Saturday, July 21, 2012

Over the Hill

Rock music has been primarily the province of the young. When I was active as a rock musician, I was in my early thirties and even then I felt old for the task on numerous occasions. I've blogged about Van der Graaf Generator before here and here, and I don't have a great deal to add to those postings. But I recently saw/heard them live at the show of which poster is pictured above, and a few new thoughts have floated in. I don't really intend to write a "review" of that concert, though. What is more presently on my mind is what their continued presence means to me today.

Many bands have come and gone in the years since I first heard VdGG. And when most groups of their era reform, it's primarily to perform as a "nostalgia" act, recreating the sounds that beguiled the fans all those years ago. Lots of bands do this. Typically, they play primarily (if not exclusively) older material. There's nothing particularly wrong with this, but VdGG have chosen a different path.

When I heard them in Arlington, MA (accompanied by my 24-year-old daughter, who knew barely a note of their music), I was struck by their refusal to succumb to the temptations of nostalgia. This is not to say that they played none of their older repertoire; they did. The material presented spanned at least 40 years. But easily half the show was given over to music that had been written since their reformation in 2005. And the centerpiece of the concert was Flight, a twenty-three minute suite that was composed in 1980, and which had only been performed by Peter Hammill with post-VdGG configurations. When I first heard the piece all those years ago, on Hammill's A Black Box album, my first thought was, "This should have been a Van der Graaf song..." Never in a million years did I ever think I would hear it in that context. It's an extended meditation on human existence, using images of flight as extended metaphor, somewhat in the metaphysical fashion of George Herbert or John Donne. As a text, you could easily pull several PhD theses out of it, it's that dense and intricately written. Plus, the lyrics are deployed over some of Hammill's most complex music, odd time signatures everywhere. To perform it live from memory struck me as both reckless and heroic. And they did, and it was all of that and more...

One of the hallmarks of VdGG's approach to performance has been to embrace the element of danger, the willingness to risk failure, disaster, embarrassment. And the reason why they remain for me a vital force is because they've not abandoned that core value. Their show was a powerful experience for me for another reason. I'm presently headed well into my sixth decade and VdGG's performance provided an ideal to strive towards. I'm still trying to find a full-time job in the field I love. I try to bring new music into a world that that the world neither encourages nor welcomes. I carry onwards, but there's plenty of days when i wonder why I bother.

VdGG's show was a lesson in persistence and fortitude. Peter Hammill struck me as frail and uncertain at moments during the show, yet his dignity and humor in the face of aging, while in pursuit of a young man's vocation was inspiring. Hugh Banton, the band's organist, was a study in concentration and understated, astonishing musicianship. Never has a musician been so motionless and accomplished so much. And Guy Evans, their drummer, played with the intensity of someone a third his age. If they can summon this energy, I thought, I should strive to do the same. The title of this blog posting was meant to be ironic; these musicians are anything but "over the hill." Yet they seemed to be keenly aware that their time is limited and every moment counts. And so it does, as was further driven home to me upon the news of the passing of a young fellow composer this week. The closing words from Flight speak to that: "No looking back from tomorrow, no, there'll be no looking back on today; better be looking on to tomorrow... better think on today."

And from the penultimate song of their set, which IS entitled Over the Hill:

If we're living our lives as though God's at our shoulders,

if we're giving of our best, by an effort of will,

then we'll be up for the test,

we'll never know when we're over the hill.

So. Onwards. Towards, and over the hill.

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