Rock Meets Classical, Part 4: Classical Concepts in King Crimson’s 'Larks Tongues in Aspic'

Larks Tongues in Aspic

WARNING: To understand my analysis of this music, you will need to understand the properties of symmetrical scales. If you are unfamiliar with symmetrical scales, read the article I wrote about them before proceeding.

In part 3 of this series, I discussed the ways in which progressive rock artists directly incorporate pre-existing classical compositions into their music. In this article, I will show how King Crimson incorporated harmonic and rhythmic concepts from classical music and applied them to rock on their 1973 album Larks Tongues in Aspic. The instrumental music on this album uses many musical devices drawn from 20th century classical composers like Bartók and Stravinsky, including symmetrical scales, dissonant chord structures, odd time signatures and polymeters. Larks Tongues in Aspic was the first King Crimson album to incorporate these ideas, and Robert Fripp has continued to explore these ideas throughout his career.

The lineup on this album consisted of John Wetton (bass & vocals), Robert Fripp (guitar & keyboards), David Cross (violin & keyboards) and Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir on drums and percussion. This was the band’s first dual drummer lineup, but this incarnation was short-lived - Jamie Muir departed the band soon after, and the group’s second album, Starless and Bible Black (1974), was recorded without him. David Cross exited the band before this lineup recorded their third and final album, Red (1974). All three of these albums explore the concepts I introduce here, but I will focus primarily on Larks Tongues in Aspic for now.

An abbreviated live performance of "Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part 1" at the Beat Club (1973):

Larks Tongues in Aspic is framed by the first two parts of the title track. The album opens with Part 1, a very dynamic full band composition consisting of multiple sections and many different textures, and it closes with Part 2, an aggressive rock song written by Fripp alone. At first glance, these songs seem very different, but most of the musical material in both pieces is derived from just two small motives. One of the motives is rhythmic: a 5/4 rhythm with eighth notes grouped as 3,3,2,2. This idea is adapted to other time signatures by adding or subtracting groups of two from the end - for example, it can also appear in 4/4 as 3,3,2 or in 6/4 as 3,3,2,2,2. Fripp states that this motive was directly inspired by ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ from Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring". Despite the clear influence here (pounding out one chord in eighth notes with strong accents on certain beats), there is a core difference between the two ideas: Stravinsky constantly changes the position of his accents to keep the listener off guard, while Fripp’s motive is a repeating rhythmic ostinato.

The other ‘Larks’ motive is a melodic motive drawn from octatonic scales - an upward leap of a fifth followed by an upward leap of a tritone, usually followed by another statement of the tritone a half step down. In both pieces, it first appears as G-D-A♭-C#-G, from the scale C#, D, E, F, G, A♭, B♭, B. This motive is heavily developed throughout both pieces, and is played in multiple transpositions.

The opening of LTIA Part 2 incorporates both of these motives:

In part 1, the rhythmic motive can be heard in the violin part which first appears at 2:54 and recurs throughout. Fripp’s solo part at 4:53 is built from a combination of both motives:

Like Stravinsky, Fripp does not use the octatonic scale very strictly. As you can see in the example above, the basic motive is drawn from the octatonic scale, but Fripp adds in quite a few chromatic notes for extra color. Fripp’s use of the scale is often centered around thirds relationships - for example, take a look at the violin part at 2:54 in part 1. There are quite a few added chromatic notes in this section, but if you reduce the passage to its simplest terms, you will find that the movement outlines a diminished seventh chord. There is a pedal tone on C running throughout the section. The top voice starts on E♭, moves chromatically up to F#, then moves chromatically up to A. Altogether, this spells out a C-E♭-F#-A diminished seventh, since the most important notes in the top line move up by minor thirds. The guitar enters at 3:02 and repeats the same idea in contrary motion (the opposite direction): it starts on C, goes to A, then F#, then moves chromatically down to E♭ (notes in the diminished 7th are highlighted). The idea of writing an ascending line and inverting it to create a descending line below it was used frequently by Bartók.

Larks I, 2:54

The same kind of thirds motion appears 45 seconds into part 2: the motive presented here starts out centered around A, moves to C, then E♭, then F# - outlining the same diminished seventh chord from the previous example in part 1 (see the top notes in the highlighted chords in the example below). The feel of this section is much less tense than the example in part 1, and this is because Fripp draws triads (D minor, F minor, Ab major, D major) from the octatonic scale C, D, E♭, F, F#, G#, A, B for his guitar part, giving the passage a diatonic sound instead of adding chromatic notes. He even includes diatonic neighbor notes from outside of the scale at the end of every bar (G, Bb, Db). On the first two chords, the bass plays notes from outside the octatonic scale, recontextualizing Fripp’s D minor triad as the fifth, seventh and ninth of a G dominant ninth and turning his F minor triad into the fifth, seventh and ninth of a Bb dominant 9th. The bass then joins the guitar, playing the roots of the Ab major and D major chords.  All of this gives the section a very tradic/diatonic feeling, despite being derived from an octatonic scale:

Larks II, 0:45

Note that this section is also using the 3-3-2-2 rhythmic grouping, but on completely different musical material than the song’s intro. This is why I call this rhythm a motive in itself - it is incorporated into many different musical ideas throughout these two songs.

LTIA Part II live on French TV in 1973:

Fripp also likes to stretch the scale in these songs by playing power chords (fifths) on octatonic roots. It is very common in rock music to take an idea and then make it more intense by playing it as parallel fifths, but the octatonic scale makes this very difficult, since it contains only a few fifths. For instance, in the scale C#, D, E, F, G, A♭, B♭, B, you can play 5ths starting on C#, E, G and B♭. If you try to play a fifth on any other note in the scale, the top note will no longer be a part of the scale. However, the top line will be in a different octatonic scale, C, D, E♭, F, F#, G#, A, B! For two examples of this technique, check out 3:37 in part 1 (which also includes a power chord on F outside of the modes for extra chromatic flavor) or 3:52 in part 2 (which is based on the motive introduced at 0:45, and also features a pretty cool polymeter between the two drum kits - I will talk more about polymeters next week). Note that this is not the only way of analyzing these power chord sections. For instance, the section at 3:52 in part 2 fits perfectly into the Phrygian mode (minor scale with flat 2nd), but since the musical material in this section is the same as the material from the purely octatonic section at 0:45, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to look at it this way.

LTIA Part II live with the Discipline lineup in 1982:

King Crimson later released two more parts of "Larks Tongues in Aspic".  Part 3 was the closing song on the album Three of a Perfect Pair (1984), and it immediately opens with the Larks melodic motive, but the rhythmic motive is never stated in its original form - instead, it is expanded into many other odd groupings of 3 and 2.  Part 4 is the closing song on the album The ConstruKction of Light (2000), and it is essentially a longer, more intense and more complicated rework and development of all of the ideas presented in Part 2. The song "Level Five" from the band’s last album, ‘The Power to Believe‘ (2003), shares some strong structural similarities with Larks part 4, and I believe that the title indicates that it is part 5 in a very loose sense, since it does not contain the melodic Larks motive, but plays with rhythm and form in a similar manner.

Larks Part IV Live in Tokyo 2003:

In part 5 of this series, I discuss how I use classical concepts in my own music. In part 6, I talk about the use of polymeter and small diatonic motives in King Crimson’s 1981 album ‘Discipline’. See if you can identify more ways that that these basic motives are transformed across these four pieces, and tell us what you find in the comments!

"The Talking Drum" & LTIA Part II live with the Thrak lineup (double duo) in 1995:

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