following interview with Ed Macan ran in the December 2002 issue (no. 20) of
the Finnish journal Colossus. It appears here in its original, unedited
form. Interview by Phil Jackson.
ED MACAN’S HERMETIC SCIENCE- EN ROUTE
Ed Macan and Phil Jackson talk classical structures and influences, Huysmans, Pachebel, jhalas, dumbeks and alaps. Intrigued? Then read on!
Phil: I hear quite a few classical influences on En Route. Which particular composers do you quote from or have inspired you?
Ed: Holst, Vaughan Williams, and the early 20th century British pastoralist school have been a major inspiration. ‘Mars’ is obviously an important piece for me; in fact, I wrote what I consider to be the best explanation of what goes on harmonically in the piece in an article that was published as part of a tribute to the American musicologist Roland Jackson in 1997. Like Keith Emerson, I'm a fan of Ginastera, and the modernist Eastern European composers like Bartok and Stravinsky whom Ginastera himself was influenced by. ‘Against the Grain, part four’ is a tribute of sorts to Ginastera. It may have some surface similarities to ‘Manticore,’ the fifth movement of ‘Tarkus’, but again, ‘Tarkus’ was written just after Emerson himself had discovered Ginastera.
I am also a huge fan of the music of J. S. Bach. Some Hermetic Science critics have accused me of overdoing the counterpoint. I suppose that's a matter of individual taste. Once I learned to write a fugue in the style of Bach, I'll admit that it was definitely hard to stop! I do feel the North German baroque style of Bach and his contemporaries (Pachelbel, for instance) is almost indestructible, and can easily be fused into rock and jazz idioms. Another major influence from the world of classical music is Beethoven. His ability to evoke heroism through a combination of driving rhythms and restless but inevitable harmonic motion remains unsurpassed. There's no hint of Beethoven whatsoever on the first Hermetic Science CD, but I hear shadows of his ‘Waldstein’ Sonata in the finale of ‘Prophesies,’ and shadows of the ‘Waldstein’ and his last piano sonata, opus 111, in the title track of ‘En Route.’
Phil: En Route opens with Holst’s famous piece ‘Mars, the Bringer of War.’ You use quite a bit of the ARP String Ensemble—it gives a suitable menacing, shrill sound—why such a penchant for the ARP? Also what makes those eerie noises at the end of the piece?
Ed: When we recorded “Mars” I was going for an almost punkish sound—very cold and abrasive—and, as I recall, I ran the ARP through a fuzz box to create that effect. The ARP is a great textural instrument, but I may have overused it a bit in a lead role on “Mars” and parts of “Against the Grain.” I think it’s used very subtly and effectively on the album’s last three tracks. Incidentally, before we do a second printing of En Route, I’m going to remix “Mars” and a few sections of “Against the Grain” so that the ARP’s presence is a bit more subtle. What you hear at the end of “Mars” is the Moog’s random sample-and-hold set to a very fast rate. We double-tracked it, so you get these two incredibly fast atonal lines, each slightly out of phase with the other, both drenched in reverb, coming through the two channels. It’s definitely trippy.
Phil: ‘Against the Grain’ part one (A very dramatic piece!) reminds me of early Greenslade in places—it’s something in the tempo/ rhythm, I’m not quite sure what—are you familiar with their work? This is also an opportunity to talk about Jason Hoopes, your bass guitarist who handles the acoustic piano rather well on this.
Ed: I’m only vaguely familiar with Greenslade, and at any rate, part one of “Against the Grain” is very much Jason’s baby. The composition is all his until halfway through the slow, pastoral bit; I recommended the modulation from Bb-minor to F#-minor, and I contributed the transitional section leading back to the recapitulation of the main theme towards the end. Jason is an accomplished pianist, although he’s probably better—and I don’t think he’d disagree—as a bassist and guitarist. He’s also improving all the time on sitar. Above all, though, I think Jason is a very, very promising young composer. That’s the biggest reason I recruited him; it was nice to be able to create the kind of synergy that comes from having two composers in a band bouncing ideas off each other. Jason is currently finishing a degree in music composition at Southern Oregon State University.
Phil: You allude to the fact that ‘Against the Grain’ is a novel by J.K. Huysmans which deals with the ‘frenzied search for meaning in sensation.’ The phrase suggests a wider theme: a sympathy for those who seek the truth and what is right rather than what is expedient, even if it means having to constantly swim against the tide. This is all too real to struggling musicians nowadays! Would you care to elaborate on the specific reference to Huysmans and any wider connotations?
Ed: Sure, at the risk of being controversial. Huysman’s 1890s were rather similar to our 1990s, I think: complacent, hedonistic, prosperous, and decadent. Don’t ask too many questions, just let the good times roll. But Huysmans realized, even a hundred years ago, that Western civilization was drifing away from the religious and cultural moorings that had given meaning to people’s lives, without replacing them with anything equally compelling or strong. As a result, people were searching for meaning somewhere—casual sex, drugs, occultism, you name it. The trilogy of Against the Grain, La-Bas, and En Route is thus both the autobiography of a spiritual seeker—the protagonists are slightly fictionalised versions of Huysmans—and the work of a cultural critic concerned about the rise of a culture-wide sense of meaninglessness and ennui. The central question he propounds is: can a culture construct meaning out of an endless search for increasingly bizarre and jolting sensations. His answer, given in En Route, is “no”; the protagonist, Durtal, returns to Christianity, because he comes to believe it’s Western culture’s last bastion against Meaninglessness.
Since my own life’s journey reproduced Huysmans’ in many details and I came to a similar conclusion—I too re-embraced Christianity after a period of agnosticism—I feel a special affinity with his work. I realize my journey—and Huysmans’—won’t be taken by everyone. But I don’t think anyone can honestly dispute the validity of Huysmans’ prognosis, nor the fact that the spiritual malaise he diagnosed in Western culture a hundred years ago is much worse now. In Europe, you’re faced with collapsing birthrates, and the situation in the U.S. and Canada isn’t a lot better. The world hasn’t seen anything like it since the late Roman Empire. Collapsing birthrates historically are the mark of a culture that’s lost confidence in itself, its beliefs, and its mission. So much as contemporary Western man serves anything, it’s the abstractions of the modern Welfare State, like Democracy, Social Justice, Multiculturalism, Freedom of Speech, and so on. Obviously, based on the collapsing birthrates, broken families, rampant drug abuse, etc., that are endemic to the Western world, such abstractions have little of the power of the old Faith and cultural traditions to give deep meaning and a sense of purpose to people’s lives.
Phil: Part 3 of ‘Against the Grain’ is very classical in structure with a prominent role for Jason Hoopes’ guitar. What was the particular inspiration for this section?
Ed: The four movements of “Against the Grain” were meant to mirror the four movements of a nineteenth-century symphony. As such, the third movement was meant to be very rhythmic and dance-like, with an overall A-B-A structure. The genesis of that movement came at a practice session, when I heard Jason playing the 11-bar bass guitar theme you hear at the beginning. Almost immediately I envisioned a doomy, gloomy, gothic dance-around-the-abyss, and started composing the movement around Jason’s bass guitar theme. By the way, it’s all bass guitar, no six-string; Jason plays the melody and the rhythmic drone simultaneously.
Phil: ‘La Bas’ is one of a trilogy of Huysmans novels that inspire En Route, dealing with gradual moral dissolution this time—anything particular in mind here? I love the digital pipe organ on this track by the way. Can you explain for our readers how to identify the toccata, dirge and fugue within this 8-minute piece? The drumming on this track is tremendous I think—I love the bit near the conclusion- it reminded me so much of something BJ Wilson did on Procol Harum’s ‘Shine on Brightly’ (Sorry about these crazy comparisons- it’s how my ‘befuddled brain’ works these day!) Indeed the drumming throughout Hermetic Science is so empathetic- a chance to discuss Joe Nagy and Matt McClimon perhaps?
Ed: La-Bas (the novel) traces Durtal’s gradual moral and psychological dissolution as his search for meaning in sensation leads him into ever more bizarre directions, and reaches its climax after he is talked, against his better judgment, into participating in a Black Mass. I think the music of “La-Bas” is quite successful in mirroring the trajectory of the plot; to further contribute to the ambience, I used a kind of overripe chromatic harmony that was characteristic of Franck, Widor, and other French organ composers of the late 1800s. The bit at the beginning for solo digital pipe organ is the toccata. The entrance of the rhythm section, electric guitar, and the full keyboard arsenal playing the metalish groove marks the beginning of the dirge. The fugue begins quietly after the rhythm section has dropped out about half way through. The entire climactic passage, which recalls the deep pipe organ sound of the toccata and the heavy metal rhythm of the dirge and ends with the howling guitar feedback emerging out of the last pipe organ chord, is quite successful, I think. Joe Nagy’s drumming is tremendous here, as it is on the other tracks he plays on. Joe has a massive technique and a very original style—he’s a Neil Peart fan who has also mastered funk and Afro-Cuban drumming. I don’t understand why his work with Hermetic Science hasn’t received more attention in the prog community, especially as he also drummed on a couple of tracks from our first album.
Phil: One of the most fascinating parts of the CD is the ‘Raga Hermeticum’—you play a wide array of instruments on this, Jason plays sitar, and Joe Nagy plays dumbek. (This is the second CD I’ve listened to this week—please remind me what a dumbek is!)
Ed: A dumbek is something like a conga drum—a drum head mounted on a cylindrical body of either metal or ceramic—but the drum head is thinner, so it’s played with more finger action and less palm action than the conga. As to “Raga Hermeticum,” I hate to regurgitate the old cliche about ‘blending east and west’ but I'm afraid it's true here. On the one hand, like any good raga, everything comes out of the scales and motivic ideas presented in the unmeasured alap at the beginning, where Jason and I trade off ideas between 10-string lyre (me) and sitar (Jason). The next segment represents one possible extension of the alap material, as a kind of Central Asian dance tune, presented by 10-string lyre, recorders, and sitar, which is repeated and varied a number of times. Then comes the vibes/bass/drum bit in seven, when I take the alap material and expand it in a freer and more virtuosic direction--this would be the jhala of a traditional raga. I am particularly proud of this segment. Finally, a recapitulation of the ‘Central Asian dance tune’ in the manner of Western symphonic music, where the theme is bigger, more dramatic, more lavishly orchestrated, than in its original appearance, and drives on to a dramatic climax.
Phil: I'm not familiar with the term alap. Can you explain?
Ed: I'm no raga scholar, but I do know the basic structure and I'm able to hear it in ragas performed by Ali Akhbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, etc. The ‘alap’ is the opening section of the raga. It is unmeasured, meaning there's no consistent pulse, and the tabla player is not yet accompanying. The sitar player starts with a drone (tonic and fifth), then slowly unfolds short melodic ideas, which slowly start to get longer-breathed and more complex, that lay out the basic scale on which the raga is based and the basic melodic motives that the raga is based on. When the tabla enter, a new section is commenced, in which the performer lays out a more definite theme and then begins to play a series of variations on this theme. This gradually leads into the final section, where the rhythm quickens, the register expands (usually moves higher), and the playing becomes more virtuosic as the performer brings the raga to its climax.
Phil: The title track has to be one of my favourites- the cycle of rebirth and renewed meaning and purpose you mention in your sleeve notes is vividly portrayed. It makes me think how much is being lost in the current unfashionability of progressive rock music. I am reading Michael Hall’s history of 20th century music ‘Leaving Home’ at the moment and am impressed by the extent to which ‘concepts’ were used to inspire so many of the great symphonies and so on.
Ed: I’m not familiar with the book you cite, so I’ll have to check it out. I don’t know how things are in the U.K., but in the U.S. rock is dying, not only as an artistic, but even as a commercially viable form, and a big majority of the under-21 crowd listens to rap music—some of them to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t know how long a musical form like rap, with no harmonic content, virtually no melodic content, and ultra-repetitive rhythms can hold people’s attention, but I guess we’re going to find out. Maybe rap has the potential for musical evolution and development, but I’m not too optimistic. Even if it does, I don’t think market or cultural currents will foster development or exploration. From my perspective, the culture-at-large has entered a musical dark age.
Phil: Returning to the band’s last CD, Prophesies, which I reviewed for ‘Acid Dragon’ in the summer of 2000 (The CD was actually released in late1999), you took a few chances there I think, like the vibe/ marimba treatment of the famous Rush track ‘Jacob’s Ladder’?
Ed: Funny you should mention that! Our first album is on the verge of selling out its print run, so between March and June of this year we re-mixed and remastered the album, which included adding unobtrusive sitar parts on four tracks courtesy of Jason Hoopes. We also altered the track list a bit—the mallet arrangement of “Mars” at the end of the album is being dropped, and will be replaced by a remix of “Jacob’s Ladder,” which was, as you say, originally on Prophesies. The idea of our arrangement of “Jacob’s Ladder” was to project what it would have sounded like if it had been an early period Hermetic Science composition, when we were still deeply into experimenting with creating a fusion of prog, jazz-rock, Eastern music, and 20th-century classical music. In that respect I think the arrangement works well: it takes on a logic of its own, yet doesn’t violate the original’s spirit or structural dynamics. And I must say the subtle vibes and sitar layerings we added in the re-mix sound really good.
Phil: I remember you responding to my comment about the Egg influence in the opening movement of ‘Barbarian’s Gate’ and on ‘Leviathan and Behemoth. I don’t hear the ‘ghost of Dave Stewart ’so much in En Route?
Ed: In the early nineties I discovered Egg, although I closely followed Dave Stewart’s work with Bruford back when they were recording together in the late seventies. I was quite taken with Egg’s music, especially with the long instrumental piece from Polite Force and with “Germ Patrol” and “Enneagram” (a masterpiece!) from Civil Surface. Their influence on my musical thinking crested in the mid-nineties, and there’s no question there are subliminal Egg influences on Hermetic Science and Prophesies. En Route struck out on a more openly Romantic and Expressionistic direction, for which the music of Egg wasn’t so relevant. I still have a great deal of respect for their music, and undoubtedly at some point in the future, when I’ve come full circle, I’ll return to it and draw new sustenance from it. I often find myself doing that—not listening to particular music as I move through a certain phase of my life, then returning to it when I move into a new phase of life and finding renewed relevance and meaning in it. I suppose it’s that way for a lot of people.
Phil: Having mentioned the Egg connection Emerson is obviously the main man. Obviously ‘Tarkus’ is a particular favourite (Ed played a live solo piano version of this epic piece in 1992 that was included on ‘Prophesies’) What would be your desert island picks among the great man’s works? Also what other keyboard players and musicians have influenced you?
Ed: The Nice’s Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is a classic—one could never overstate how thoroughly Emerson redefined the possibilities of the Hammond in a rock context on this album, and it’s an important and successful early link between psychedelic rock and prog. Among the ELP output, the Tarkus suite was obviously a huge influence, but I believe the two greatest ELP albums are their debut album and Brain Salad Surgery. I’m also very fond of Emerson, Lake and Powell, which perhaps isn’t such an obvious choice. Amongst his many solo albums, Inferno is his masterpiece, and definitely his finest work in a classical idiom. I would also urge Emerson fans to get a copy of Iron Man while it’s still available. I held a pretty dim view of Emerson’s output during the nineties based on his work with ELP—in fact, I felt he was more or less washed up as a composer—but hearing Iron Man when it came out this past spring made me reassess what I thought I had known concerning Emerson’s “decline” of the past decade. There’s some extremely strong ideas there, and if the never-recorded ELP studio album projected for 1999 had been up to that standard in its compositional ideas, then it was indeed a great loss.
Among the other great prog keyboardists, I’ve listened with enjoyment to them all, but mostly for their playing; some of them might be Emerson’s equal in technique, and at least one, Patrick Moraz, rivals him as an improviser, but none of them can hold a candle to him as a composer. Besides prog, in my formative years I was influenced both by “real” jazz, especially late forties/fifties vintage, and by jazz-rock fusion, both by John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu and by some of the musicians associated with the ECM label. Keith Jarrett is a monster pianist—perhaps the greatest of his generation—and some of his improvised works of the seventies and eighties still astound me. Another ECM musician who impacted me was guitarist Terje Rypdal—his sparse, austere work with Miroslav Vitous and Jack DeJohnette definitely left some subliminal traces on the first Hermetic Science album.
Then there’s the enormous, and obvious influence, of classical music, which we’ve discussed, as well as Eastern music. Finally, there’s minimalist and ambient music. I discovered Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Terry Riley’s Shri Camel in the late seventies, as well as Eno and Fripp’s No Pussyfooting, which opened up into an entirely different musical universe than prog. In the eighties Eno’s Thursday Afternoon made a big impact on me, and in the nineties I was similarly impacted by a marvellously atmospheric piece for electric guitar called Fantasia on a Theme by Sandy Bull by a New Zealander named Roy Montgomery. He creates layer on layer of sound in real time by using the old analog delay method perfected by Eno and Fripp, recording in real time on a reel-to-reel tape.
Phil: Ed, this interview would not be complete without discussing your other life as an author. (Ed has the first serious study of progressive rock music ‘Rocking the Classics’ under his belt and an ELP biography on the way.) When is the book on ELP coming out? Also are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Ed: Well, I think some people have started referring to Macan’s “mythic” book on ELP, and I can’t blame them, seeing I started writing the book in the fall of 1998! It has taken far longer than I would have liked. However, an enormous book manuscript does in fact exist; I won’t be surprised if this book is twice the length of Rocking the Classics when it’s finally done. I’ve written 15 substantial chapters, which cover the band from mid-1970, when they started working together, through the Victory Records era of 1991-94. Now all I need to do is write a chapter detailing the final days of ELP from 1995 to 1998, a short chapter tracing the bandmembers’ post-ELP activities up to the present, a substantial chapter on the early years of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (up to the formation of ELP), and an introduction. That will wrap up the book.
As far as other major writing projects, there are none in the pipeline at this time. I’m always writing smaller-scale projects, though—book reviews, short articles, things of that nature. I’ve just completed a response to an article by Chris Sciabarra on the politics of prog as regards Rush—Bill Martin and some other scholars will also be responding to Chris’s article, so it ought to be interesting. The medley of articles will be published next year in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. My article will go a long way, I think, towards articulating in what sense prog is and isn’t political, and to what degree we can actually define a “politics of prog.” I’m sure once the ELP book is finally done, though, I’ll find something else to do. I always seem to!