THE PAPERLATE INTERVIEW
ED MACAN INTERVIEWED BY ANDRÉ STEIJNS
1. Please tell us something about yourself—where you were born, where you live, and something about your profession, your band, and the books you've written.
I was born in December 1961 in Rochester , a town in southeastern Michigan that's about 25 miles north of Detroit . I began playing piano in 1970, when I was eight years old. I took private lessons until I was 17. As you might expect, that involved playing a lot of classical piano music. Around the time I began playing piano, I discovered orchestral music through my parents' record collection. So classical music was part of my life from very early on.
My father was a jazz drummer, so jazz was another long-term influence. Even though I have never really mastered playing “proper” jazz piano, I always had a natural feel for the swing rhythms of jazz.
I played in my first rock band in 1979. It was called Io, and consisted of high school friends. We weren't very good, and we certainly weren't “progressive.” In 1981 I joined a band called Cinema. That band was a couple of cuts better than Io and actually could claim some “progressive” credentials. We tried to sound like mid 1970s Genesis. Interestingly, this was just about the time the British neo- prog scene, which was also very influenced by mid-1970s Genesis, was getting off the ground, but we knew nothing about Marillion , IQ, or any of those bands in 1981. Cinema played a couple of fairly high-profile gigs while I was with them, but we never quite gelled as personalities, and at some point during 1982 I left the band. That was good for them: they were able to pursue a more pop-oriented direction, and they became a regionally-important act for a year or two before they broke up for good.
By 1983, I had pretty much lost interest in contemporary rock. I was becoming interested in experimental music, and I was learning how to play marimba and vibraphone. I took my Bachelors Degree in piano performance at Oakland University in 1983, then moved from Michigan to southern California . I took an M.A. in Music History at University of California-Riverside in 1986, and a Ph.D. in Musicology at Claremont Graduate University in 1991. My Ph.D. dissertation was on Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst , and the English pastoralist school of the early twentieth century. While I was working on the dissertation, I gradually became aware how similar the music of Vaughan Williams and Holst was to British prog rock in many ways, and for the first time in nearly 10 years I began pulling out some of my old prog rock records and listening to them. I became convinced there was a twentieth-century British musical style that could be traced in many of its essentials from British classical music of the early 1900s through to British rock of the 1960s and 1970s. That insight became the basis of my first book, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture , which I began in 1992 and which was published in 1996. In 1994 I moved to Eureka , in northwestern California , to take a teaching position at College of the Redwoods, where I still teach today. I founded my current band, Hermetic Science, in early 1996, and we've since released three studio albums and a two-CD compilation, with a fourth studio album in progress. And my second book, Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer , was published in 2006.
2. How did you become a fan of ELP? Tell us when you first heard ELP, when you bought your first record, when you first saw them live, etc. Also make clear what makes the music of ELP so “special.”
I began discovering contemporary rock music in 1975. I guess I was about 13 or 14. I didn't discover ELP until 1977, around the time they released Works, Volume 1 . I heard “ Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, part two” on the radio, and I was hooked. Here was music that fused the energy and raw power of rock with the majesty and depth of classical music—and it swung! At that point, it was off to the races: over the next year or so, I bought every ELP album I could get my hands on. I saw them for the first time on March 4, 1978 , at Olympia Arena in Detroit . That was jus t n ine days before they played their last concert for 14 years, so I almost missed seeing them live in the 1970s.
During the remainder of the 1970s, I explored the music of the other major British prog bands, and some of the less obvious ones as well: I became a fan of Jade Warrior, for instance. But ELP were always special for me. Part of it, I guess, is that they were my introduction to the British prog rock style. Part of it was Keith Emerson's mastery of the keyboards: his awesome technique, his imaginative use of classical music in a rock context, the fact that he virtually invented the concept of rock organ and rock synthesizer. But part of it was his flamboyance. Here was a keyboard player, mind you, who was self-confident, flashy, charismatic! For a young keyboard playing geek like me, that was important. I liked the rest of the band, too. Greg Lake had an awesome voice in his prime, and Carl Palmer's concept of adopting the Buddy Rich approach to a rock context was so successful that it made you wonder why no one had done it before. ELP were not the heaviest band in the world, but their range of dynamics was immense, and when they were really happening, their rhythmic energy was almost unparalleled.
Over time, I began to realize they were also special in the sense of being historically important. While there is still no doubt in my mind that In the Court of the Crimson King was the first full-blown prog rock album, I believe ELP were more important than any other single band in establishing the stylistic parameters of prog rock during its formative period of 1970-71. Certainly the production quality of their debut album was revelatory at that time, and the ensemble virtuosity of a track like “ Tarkus ” raised the bar for every band that followed. Finally, I don't think that anyone would argue that more than anyone else, ELP created a bridge between classical music and rock—and here I'm not primarily talking about their rocked-up arrangements of classical pieces, which they may have overdone a bit, and which have certainly been overemphasized by later commentators. In their own original works like “ Tarkus ” and “Tank,” ELP created an idiomatic use of classical forms and techniques in a rock context, and in so doing bequeathed rock musicians a new vocabulary that enabled them to fully address the visionary and utopian concerns that were central to the counterculture of the late 1960s/early 1970s.
3. How did you get the idea of writing a book about ELP and how did you work out that idea? Did you realize from the start that you book would be 800 pages? Tell us how you got the idea to write a book about ELP and how you started working on it, the research you did, etc.
In 1997—this would have been a little less than a year after the publication my first book on progressive rock, Rocking the Classics —Bill Martin, who was editor of Open Court's popular music series and who had already written a book on Yes, asked me if I wanted to contribute a book on ELP to the Open Court series. At the time I was tired of writing and I was deeply involved in the release of the first Hermetic Science album. So I told Bill I needed to think about it for a while. Even as I thought about it, though, I began to pull together my ELP data, of which I already had a truckload. In fall 1998, I told Bill I was going to write a prototype chapter, and if I like the results, I would proceed with the book. I wrote the chapter, and I liked it. Even though I already had a ton of ELP material, including quite a bit from the seventies, I now began collecting interviews and reviews from the seventies in earnest; the reviews were especially important, because I knew I was going to spend a lot of time discussing the critical reception of ELP, which for me was one of the central subtexts of the book. I remain very grateful to the many subscribers to John Arnold's on-line ELP Digest who sent me hard-to-find material from the seventies. I worked very slowly and methodically. I knew from the beginning what I wanted to say: it was just a matter of saying it clearly and thoroughly. I ended up being so thorough that it took nearly six years to complete the book! I didn't finish it until the summer of 2004. At that point, I had this enormous double-spaced manuscript; the manuscript for the actual body of the book was about a thousand pages long, with about three hundred manuscript pages in appendices. When I approached Open Court with the finished product, I was concerned that they migh t n ot agree to publish it without substantial reductions; most publishers aren't enthusiastic about enormous books. To their eternal credit, though, they recognized the structure of the book would be irreparably damaged if its content were reduced in any substantial way, and agreed to publish it more or less as I presented it to them. Even after that, I still believed the book would be 600 to 675 pages long when they converted it to book format. I was as stunned as anyone when the final product ended up being 867 pages.
4. Were the band members involved in your research? Did you interview them? Did they approve the idea of the book and do they approve the product?
As some of your listeners might know, Keith Emerson endorsed Rocking the Classics, so he was already familiar with my work. At some time in 1999, a British ELP fanzine called Impressions , which has since ceased to exist, announced that I was working on this book. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from Keith Emerson himself. He appeared very enthused that I was writing this book, and volunteered to make himself available for phone interviews. At that time he was living in Santa Monica , in southern California . I suggested three phone interviews: the first one would deal with the relationship between cover art and music in Tarkus and the chronology of the Works -era material; the second would deal with his movie soundtracks, which I felt had been undeservedly neglected; and the third would deal with his early years, say pre-Nice. The first interview did in fact take place in late November 1999. It was about an hour long, and the information I gleaned from that appears in the book. I mentioned to Emerson that I had finished what I considered the heart of the book, the seven chapters that deal with the band's output of 1970 through 1974, and asked him if he would be interested in perusing the manuscript. He said he would, so I sent it to an address in England where he was staying in the early months of 2000. I never heard back from him. I e-mailed him a couple more times, but he never responded to my e-mails. At length, I gave up on the idea of the two further phone interviews. Since I don't think it is wise to judge a man by his silence, I won't speculate.
I did attempt to reach Greg Lake and Carl Palmer through their American manager, Bruce Pilato . I was especially hoping to clarify certain issues about their pre-ELP careers. That was a somewhat frustrating experience. Between summer 2003 and spring 2004, I sent Bruce Pilato three e-mails. He did finally answer the third, and told me he would contact Lake and Palmer and would forward my questions to them if they were agreeable to that. I never heard from him again, and I never heard from Greg Lake or Carl Palmer. In June 2006, the members of Hermetic Science met up in San Francisco to watch Carl Palmer's trio, who played a terrific show, by the way. After the show, I was able to briefly introduce myself to Carl Palmer, and to give him a bound galley copy of the book. He looked a bit surprised, like he wasn't aware there was a book in the works, but I don't want to read too much into that; it was late, and he was tired. During the summer of 2006, I personally sent copies of the book to all three members of the band. None of them responded. So, to answer your question directly: I don't know if they approve of the book or not.
5. You were already an expert on ELP before you wrote the book. Did you discover facts about ELP you didn't know when you did the research?
I didn't uncover a whole lot about ELP's career during the 1970s that I didn't already know before I started—maybe a few fairly trivial points, concerning the chronology of some of the Works material, for instance. The nineties was a different matter, particularly concerning everything that went down during the recording of In the Hot Seat. That was all new to me, and a bit of a surprise. I also learned a bit about their pre-ELP careers that I didn't know previously.
6. One of the trademarks of ELP was that they included classical music in their own compositions and that they reworked classical themes. Can you give us some examples?
As I mentioned already, I think the single most crucial point to make about ELP and classical music is not that they recorded a lot of rocked-up arrangements of the classics, but that they drew on the classics to enrich the vocabulary and possibilities of rock music. How? First, their effective use of large-scale structures borrowed from classical music made it possible for them to create a level of drama, tension, and momentum that's simply not possible in a three or four-minute song. Second, their use of the dynamic contrasts of classical music, its characteristic distinctions of light and shade, allowed for nuances of mood and emotion that simply aren't available in music with fewer dynamic contrasts. Third, Emerson's use of keyboard orchestrations that were intended to replicate a symphonic or cathedral-like ambience created a sense of spaciousness and depth that brought a new sonic dimension to rock. Fourth, their adoption of some of the harmonies, rhythms, and meters of modern jazz and modern classical music brought the possibility for a new level of expressive nuance to rock. Let me illustrate. On the one hand, it's possible to tell the same general story using a 400-word vocabulary, or a 4,000-word vocabulary. In fact, it's entirely possible that the story could be told more effectively using a 400-word vocabulary than a 4,000-word vocabulary. On the other hand, if one person tells a story using a 400-word vocabulary, another person tells the same story using a 4,000 word vocabulary, and the two people use the words equally effectively, then the 4,000 word vocabulary version of the story is going to have a degree of nuance and subtle shades of meaning that the version of the story using a 400 word vocabulary will not. In sum: borrowing classical forms, classical dynamics, classical orchestration approaches, and classical harmonies and rhythms does not guarantee better music. What it does, though, is to create the possibility of more nuanced and subtle music. That is the real importance of the bridge ELP built between rock and classical music.
Having said this, some of ELP's rocked-up arrangements of classical pieces are very impressive achievements. “Toccata” from Brain Salad Surgery, which is an arrangement of the fourth movement of Alberto Ginastera's Piano Concerto no. 1, is a tremendous piece of work and a prog rock classic by any standard one would care to use. “Knife-Edge” and “The Barbarian” from the debut album (inspired by Janá ĉ ek's Sinfonietta and Bartók's All egro barbaro , respectively), “Hoedown” from Trilogy (an arrangement of a piece from Aaron Copland's ballet Rodeo ), and the much underrated trio version of “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” (from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite ) are also worthy additions to the band's output. And, while I find some elements of the Pictures at an Exhibition album, based on Musorgsky's piano suite of the same name, to be problematic, the album definitely has its moments. But I think the band may have overemphasized the classical arrangements just a bit. It made it just a bit too easy for know-nothing critics like Lester Bangs to parody them as pretentious classical music wannabes.
One other thing I might mention here: some of ELP's most characteristic music lends itself rather well to being arranged for solo piano. Back in the early 1990s, I transcribed the entire Tarkus suite for solo piano and played it at a number of recitals. The final two movements, “Battlefield” and “ Aquatarkus ,” took a bit of finessing, but on the whole it worked quite well, and shows how Emerson's inspiration often begins at the acoustic piano.
7. At the end of the seventies the progressive rock became less popular. Some people say that the stage act of ELP was one of the reasons that this happened. What's you opinion on this? Please describe the stage-act of ELP and give you opinion of what happened to progressive rock in the late seventies.
As I say in Endless Enigma , I think ELP made two huge mistakes in the late seventies. One was touring with an orchestra. I think so-called orchestral rock was a stage that the more experimental rock of the late 1960s had to go through, as the more ambitious rock musicians learned the possibilities inherent in classical music from the inside out, as it were. But the real point of late sixties orchestral rock was to draw the structural and sonic possibilities of classical music into a rock framework, to put the technical resources of classical music at the disposal of rock musicians. Once that process was done, there was no need to go through it again. That's why for me, not only was the ELP orchestral tour a financial disaster, it felt like history going backwards. The second big mistake ELP made in the late seventies was releasing Works Volume I in the format they did, as a combined solo-group project. Rather than demonstrating the unity-through-diversity they hoped to demonstrate, it showed how the band dynamic was breaking down, that the whole was no longer greater than the sum of its parts.
That being said, I think it's a bit much to blame the decline of progressive rock during the late seventies on ELP. A series of factors, both cultural and musical, were at work in undermining the musical vitality of the original generation of progressive rock musicians. Some of the social factors are too complex to get into here, although I address them in Endless Enigma . But may I remind you that the 1978-79 period saw the release not only of the awful Love Beach , but of such thoroughly mediocre albums as Yes's Tormato , Genesis's Then There Were Three , Gentle Giant's Giant for a Day , and Jethro Tull's Stormwatch . Even an uncompromising
band like Magma were reduced to proffering warmed-over Eurofunk on Attahk . About the only bright spot in progressive rock during that period were the two studio albums by U.K. , which were really the last gasp of mainstream seventies progressive rock as a viable aesthetic form. Everything of value in the realm of progressive music that happened after that—whether it be Univers Zero, Bruford's fusion albums, eighties King Crimson, or the better music of the nineties progressive music revival—was either coming from an underground scene, or had at least some of its taproots in genres of music other than seventies progressive.
8. Do you know what ELP are doing now? It's not clear if the band still exists. Please tell about the latest recordings, the latest tour, and the solo activities. If possible, please highlight some differences between the recent recordings and the early recordings. Also tell if you think they will record and tour again together.
For all practical purposes, ELP ceased to exist in December 1998,when Greg Lake announced he was leaving the band. As was the case when they broke up the first time in 1979, there is still a remnant of an ELP business organization—the Manticore label, for instance, which is now a boutique label that re-releases previously unreleased live material or material released long ago that the band have reacquired the rights to. But as a real band—which I would define as a band that works together—they have ceased to exist, and I seriously doubt they will ever work together again. This last split-up involved the same two issues that have always been at the forefront of the conflict between Keith Emerson and Greg Lake —stylistic direction and production. It's a conflict that would take a tremendous emotional effort by both men to solve, and I don't think either of them are up to it at this point in their lives. Incidentally, this is an issue I discuss at some length in the book.
What have they been doing since December 1998? For the most part, fronting ELP tribute bands. Emerson released a CD of acoustic piano music in 2002; he reformed the Nice in 2002-03, bu t n o new music came out of it, just a series of shows in Great Britain and a live album. Since 2002 he has also been touring more or less annually with the Keith Emerson band, which consists of him, guitarist Dave Kilminster , bassist Phil Williams, and drummer Pete Riley: they play arrangements of the old Nice and ELP warhorses, with very little new music, and there have been no studio albums. Greg Lake toured with Ringo Starr and his All Starrs in 2001; in 2005 he put together a band consisting of himself, keyboardist David Arch, guitarist Florian Opahle , bassist Trevor Berry, and drummer Brett Morgan. They toured Great Britain in 2005; a proposed German tour fell through, and the band seems to have dissolved. Again, the main order of business was ELP and King Crimson covers. Since 2001 Carl Palmer has worked with the Carl Palmer trio, which has toured every year except possibly 2004. The band has used two separate lineups. The current lineup consists of Palmer, guitarist Paul Bielatowicz , and bassist Stuart Clayton. Again, the main order of business is ELP covers, but with an interesting slant, arranged in a prog -metal style, perhaps the way late seventies Rush, Joe Satriani , or Steve Vai might have played them. I saw the Carl Palmer trio last summer (June 2006), and they put on a very good show, very energetic, and Carl has los t n one of his vaunted technique. I just wish they would write and perform some new material. Last fall, Carl Palmer reunited with the original lineup of Asia , so at the moment he's splitting his time between Asia and his trio. All in all, though, it's a bit sad, for me, at least, to see all three members of ELP living so single-mindedly off of their past achievements.
9. Tell something about your own band Hermetic Science. Give us a short bio and also tell if Hermetic Science is influenced by ELP or if it can be compared to ELP. Tell also about your plans for new recordings. Also tell something about the instruments you use and compare these with the instruments ELP use.
Because of Keith Emerson's endorsement of my first book and my
obvious obsession with ELP, a lot of people who haven't heard Hermetic Science's music assume that we're an ELP tribute band or that we're playing prog rock that's heavily ELP-influenced. That's not the case. ELP is an influence, for sure, but they're just one out of many. I've always been obsessed with the trio as a concept, and what Hermetic Science draws from ELP, far more than a particular sound, is the possibilities of arranging music for a trio in a way that all three musicians are challenged to contribute equally to the overall sonic design. We've been inspired by other prog rock keyboard trios as well—Egg and U.K., especially—and by jazz fusion trios, especially the albums guitarist Terje Rypdal recorded with Jack DeJohnette and Miroslav Vitous , which I think are phenomenal. While we are heavily influenced by seventies prog rock, we're also strongly influenced by jazz rock fusion, Eastern music, contemporary classical music, and more recently, post rock. So our sound is much more individual and somewhat less mainstream than the bands that simply ape ELP's most characteristic riffs. On the whole, we tend to favor a somewhat leaner, maybe a somewhat more angular sound than ELP. And we're purely instrumental, too. One thing I should add is that I'm both a keyboardist and a mallet percussionist, so only a bit more than half of the Hermetic Science output features the conventional keyboard-bass-drums lineup; a bit less than half of our output features a far more unusual lineup of vibes-bass-drums. That's especially true of our earliest albums. We have released three studio albums: Hermetic Science in 1997, Prophesies in 1999, and En Route in 2001, and also a compilation called Crash Course: A Hermetic Science Primer . That was released in 2006; it's a two-CD set that contains remixed and re-mastered versions of all non-cover tracks from the three studio albums. The current lineup, consisting of myself on keys, vibes, and marimba, Jason Hoopes on bass and guitar, and drummer Angelique Curry, are at work on a studio album which we hope to finish recording this summer. It's going to be our best album yet, both because it features more sophisticated production values than anything we've done before, and because it integrates my keyboard and mallet percussion work much more seamlessly than our earlier music. In fact, if we do live performances of the new material, I'm probably going to have to play the music that features the mallet instruments on MIDI vibes, so that I can simultaneously produce the vibes and marimba lead lines and the string, brass, and organ patches which feature prominently in the background.
10. Are you working on another book, or do you have plans to write another book?
Last fall Open Court asked me if I wanted to contribute a chapter to a book they would be publishing called Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with that Axiom, Eugene . There was a requirement: I had to discuss the band's music in the context of the ideas of a particular philosopher. So I decided to consider the band's musical evolution in the context of social theorist Theodor Adorno's ideas about the aesthetic constraints that the music industry places on popular music. I also consider similarities between the musical style of early Floyd and some of the music Igor Stravinsky composed during his primitivist phase, like the Rite of Spring , in the context of Adorno's belief that primitivism represents a reaction against alienation in contemporary society. My chapter includes analyses of four early Floyd classics—“Interstellar Overdrive,” “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” “Careful with that Axe, Eugene ,” and “Echoes.” I think it's a good piece of work, and I look forward to the book's publication in November 2007. By the way, the book will also contain chapters by two other major rock music scholars, Theodore Gracyk ( Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock ) and Deena Weinstein ( Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology ).
As to whether I'll be writing any more books soon—it's possible. First, I need to get the fourth Hermetic Science album finished and out to the market, and then I'll proceed from there. At some point I do want to revisit the theory that originally lead to my first book, Rocking the Classics —that is, the idea that there is an identifiable musical style that permeates a lot of British music all the way from the British classical music of the early 1900s to British rock of the 1960s and 1970s. This time, I want to approach the subject from the direction of treating the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst , and other British composers of the first half of the 1900s in a book length format. So I think the likelihood that I'll write another book at some point is good. Whether there will be another book on a progressive rock-related topic—well, we'll have to see.