Interview with EDWARD MACAN of HERMETIC SCIENCE for Highlands Magazine, by Didier Gonzalez
1. Edward, would you tell us your musical formation and your musical itinerary before founding Hermetic Science?
Sure. I was born in 1961 in Rochester, Michigan, near Detroit. When I was eight, I began taking piano lessons, and by my mid-teens, I was a good classical pianist. My father was a jazz drummer in his spare time and although I never learned to play “proper” jazz piano, through listening to him I developed a feel for the swing rhythms of jazz that I believe made a permanent impact on my development. In 1977, I discovered Pink Floyd and ELP via the release of Animals and Works, and that began my long-term engagement with progressive rock. In 1979, I formed a band called Io with some high school friends. We weren’t particularly good, and we certainly weren’t progressive. A year later, we broke up. I then moved on to another band called Cinema, which was a significantly better band. Cinema’s sound was based on mid-seventies Genesis, just like the British neo-prog bands that were emerging at exactly the same time, although we didn’t know about Marillion, I.Q., Pendragon, Pallas, or any of those bands just then. Around 1982, we began to have disagreements over the direction of the band—I wanted to stretch out in a more experimental direction, and the rest of the band wanted to develop a more pop-oriented approach. For the good of the band, I bowed out, which allowed them to pursue their more mainstream sound. After I left, they made a regional reputation for themselves before breaking up for good.
After that, I lost interest in contemporary rock music for quite some time. In 1983 I completed a Bachelors degree in piano performance at Oakland University, in Michigan. It was at Oakland that I took up marimba and vibes and discovered twentieth-century classical music. I then moved to southern California to attend the University of California at Riverside, and took a Masters degree in Music History in 1986. In 1987, I began the Ph.D. program in musicology at the Claremont Graduate University. I was composing a lot of music during the mid 1980s, and it was then that I found my mature compositional voice. In the early 1990s, I wrote my dissertation, a study of the style of Vaughan Williams, Holst, and the early twentieth century British nationalist school. It suddenly struck me how similar their music was, in terms of its harmonies, melodic ideas, and rhythmic patterns, to the British prog rock I had listened to during the late 1970s, and for the first time in a decade I started taking out my old prog rock albums. That was the impetus for me to write my first book, Rocking the Classics, which I mostly completed between 1992 and 1994.
My first full-time teaching position was at Whittier College, between 1990 and 1993. In 1994, I was offered a teaching position at College of the Redwoods, which is in the far northwestern corner of California, near Eureka. I already knew that after I got the job at College of the Redwoods, I wanted to form a band that performed and recorded my compositions in a progressive rock context. My idea was that the musicians would receive college credit for their work in the band; I envisioned the band as a kind of medieval guild, with me as master craftsman, if you will, and the musicians working with me as apprentices. Hermetic Science was formed in early 1996 on the basis of that vision, which I have continued to follow, although some Hermetic Science musicians—Joe Nagy and Jason Hoopes, for instance—continued to work with me long after they reached journeyman status themselves.
2. You also studied musicology. Some words about theses studies and maybe your specialization.
I think I addressed this above.
3. You wrote one of the "cult progressive rock books," Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, about 12 years ago. Would you tell us something about this book? What do you think of it, retrospectively?
Although this book has a 1997 copyright, actually it was published in November 1996. At that time very few serious studies of rock music had been written by musicologists—academic writing about rock music was by sociologists and cultural theorists. Although I think those people had many valuable things to say about the cultural impact of rock music and rock as a social phenomenon, you can only say so much when you’re not really equipped to discuss the music itself. I believed the music should be addressed not just from a sociological perspective, but through musical analysis—explaining a musical style’s social impact is one thing, but explaining how the music affected people, what people found meaningful about the music, is something else entirely. I wanted to define the parameters of “progressive rock studies”: what were the major aspects of the music, and the culture surrounding the music, that needed to be addressed in order for serious discussion of progressive rock to begin? It was especially tough writing this book because there were so few models to work from: it wasn’t like I was writing the hundredth biography of Beethoven, for instance. Were I to write the book again today, I would write with a greater sense of historical and cultural nuance and depth, and I would be less inclined to use the jargon that was popular in sociological writing and cultural theory of the 1980s. That said, I believe the parameters I established are sound and that my judgments about the essential nature of prog rock and the culture that gave birth to it have been validated. The fact that the book has yet to be superseded as the standard study of progressive rock over 12 years after its appearance supports this position, I think.
4. Did it sell very well?
That depends on your definition of “sell very well.” By the standards of a paperback novel, no. By the standards of a scholarly study of music, it sold very well. By 2003, the 5,000 copy run of the paperback version and 500 copy run of the hardback had sold out. It has since sold an additional 1,500 to 2,000 copies, I believe, in print-on-demand format. There was a 2,000 copy run of a Polish translation of the book that was published in 2001. I don’t know how well that sold. There was supposed to be a 2,000 copy run of a Japanese translation, but unfortunately, that fell through—I think the publisher went bankrupt before the book could be translated. A chapter of the book appeared in Spanish translation in the Argentine journal Mellotron. So the book has made its impact.
5. Nearly at the same time, you founded HERMETIC SCIENCE. With which musicians? When exactly was the band founded?
The first lineup commenced rehearsals in January 1996. The first three members were myself, Donald Sweeney on bass guitar, and Michael Morris on drums.
6. What was your purpose in founding this band?
I had three purposes in founding the band. First, as I explained above, I wanted to create a guild-like situation where I could pass my knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, this music on to younger musicians. At the time I started Hermetic Science, to my knowledge there was no college or university in the United States where an undergraduate student could seriously study the performance of progressive rock—or any other kind of rock music—for academic credit. With the exception of Berklee School of Music, Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, and maybe Cal Arts (also in Los Angeles) I don’t think that has changed. Second, I wanted the band to serve as a vehicle for performing my compositions in a progressive rock context. Finally, I wanted to explore the use of vibes and marimba in a rock music context—I felt the potential of these instruments had barely begun to be tapped.
7. Please tell us your memories about the first album, Ed Macan’s Hermetic Science; speak about its musical inspiration, and also its meaning.
The bulk of that album was rehearsed and recorded between January and May of 1996 at a small local recording studio by myself, Don Sweeney (bass guitar) and Michael Morris (drums). At that time, I was playing almost exclusively vibes and marimba—occasionally I played a bit of piano for background texture, but that was it for the keyboards. I wanted to see how far I could take the concept of a vibes-based (or occasionally marimba-based) power trio. Although there had been some gifted mallet percussion players in rock before me—Pierre Moerlen, obviously—they were melodic lines players. I developed a style whereby I was actually playing both lead lines and background chords simultaneously. As a result, while I didn’t usually play as fast as Moerlen, my parts were much denser and more polyphonic; I believe that on that album I created some very innovative vibes textures and figurations. I also experimented with constantly changing mallets and varying the motor speed of the vibes to create timbral variety. Both Sweeney and Morris favored a rather spare playing approach, and as a result, most of the tracks I recorded with them have a kind of quiet, mystical quality and austere, wide-open sound. That lineup broke up in June 1996, and I still didn’t have enough music for a full-length album. So that fall I recruited Andy Durham on bass and Joe Nagy on drums. Andy was an excellent bassist who had mastered the styles of both Chris Squire and Les Claypool of Primus, so I began using the bass as a second lead instrument along with the vibes. Joe was already an excellent drummer at that point, so suddenly the rhythm section became a much more active and assertive part of the arrangements. In March 1997 that lineup recorded two tracks, “Esau’s Burden” and “Fanfare for the House of Panorama,” which gave us enough music for a complete album. The debut album was released in November 1997. A lot of people heard it as jazz-rock fusion because the music is entirely instrumental, and the vibes are a quintessential jazz instrument. But the compositions are much more complex and fully-worked out than jazz-fusion compositions, which are usually just a framework for extended improvisation.
8. And why this name, HERMETIC SCIENCE? Are you involved in Esoteric Sciences? Please explain...
I am very much interested in Carl Jung’s work on alchemy and his belief that alchemical texts are symbolic descriptions of the process through which psychic wholeness is reached. As Jung says: “The real subject of hermeticism is the conjunctio oppositorum”—the fusion of seemingly irreconcilable opposites into a new totality. To be honest, though, when I chose the band’s name back in 1995, I understood little of this. I remember Christian Vander once saying that only over time did Magma begin to create music that was fully worthy of the iconic, elemental name they chose for themselves. I think I could say something similar about us.
9. Prophesies was your second album in 1999. In what aspect would you say it represented an evolution from the previous one? Did you record it with the same musicians?
While I still believe the first album contains much fascinating and innovative music, by 1998 I felt that it would be dogmatic to record a second album based totally around the vibes/marimba-bass-drums format, and I made a decision to begin incorporating keyboards—at that time mainly piano, Hammond organ, and ARP string ensemble. I was still working with Andy Durham on bass, but Joe Nagy had left and I had recruited a new drummer, Matt McClimon. We began rehearsing Prophesies in autumn 1997. The centrepiece of the album was the six-movement, 40-minute “Prophesies” suite that was very loosely based around the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. The feel of the album shifted a bit from the first album—if the first album was a kind of “mystical jazz-rock fusion,” this shifted more towards edgy chamber rock. Curiously, the first half of the suite was mainly based around the mallets, the second half around the keyboards. In that sense, it forecast the shift that was taking place in our stylistic direction; the first half of the suite looks back, towards our first album, the second half forecasts the direction of our next album. We recorded the “Prophesies” suite in autumn 1998. Andy Durham left the band shortly thereafter. When the album was released, in September 1999, I included as a bonus track a solo acoustic piano performance of ELP’s “Tarkus” that I had recorded in 1992. That track has developed a sort of cult following—it was even on YouTube for a while.
10. En Routewas the third album in 2001. Why this French title? What did you want to express? Did you use the same musicians? How do you consider this album in your musical itinerary?
I was disappointed when Andy left, because I felt the band was just beginning to hit its stride. I briefly recruited a bassist named Nate Perry, a talented guy who has since experienced success in the L.A. music scene. But he soon left. So in 2000 I recruited a young bassist named Jason Hoopes. At that time Jason was not a virtuoso along the lines of Andy Durham, but he could do things that Andy couldn’t. He was a good piano player, giving me the option of sometimes featuring two keyboards, or keyboards and vibes, at the same time. He was a good sitar player, too, and sitar was a sound I had always wanted to incorporate into the band. Finally, he was a talented young composer, so for the first time, I was able to develop my own compositional ideas with someone else in the band, which created a new level of compositional synergy. In early 2000, Hoopes, McClimon, and myself began rehearsing a four-movement, twenty-minute composition called “Against the Grain”—“A Rebours” in French—loosely based on Huysman’s novel of that name. This was the first straight-ahead, prog-rock revival composition that we had done: by now, I had incorporated Moog into our arrangements as well, and I was using the mallet percussion more for textural relief than in a lead role. The resulting sound was bigger, more expressionistic, and harder-rocking than anything we had done before. We recorded it during the summer of 2000. I still think it’s an excellent composition, although I now wish I would have recorded the keyboards differently.
Shortly after that, Matt McClimon told me he was leaving the band to concentrate on playing vibraphone. Since I knew we didn’t need two vibraphonists in the band, I wished Matt the best and went about looking for another drummer. It just happened that at that time I ran into Joe Nagy, who had played on two tracks from the first album. I asked him if he would be interested in recording the second half of the album with us, and he said yes. This was a real coup—Joe was by now the finest rock drummer in northwestern California. We began rehearsing three more big tracks in late 2000—“La-Bas,” “Raga Hermeticum,” and “En Route.” The first and third of these were loosely based around novels by Huysmans, just like “A Rebours.” It was with these three tracks, which together clocked in at just under 25 minutes, that a definitive Hermetic Science sound really emerged. By now we were working in the nicest studio in the region, Big Bang, so the production was better than before, and Jason, Joe, and I really gelled as a lineup. We recorded these pieces in July 2001. The keyboard arrangements achieved a new level of sophistication, and the production was much better than anything we had done before, in regards to both the sound of the keyboards and the balance between drums and the rest of the band. I think those three tracks collectively represent all the best traits of Hermetic Science in its 1996-2001 incarnation.
11. Crash Course: A Hermetic Science Primer was released in 2006 with some new remixes. Was your purpose to offer a “Best of Hermetic Science”? Or some better recordings of your favourite tracks?
Almost immediately after the release of En Route in November 2001, I regretted some of the production mistakes I had made with the material we recorded in 2000, and wished that all of our previous repertoire could be brought up to the sonic standards of the final three tracks of En Route. So I decided I would release a compilation that included all original (i.e. non-cover) tracks from Hermetic Science, Prophesies, and En Route. My idea was that everything except the final three tracks of En Route, which served as the sonic standard by which everything else was to be judged, would be re-mixed and re-mastered. I began working on this project in 2002. Mark Mayo, the engineer of Big Bang Studio, and I worked on the first five tracks of En Route in 2002, on the debut album in 2003, and on Prophesies in 2004. We spent 2005 giving all the tracks a final going-over, trying to create as much sonic consistency across the entire Hermetic Science output as possible. I also added some discreet overdubs—for instance, I asked Jason to add some sitar parts to material from the debut album that I had always wished had sitar. By late 2005, the compilation was ready to go, and it was released in June 2006 under the title Crash Course: a Hermetic Science Primer. If someone wants to know what the band was all about circa 1996-2001, this is the only album they really need.
12. In between these two records, you wrote your big ELP biography "Endless Enigma," published in 2006. What does ELP mean for you?
For me, they were the quintessential prog rock band: their virtuosity, their flamboyant live shows, and their absorption of the techniques and motifs of classical music into a rock context. Keith Emerson was certainly a major influence on me, as he was on many, many keyboard players who came of age during the 1970s.
13. There’s a big gap between En Route and These Fragments . . . How do you explain these seven years of silence?
En Route was released in November 2001. By then, I was exhausted. The band had been at it for nearly six years continuously. Jason left to attend Soutern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, and Joe had other commitments. Furthermore, for the first time in years, I had no new musical ideas: I strongly felt the final three tracks of En Route held their own against any progressive rock recorded during the 1995-2001 period, and I couldn’t imagine how I could easily top that. Without announcing the band’s breakup, I quietly put it on indefinite hold during the period I was working on the Crash Course compilation.
It was only during summer 2005 that I began composing again in earnest, finishing “De Profundis,” which at that time I envisioned as a solo piano blockbuster based very loosely on Busoni’s “Toccata.” But even then I wasn’t really thinking about reforming Hermetic Science; although I told people who asked that I might reform it at some point, I really had no intention of doing that. In the fall of that year, Jason, who was about to move to Oakland in order to do graduate work at Mills College with Fred Frith (ex-Henry Cow) asked if we were ever going to record again. I told him I would think about it, but I still wasn’t sure. Then I met Angelique Curry. As soon as I heard her play I had a sudden intuition that were I to reform the band, she would be the perfect drummer for where I envisioned Hermetic Science resuming its journey, so I asked her if she would join the band. She accepted, and when the revived Hermetic Science started rehearsals in January 2006, there was a tangible creative synergy.
After the release of En Route, I promised myself that I would not record another Hermetic Science album unless it was a genuine step forward. The process of remixing and remastering our earlier material for the Crash Course compilation taught me a great deal about production, so I knew production was one area where we could improve, especially as regards to definition and tone of the drum sound. Going through our entire corpus had also led me to think a lot about keyboard arrangements and orchestration, and I felt that we could achieve a more subtle, organic orchestral layering of overdubs than before. I also wanted to create a more contemporary sonic identity. During the early 2000s, I had discovered what is often called “post-rock,” Sigur Ros in particular. I was quite taken with their use of drones, so I bought an e-bow for Jason and asked him to learn to play bass with an e-bow. You can hear quite a bit of that droney bass sound on the new album. I also had grown tired of the retro sound of the analog synths I used on Prophesies and En Route, and decided on this album I would craft a more contemporary sound using digital synths. The new keyboard and bass sounds gave us the more contemporary element I felt was necessary to make the band’s reformation a true step forward.
After a bit of thought, I arrived at a strategy. The four instruments I play best are piano, Hammond organ, vibes, and marimba. I decided each of these instruments would be featured “soloist” in one major track (the Hammond ended up being featured in two, as it turned out), with digital synths and rhythm section playing the role of a backing orchestra—in other words, each major track would be a rock-and-roll concerto of sorts. I didn’t want to do another concept album, but I did want the tracks to cohere into a greater whole, which I think they do: for me, the album as a whole represents a psychological journey. The title of the album derives from the climactic line of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land. It both acknowledges loss and fragmentation, and expresses hope that a new whole can be built out of the fragments that remain. The magnificent cover art is by Paul Whitehead, best known for his covers he did for Charisma labelmates Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator in the early 1970s. His cover captures the sense of fragmentation, the possibilities of new beginnings, and the solar/lunar dichotomy that I feel the music expresses.
14. Please speak about the recording sessions. Any stories?
The album was recorded in three phases, over a year. “De Profundis” and “Voyages” were recorded in June 2006. Those were the tensest sessions; I think Jason and I were anxious about whether the old magic was still there, and Angelique was apprehensive because she had never been involved in a musical project of this scale before. But I think that tension manifested itself in a positive sense, in the music’s rhythmic energy, and once we heard the full mix of the two tracks, we knew we were off to an auspicious start. “Triptych” was recorded in January 2007. That was perhaps the trickiest track any Hermetic Science lineup has ever recorded. The track is over 15 minutes long, and we rehearsed it as one continuous piece. But recording it that way proved not to be practical, so we recorded it in several shorter bits and put it back together later. My expectation was that I would record a live marimba take with Jason’s bass and Angelique’s drum tracks, then go back and record the entire marimba track over, so there wouldn’t be any drum noise in the background. However, that proved to be impossible, so what you are hearing on the album is the entire marimba track played straight through, live in the studio. What we lost in sonic fidelity, we gained in energy and tightness. The final four-track medley, “Melancholia I-Aion-Melancholia II-The Second Coming,” was recorded in June 2007. By that point, we were becoming a well-oiled machine, and getting the main tracks down almost seemed easy. For me, the hardest part of those tracks was getting the keyboard overdubs right—there were many subtly layered keyboard parts where I had to reproduce particular phrasings perfectly. For me, the hardest part began after that last recording session. I spent six months on production and post-production, probably more time than I had spent on all previous Hermetic Science albums combined, getting all the elements as perfect as I could—the mix, the drum sound, the timbres of the bass and keyboards, the ambience of the mallets, and the consistency of sound, volume and balance across the different tracks. I believe the final result is far and away the best production job of any Hermetic Science album. For the first time, I can listen back with virtually no regrets: the production fully conveys the musical vision.
15. These Fragments was finally issued in 2008 on the French Muséa label. Why did you choose this label?
I’ve known Bernard Gueffier for years, and I have a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished at Musea. The label has a very large roster of bands, and obviously I’m not enthused about all of them, but by and large I think the quality of the Musea output has been high. As readers of Rocking the Classics know, I was a big fan of eighties Musea acts like Edhels and Minimum Vital—very classy, elegant, subtle, and somehow quintessentially Gallic prog. Mallet percussion in a rock music context seems to be largely a French thing—Pierre Moerlen’s Gong comes to mind (and of course his final album was released by Musea), as does Lazuli (also a Musea act) and Maneige (I’m cheating a bit here, as they’re from Quebec and didn’t record with Musea). So I felt we and Musea were a good fit with each other.
16. What would you say about inspiration of this album?
I think I’ve pretty much covered this above. Suffice it to say that if a person were to only explore one Hermetic Science album, I would like it to be this one. I feel it summarizes all the aesthetic values the band has exemplified throughout its career, and in a number of areas transcends what we’ve done before.
17. Did you ever play on stage?
Hermetic Science was a live act from 1996 to 2000, and played about 25 shows in northern California during that time. Nearly all of the first album and parts of the second were performed live. After Matt McClimon left the band in the latter half of 2000, that changed. If you look at a map, we are located in a very isolated area. Humboldt County (the county of which Eureka is capital) is nearly the size of several of the New England states, yet only has a population of 125,000! So attracting an audience of any size is impossible, especially for music as esoteric as ours. We would have had to travel to San Francisco (440 km), Portland (700 km), or Los Angeles (1100 km) to find a substantial audience, and that just wasn’t practical. Furthermore, the time I spent teaching musicians a difficult 75-90 minute set list that they would only play five or six times a year for tiny local audiences took away from time that we could devote to learning new music. So in 2000, with regret, I made the decision to make the band a studio-only project. I always said that if we were invited to perform by one of the major American prog festivals, I would consider putting together a sixty minute set, but we’ve never been invited. Part of the problem with that, I think, is that there is no West Coast prog scene left—all the prog action is on the Eastern seaboard, and that’s nearly 5000 km away!
18. What are your current projects?
At this point in time, Hermetic Science is inactive. I would like to think this is not a permanent situation. In the meantime, I continue to write. I contributed a chapter to Open Court’s Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with that Axiom, Eugene, which appeared in 2007, and to their Led Zeppelin and Philosophy volume, which is scheduled for publication in 2009. I stay busy.