, the song employs not only triplets such as are seen in "Knights of Cydonia," but invokes quintuplet passages, imparting yet more rhythmic complexity to its melodic and accompanying lines.  Also, the song makes free use of syncopation, a construction more commonly seen in jazz than rock.  "Thick as a Brick" thus clearly represents progressive rock.

Perhaps the purest example of progressive rock is Kansas' "Miracles out of Nowhere," which was released in the mid-1970s.  At nearly six and a half minutes, the song is markedly longer than its more mainstream contemporaries.  Its lyrics are more regular in form than those of Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick"; the rhymes are more exact and the chorus is in pentameter couplets, mimicking the dominant poetic line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  In that mimicry, though, the lyrics do partake of the dominant literary tradition in English, reflecting older intellectual movements.  Also, the song's main verses are irregular in line-length, which has the same function for "Miracles out of Nowhere" as line-length irregularity does for "Thick as a Brick."

Kansas features as one of its major attractants a rich violin line.  Violin pervades "Miracles out of Nowhere," as is atypical of rock but obligatory in Classical music; most of the orchestra, as usually arranged, consists of violinists.  And the rhythmic constructions in the song are equally unusual.  In extended instrumental passages, the song changes time signature every measure.  Not only does it change meters, it does so among uncommon meters, playing in seven, nine, and eleven, rather than the more common two, three, and four.  Within the oscillating meters, the song extensively employs triplet rhythmic patterns, often overlaying multiple instruments offering them in overlap with one another.  The immense complexity thereby created challenges listening, making the song one of the shining examples of progressive rock.

That progressive rock, with its complex rhythms, borrowings from other major musical movements, rich lyrical content, and extended-length songs, appears infrequently is lamentable.  It offers a unique opportunity for engagement, and engaging with music is something many people enjoy.

Works Cited
Jethro Tull. "Thick as a Brick." Thick as a Brick. AMG, 1998. CD.
Kansas. "Miracles out of Nowhere." Leftoverture. Kirshner, 2001. CD.
Muse. "Knights of Cydonia." Haarp. Helium 3, 2008. CD.

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