George Saunders on Fragile by Yes: “A window was thrown open in my mind”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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The artistic impulse first reared its head in the form of a relation to the Catholic Mass. The Mass taught me what a metaphor was and that there were notions deeper than words could express, and that a grand design could be manifest in the smallest detail. Each Mass had an ethos, a stance. A colour scheme could represent a particular aspect of God. Here was God sorrowful (purple, lamb-dominated), here God joyful (sun and angels, yellow and gold). Then adolescence came and the artistic impulse found a new repository: rock albums. Each album was a Mass of sorts, conveying meaning in its every particular.

A favourite of mine from that period was Yes’s Fragile. It looked different from other albums. It had a gorgeous and strange Roger Dean painting on the front (the abundant Earth, cracking open) and was lush in its interior presentation. The music struck me as a precise, exuberant chaos, little trace in it of the blues-rock musical basis through which I (a beginning guitarist) was understanding everything at that point.

I was particularly taken by the playing of Steve Howe – he relied on almost no effects, played with extraordinary heart and precision, and not only that, if memory serves, there was a photo of him smiling sweetly, standing among some sheep. I found it encouraging to think that someone happy could be as wonderful a player as he was. The lyrics were odd and poetic, as if the goal was to sound a certain way rather than to say a certain something. “In and around the lake/Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.” Yes, they do, sort of, don’t they? thought my 1974 self.

I was no artist at that point but badly wanted to become one. Yes reached across the Atlantic and tweaked something in my mind. I could find no overt “meaning” in Fragile – except for the intensity of the experience I had listening to it. I couldn’t deny what was happening to me but couldn’t explain it or reduce it to thematics. It was just beautiful (confounding, grand, propulsive). Did Yes know the “meaning” of Fragile? I suspected not. And yet… it meant.

So, a window was thrown open in my mind: to make something beautiful might mean to make something even you, the artist, don’t fully understand. An artist may not, as she creates the work, have her aim fully worked out. The aim is realised through the process of making, and an aim realised through the making is going to be more profound than an aim decided upon in advance.  (“Finding by doing,” is how the director Hiro Murai recently described this process to me.)

I listened to Fragile recently and found it as fresh as ever: startling, brash, complex, refusing to succumb to tropes or settle into any recognisable genre, still thrilling, still speaking to me after all these years.

Bravo, Yes, and, from the kid I was back then, thanks. 

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special