King Crimson: Islands
   An Analysis by Andrew Keeling

Part I

Presumably it was Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield who formulated the conceptual ideas for Islands, but it seems to show a greater economy of means than its three predecessors. This may have been something to do with getting the work produced quickly between touring, whereas ITWOP and Lizard were written and produced while the group was off the road.

The title could refer to various ideas:

  1. harmonic 'islands';
  2. generic 'islands' (particularly Prelude-like pieces, or pieces which include ritornelli/episode-like structures);
  3. verses of songs (which could be felt as ritornelli) are connected by instrumental space/ocean (episodes) - the cover design may also refer to this [i.e. stars are islands in the ocean of space];
  4. the conceptual idea was generated by the structure of the work: there are six pieces, four of which are connected by their reference to the sea ( 1 - Formentera Lady; 2 - Sailor's Tale; 3 - Prelude-Song of the Gulls; 4 - Islands) with the two central songs standing as 'islands' in the structure ( 3 - The Letters; 4 - Ladies of the road). This is better clarified by a diagram:

    1) F.L. 2) S.T. 3) The L. 4) LOTR. 5) SOTG. 6) Isl. ^---------^ ^-------^--------------------------^--------^

Structurally, Formentera Lady serves as an anacrusis to Sailor's Tale (i.e. it is 'prelude' like) and also stands in relation to Song of the Gulls which, in turn, could also be regarded as an anacrusis to the title track. It could be that another structural palindrome, of sorts, is at work, with the first half of the work reflecting the second (the vinyl version, rather than the CD version, clarifies this with a break after The Letters):

1) F.L>S.T>T.L//LOTR<SOTG<Isl. In Jungian terms, the sea/ocean is often seen as a symbol for the 'collective unconscious'. Using this terminology The Letters and Ladies of the Road stand in a slightly different relation to the pieces which surround them, with their references to infidelity and permissiveness. In other words, the central songs as land-forms ('ego' - conscious) are surrounded by framing sea-pieces ('non-ego' - unconscious). The 'sea' pieces mainly include instruments other than the core ensemble of electric instruments/drums: 1) double bass/soprano/piano; 5) oboe and strings; 6) piano/oboe/cornet/harmonium. Apropos these pieces, this has the effect of providing a sense of 'otherness'.

It is also possible to make other connections: side one begins with a double bass solo (Formentera Lady) and ends with solo voice (The Letters); side two begins with solo guitar and ends with the voice of Robert Fripp conducting the recording of Song of the Gulls. Also, with the inclusion of this recording session the structure expands to seven, but without this addition 'threeness', as in In the Wake of Poseidon, may be an important factor: there are three pieces per side.

Harmony is an integral part of the work. Chords are used structurally, as in the title track were there is preponderance of root position chords making for structural strength. In other words, chords are used not just as sonorities, but seem to lend an objective clarity to the structure:

  1. Formentera Lady - E Aeolian verses; chorus and extended final improvisation A pentatonic linking with Sailors Tale. Descending fourths outlined in the vocal part balanced by ascending fourths in the chorus;
  2. Sailor's Tale - A Aeolian;
  3. The Letters - F Aeolian (f=Neapolitan relationship to the E centres which precede and follow it. Perfect fourth anacrusis in guitar part link it to the fourths in Formentera.... The central 'angry' section is also fourth related: F - Ab - Bb. There is also a Db-C natural motive in the guitar part [Phrygian related] which takes on a life of its own:
  4. Ladies.....: E Aeolian. Chords VI-V seem important connecting it to the Db-C natural (6-5) of The Letters. The descending fourths in the previous pieces are transformed into descending chromatic lines in the chorus. There is also a tonicisation on C# minor at the beginning of the chorus, connectin the piece with Islands;
  5. Song of...: E major, but 'modalised' with the absence of the leading note D#:
  6. Islands: C# Aeolian/E major - E pentatonic.

It would be possible to ramble on ad infinitum about harmonic relationships within each piece, but the long-term harmonic connections are more important when place in context. The work is felt in E Aeolian/Emajor, with a tonicization on A Aeolian (Sailor's Tale), Neapolitan (flattened 2nd [The Letters]), returning to E Aeolian/C# minor for Ladies..., E major for Song..., concluding with C# Aeolian/E pentatonic for the title track. E seems to be felt as the harmonic 'ocean' of the piece, and is also felt as a 'third divider' in the title track where it stands in relation to C# Aeolian and a passing G# minor. Perhaps, in this way, 'E' may be considered as the tonic 'unconscious' of the piece from which other things derive and have their being.

Part II

Sailor's Tale

Five sections, Aeolian mode:

  1. A gradually accumulating storm at sea: 6/4 (syncopated ride cymbal entry quaver/crotchet/quaver/four crotchets) then divided into 3+3+2+2+2 quavers with the bass and kit entry. Bass plays A-C-A-G-E (pitch-classes: 0 3 0 10 7) which anticipates Section Two because of its interval content (i.e. it involves a minor third, octave, major second, minor third and a filled-in, obscured perfect fourth (A-[G]-E);

  2. a. full band: sustained sax and guitar. The dyads (two-note chords) are mainly perfect 5th, major third, minor 3rd, perfect fourth, unison, the intervallic content being derived from the opening bass part which continues to underpin the guitar and saxophone. Guitar and sax climax on A major first inversion chord which is sutained for four bars before a collapse into:
    b. saxophone solo counterpointed by guitar;

  3. The eye of the storm. 4/4: Mellotron underpins muted/angular/ripped-apart funk-style/tremolando guitar solo. Many dyads and triads included in two sections: i) including gaps; ii) compressing the pitches of the first half of the solo by gradually becoming wholly tremolando and triadic as the solo reaches its climax. Also, the solo moves up to other staring points within the mode (i.e. in one place beginning on B natural, and another where a D# (tritone from A natural and not in the Aeolian) is touched on. The intervallic content of the solo seems to be derived from the guitar/sax sostenuto of the second section. Echo is used to join gaps in places, which gives the effect of one guitar shadowing another. (The shadowing aspect of the Albatross in Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' comes to mind here). The solo collapses into:

  4. Full impact of the storm. 6/4: string/brass mellotrons replace the guitar/sax sost. of Section 2, providing a massive textural thickening and evoking the musical counterpart to Poe's 'The Maelstrom'. In terms of harmonic support there is a transformation: the riff is, at one point, transposed to D, and D becomes important at the end. At the climax the guitar tremolando is picked up from the solo of Section 3 and this time descends in first inversion minor triads, glissandi, first to D minor and then to a first inversion D major chord (Tierce de Picardie) which gradually ralls. to a slower, spread D major first inversion chord. It is Fourth-related, making a long-term connection with the intervals of the opening. In this way, the Aeolian harmony (A) can be seen as a long dominant prolongation cadencing only at the very end on D (A=V : D=I);

  5. Storm now passed, but felt in the distance. Senza misura (out-of-time): the coda balances the opening but this time with mellotron, a distanza, oscillating with Bb/D fourths and thirds once again connecting with the intervals from the opening.

As in any masterpiece, Sailor's Tale uses a minimum of materials to generate high impact in its arch-like structure. Sailor's Tale is an effective evocation of a maelstrom, and may, perhaps, be regarded as a Tone Poem-like narrative.

Part III

It is possible to find a Schenkerian Urstaz (background) apropos the complete structure of 'Islands'. Although it may also be possible to find an Urlinie (fundamental descending line falling from 5 - 1) in one of the complete pieces, as an authentic Schenkerian analysis might, the Urlinie can be discoverd extending the entire length of the work as a whole, beginning with 5 (Bnatural), and ending with a closure on 1 (E natural) on the final piece, 'Islands'. In this way, fundamental tones can be applied to each of the pieces within the structure:

The songs are on the left; the Urlinie (descending line) follows-on down the next column (B, A, G etc) one over the other in descending order with descending tones following (5,4, 3 etc); followed by the Bassbrechung (the bass arpeggiation)(E, A, F etc.); followed by the key of the piece. A diagram such as this (Schenkerian-like) may help clarify the Urlinie (the fundamental line):

Formentera Lady: *(Urlinie)* B - 5 *(E - i/I)
Sailor's Tale:   *  ditto  * A - 4 *(A)
The Letters:     *    "    *       *(F - bii)
Ladies of..:     *    "    * G - 3 *(E - I)
Song..Gulls:     *    "    * F#- 2 *(B - v)
Islands:         *    "    * E - 1 *(E - i/I)

A diagram such as this reveals that the lyrics are not only heightened by appropriate music, but also shows that there is a descent into the depths. Not only this, but words such as 'encircled', 'join hands', 'bound in circles',and , especially, the suggestion of the cyclic motion in nature in the final verse of 'Islands' reinforces the idea of 'E' beginning, partitioning and framing the work. The idea of 'cyclic' techniques, which this is an example of, is something explored by the Austro/German composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. I have employed quasi-Schenkerian methods as a way of revealing the not only the work's 'background' (Ursatz) (an 'oceanic background'), but also to expose the way in which Fripp and Sinfield seem to have used 'tonicization' as a way to underline cyclic processes through the use of a Bassbrechung which underpins, and segments the structure into important events within the tonic 'E'. This 'E' begins with 'Formentera Lady', continues with 'Ladies..' and ends with 'Islands'. The sea has often been associated with the feminine ('Ladies...'), and this forges a link between all three pieces which have 'E' at their centre.

Note that one pitch (Ab) is derived from the Middleground (Mittelgrund) which registers as a passing tonicization on the Neapolitan F minor/F Aeolian. 'The Letters' does include the dominant (C) with its leading note E natural as the lowest pitch of the guitar part, underpinning the line 'you husband's seed has fed my..'. This dominant, however, is also blurred by including the pitch G#(=Ab) making it an Augmented aggregate at this point.

The motivic foreground (Vordergrund) material is closely related to the background, as one would expect in a Schenkerian working, as Schenker, himself, felt that forground material is an elaboration of the Ursatz. For example, the opening vocal line of 'Formentera Lady' uses pitch-classes 7 5 3 2 (E=0) ('Houses iced in...') eventually arriving on 0 ( E nat.) on the word 'pale'. This illustrates a motivic parallelism (hidden repetition) of the Ursatz. Other motivic connections (I am cautious about using the term 'motivic parallelism' in this context) may be found, for example, in the guitar part of anacrusis and downbeat to 'The Letters', and the 5 - 1 motives in 'Sailor's Tale'.

If tis is the case, and I am cautiously employing Schenkerian analytical ideas in an attempt to uncover the interior and underlying connections in the work, the prolongation of tones - a la Schenker - goes, in some way, to reinforcing the metaphorical idea that 'E' may be regarded, as I said in Part 1 of the analysis, as a 'oceanic' background'.

Also, 'The Letters' is a re-composition of KC I's song 'Drop In'. The original, included on the 'Epitaph' box-set (King Crimson Live 1969), appears in Bb minor/Bb Aeolian and Peter Sinfield is not credited as a co-writer in that context. However, 'The Letters' modifies and transforms the original in several important ways: by making Sinfield part of the creative process (i.e. by supplying new words); by reducing the jazz element of the original; by ending with an unaccompanied vocal verse, rather than beginning the piece with one; by modifying the arrangements (verse three includes a flute countermelody as well as the 'icy' guitar part); by paying close attention to word-painting. It seems that in doing this the piece has been strengthened by reducing the rather musico/lyrical rhetoric which coloured the original, and which may have been seen as old-fashioned by 1971.

(All analyses of the music of King Crimson/Robert Fripp is copyrighted material: Andrew Keeling/Discipline Global Mobile, 1999/2000.)

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