Free Hand: The Gentle Art of Counterpoint

John Covach

Progression Magazine

Spring 1996


In 1975 Gentle Giant released their seventh album, Free Hand.  Following on the heels of their very accomplished 1974 release, The Power and the Glory, this new album solidified the group’s place as one of the most talented and innovative bands within the still-flourishing British progressive-rock scene.  While other groups such as Yes, Genesis, ELP, and Jethro Tull certainly enjoyed more commercial success in the mid-1970s--especially in the US--Gentle Giant began to be thought of among serious progressive fans as perhaps the most musically refined of all the 1970s British progressive groups.  Free Hand in many ways constitutes a culminating point in the group’s career, as well as being the last classic album that the band released.  For me, what comes together in this album is a highly refined sense of counterpoint: Free Hand is perhaps the most thoroughly contrapuntal album in all of progressive rock.  But before pursuing the gentle art of counterpoint, let’s take a moment to consider the history of the band.

Gentle Giant was formed in 1970, and released their first album, Gentle Giant, in that year.  The original line-up consisted of brothers Phil (vocals, sax), Derek (vocals, sax), and Ray Shulman (bass, vocals), guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist Kerry Minnear, and drummer Martin Smith.  With the first album, one can detect musical characteristics that will later develop into those most often associated with the group, as well as others that betray the music that had a strong influence on the early Gentle Giant sound.  On the first cut of side one, for instance, one can clearly hear the Gentle Giant that will come to fullest development in the mid 1970s; after the quiet organ introduction of “Giant,” the full band comes in with what would soon become their trademark blend of syncopated and complex rhythms, sophisticated harmonic progression, and strong melodic profile throughout all parts.  The dissonant choral vocals on “Alucard” likewise anticipate similar passages to be found in later tracks such as “Valedictory” from The Power and the Glory.  Even the stylistic references to medieval and renaissance music, complete with recorder ensemble, can already be found in “Why Not?”  It may thus come as something of a surprise to hear the clear influence of late-period Beatles on this album.  “Isn’t It Funny and Cold” could almost pass for a lost Paul McCartney track, and the beginning of “Nothing at All” comes close to quoting “Dear Prudence,” while the choral vocals are reminiscent of many passages from Abbey Road (released earlier in 1970).  It is perhaps important to remember that before they formed Gentle Giant, some of the members of the group had been in a British pop band called Simon Dupree and the Big Sound.

Acquiring the Taste (1971) and Three Friends (1972) show the group further developing their sound.  Acquiring the Taste begins with “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” and the orchestrated character that pervades the album generally is immediately apparent on this track.  After a statement of the song’s principal theme on the synthesizer, the verses feature obligato parts for recorder and trumpet, set against acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and lush Mellotron strings.  Kerry Minnear’s penchant for contrapuntal writing is especially clear on the instrumental cut, “Acquiring the Taste” (based on a melody by Ray Shulman), as well as in the fugatto string passages of “Black Cat.”  With Three Friends the group underwent their first personnel change, as Malcolm Mortimore replaced Martin Smith on drums.  This album tells a story of three boys as they grow up, and is loosely based on Phil Shulman’s childhood memories.  While every bit as carefully arranged as the previous albums, Three Friends is less overtly contrapuntal than the earlier or later ones. 

Octopus was released in 1972 (1973 in the US); it was the first album on which drummer John Weathers played and the last on which Phil Shulman appeared.  Looking back on the band’s career since its demise, Derek Shulman has declared Octopus to be his favorite Gentle Giant album.  The album begins with a track that, for many current fans, is the best the group ever recorded: “The Advent of Panurge.”  (I base this remark on the results of recent polls taken by both Proclamation: The Occasional Gentle Giant Newsletter and “On-Reflection,” the Gentle Giant internet newsgroup.)  The opening vocal melody (doubled lightly by synthesizer) is counterpointed by a melodic line played in octaves by the guitar and bass; a short instrumental interlude follows in which the melody in the lead guitar is set against an extension of the guitar and bass melodic material from the verse.  This kind of two- and three-voice contrapuntal writing occurs throughout Octopus, culminating in what was Gentle Giant’s most complex polyphonic vocal piece to date, “Knots.”  Based on the poetic riddles of psychologist R.D. Laing, the piece consists of a complex fabric of multiple contrapuntally composed voice parts, which are subsequently accompanied instrumentally within a disjointed and hocket-like texture.  The liner notes describe the piece as a “latter-day madrigal--something of a musical jigsaw,” and this captures the character of the piece well.  “The Boys in the Band” follows hot on the heels of “Knots,” and here it is instrumental counterpoint the comes to the fore as the tune drives ahead with complicated sectional juxtaposition underscored with wide dynamic contrasts--and all to the big beat of John Weathers on the drums!

In many ways, Octopus can be seen as a culminating point for early Gentle Giant; Phil Shulman left the group after this LP, and the next album, In a Glass House of 1973, finds the group attempting to get past the loss of a crucial founding member.  Columbia, who had released the previous two Gentle Giant albums in the US, did not release In a Glass House; the album was never released in the US and, according to Derek Shulman, this made the LP a strong-selling import in this country.  Tracks such as “The Runaway,” “Experience,” “Way of Life,” and “In a Glass House” display the trademark Gentle Giant complexity and energy.  The most innovative cut on the album may well be “An Inmate’s Lullaby.”  The song attempts to capture the perspective of a (presumably institutionalized) mentally ill patient; the predominant use of tuned percussion lines in repeated contrapuntal loops creates a kaleidoscopic and often static texture that is at times magical and even haunting. 

If In a Glass House is seen as in some ways less successful than Octopus, then the enormous technical and aesthetic success of the next release, The Power and the Glory of 1974, is all the more spectacular.  The album takes on the topic of political power, and--according to band members and contrary to widespread perception at the time--was not inspired by the Watergate affair.  There is not a weak track on the album, and some die-hard fans consider The Power and the Glory to be the best LP Gentle Giant released.  Certainly there are few moments in rock music quite like the “hail to power” chorus of “Proclamation”; and the obvious irony of setting the politician’s promises of sincerity to the atonal and angular polyphony of “So Sincere” is a compositional masterstroke.  “Cogs in Cogs” follows very much in the spirit of “Knots,” but also--in terms of its static contrapuntal layering--can be seen to take up where “An Inmate’s Lullaby” leaves off.  As far as vocal counterpoint is concerned, The Power and the Glory is full of wonderfully complex passages, of which the verses to “No God’s A Man” are but one instance among many that could be cited.

Having read such raving about The Power and the Glory, then, you might wonder how I can claim that it is in fact the next album, Free Hand of 1975, that constitutes an important point of musical culmination for the group.  After all, how does you improve on The Power and the Glory?  Thought of in terms of counterpoint, though, I think Free Hand is indeed the most successful album that the group released; as I mentioned above, I consider it to be the most thoroughly contrapuntal Gentle Giant album.  In order to make my point about counterpoint as it occurs on this LP though, it might help to explain what I mean by the term “counterpoint.” 

As any college textbook on counterpoint will tell you, the term arises from the Latin “punctus contra punctum” (literally: “point against point”).  In traditional contrapuntal exercises, the student learns first how to place one note (point) against another in two parts; this is extended to composing two notes against one, then three and four notes against one, and further complicated until one composes freely in two parts.  Traditionally this entire routine is repeated in three and four parts until the student gains mastery of contrapuntal polyphony.  But as valuable and necessary as such studies are, they are only prepatory exercises; in real music,  “contrapuntal” tends to mean that melodic parts both sound well together and have an interesting and contrasting melodic contour when played independently.  Generally speaking, counterpoint in the sense I mean it here tends not to play an important role in rock music.   Most rock tunes can be parsed into the melody (either sung or played on a lead instrument), the harmony (chords played by rhythm guitar, keyboards, etc.), and the rhythmic feel (dictated by the drummer).  In the playing of most rock bands, these elements are strongly dependent upon one another; the drums, bass, and rhythmic harmonic instruments lock in together to support the vocal or lead line.  In most rock music, then, the accompanying parts tend to be coordinated but not independent.

 What makes Gentle Giant’s music different from the more-standard rock fare is that there are often at least two or three rhythmically and melodically distinct parts--or even coordinated layers-- active at any point in a song.  In order to hear this contrapuntal aspect of their music clearly, let’s turn to perhaps the most obviously contrapuntal track in the entire Gentle Giant repertory: “On Reflection.”  (The figure below may help keep the following description straight.) The track begins with Derek singing unaccompanied for four bars (three measures of 4/4 followed by a measure of 3/4, marked “A” in the figure); in the fifth measure Ray comes in with the same melody, beginning it a fourth lower (A-4), while Derek continues on with new melodic material (B).  In the ninth measure, Gary comes in singing the melody with which Derek began, though an octave lower (A); Ray continues his part as Derek’s had continued in measure five (but down a fourth, B-4), and Derek continues with new material (C).  Finally, Kerry comes in singing the part Ray sang in measure five (A-4), and the other parts proceed as seen in the figure below:

mm. 1-4  mm. 5-8          mm. 9-12        mm. 13-16

Derek               A                     B                      C                     D

Ray                                          A-4                   B-4                    C-4

Gary                                                                 A                     B

Kerry                                                                                       A-4

 When this part of the piece returns later in the track, it becomes clear that this opening section--which might be loosely described here as “fugatto”--is really part of a four-part canon at the lower fourth: each part proceeds through melodic segments A, B, C, and D; the voices enter at intervals of four measures; and the entrances alternate between statements a fourth apart.

 What all of this complicated description leads to is this: “On Reflection” is not only thoroughly contrapuntal in these sections--there are four distinct and independent parts--but it is contrapuntal in a very conventional manner; the structuring of the voices here is squarely in the contrapuntal tradition that extends from Josquin Desprez to J.S. Bach.  Of course, there’s nothing conventional at all about such passages occurring in rock music!  Now if we keep this idea of parts in mind as we listen to other tracks on the album, we can begin to hear the kind of counterpoint that is most typical of Gentle Giant music.   Take “Just the Same,” for instance.  The tune begins with rhythmic finger snaps; the electric piano then enters (this causes a metric re-orientation to occur), followed by the guitar echoing the piano.  When the singing comes in, so does sax (coordinated with the guitar and piano parts), bass (playing an independent line), and drums.  I count at least four levels of melodic activity going on after the singing has entered.  Or try the beginning of “Free Hand,” in which there are at least three independent parts, four after the singing comes in.  The verses of “Time to Kill” have at least four parts as well.

It is this kind of thorough-going contrapuntal writing--and it can be found at almost every point on the album in some form--that makes Free Hand the culmination of counterpoint in the music of Gentle Giant.  As I have mentioned above, this kind of writing is not new with this album, but on Free Hand the group takes this approach to new heights; and as such the LP constitutes a high-water mark for counterpoint in rock music generally.  The album also reaches a level in this regard that the group was not to reach again, much less surpass.  1976 saw the release of Interview, which, while still a fine album, was not really the kind of accomplishment for the group that Octopus, The Power and the Glory, or Free Hand were.  The most interesting cut on Interview is “Design,” which like other Gentle Giant choral pieces, exhibits tremendous compositional control and virtuosity; and like the other choral settings, it is thoroughly contrapuntal.  But Interview may suffer from being rushed; when asked whether it was true that the group was still doing overdubs just days before the album was pressed, Derek Shulman joked that they were still doing overdubs in the record stores!