Your birth date:
I read that you grew up in Michigan. Were you born there?
Yes. I lived in Rochester, Michigan (about 25 miles north of Detroit) until just before I turned 22.
Where else have you lived?
I lived in the Inland Empire region of southern California for 11 years. Since 1994, I’ve lived in Eureka, in the far northwestern corner of California.
Can you tell me how you wound up in California?
I received an offer of a full-ride scholarship from University of California/Riverside in 1983. The offer was too good to turn down, so I moved.
What is your education - music and otherwise?
I received a Bachelors Degree in Piano Performance from Oakland University, in my hometown of Rochester, in 1983; a Masters Degree, in Music History, from University of California/Riverside, in 1986; and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the Claremont Graduate University in 1991.
What kinds of courses are you teaching?
Since 1994, I have taught at College of the Redwoods. Currently I teach their three-semester music theory sequence, their piano sequence, and, in alternating semesters, Music History (which focuses on the European classical music tradition) and American Popular Music. It might interest you to know the instructor I alternate these last two courses with is Joseph Byrd. He was leader and founding member of the late sixties psych band United States of America.
a. Can you talk about the newest album; how it came about after your hiatus and any thematic developments? I gather you were a bit disillusioned with the state of the progressive music genre (or perhaps the globe) after 9/11; what inspired you to bring Hermetic Science back?
By late 2001, when En Route was released, Hermetic Science had been at it more or less continuously for nearly six years. Jason Hoopes, our bassist, was moving to Oregon, in order to study music composition at Southern Oregon State at Ashland. For the first time in many years, I had no new musical ideas. In short, I was tired. I had also become disillusioned with the direction the nineties progressive revival had taken: to me, at that point it felt like it was running out of steam. Finally, I felt that with the final three tracks of En Route, we had for the moment done the best work we were capable of doing; at that point I had no sense of what the next creative step ought to be for us. I decided it was a logical time to put the band on hiatus. Anyway, I knew that I wanted to remix and re-master our entire back catalog, and that was going to take a while. As it was, I worked on that project from 2002 through 2005.
I casually sketched out some music in 2003 and 2004, but it wasn’t until mid 2005, when I composed “De Profundis,” that I really felt the creative juices returning. That fall, more or less out of the blue, Jason e-mailed me—at that point he was preparing to move to Oakland and begin graduate study with Fred Frith, ex-Henry Cow, at Mills College—and asked if there wasn’t going to be another Hermetic Science album. I still wasn’t too sure. Then I met Angelique Curry, a drummer who was taking music classes at College of the Redwoods. I had a sudden intuition that if I wanted the band to simultaneously move forward from where we had left off and redefine our identity into something more contemporary, she was the right drummer. I asked her if she would be interested in joining a re-formed Hermetic Science, and she said yes. We began rehearsals in early 2006, and immediately it was clear that the new lineup clicked.
b. As I listened through your albums chronologically, I really noticed a "leap" precisely at the track "La-Bas." Others have commented on this in reviews. This is so even with the remastering, it seems to me, as it seems related to the energy inherent in the music rather than the sound quality. It also seems to have carried over into the new album. Can you pinpoint something that might have happened at that time - perhaps some personal revelation or otherwise? It just seems that suddenly everything started to click on a higher level.
When I formed Hermetic Science in late 1995, it was as a vibes- (or occasionally marimba-) based power trio, with keys, so much as they were used at all, in a strictly textural role. I still think the first album fully realized the vibes power trio concept—the tracks “Esau’s Burden” and “Fanfare for the House of Panorama,” in particular, which I recorded with bassist Andy Durham and drummer Joe Nagy, solved all the inherent arrangement and production issues. When we began working on new material for a second album, in later 1997, I made the decision that another album on the same lines as the first would be too dogmatic, and began incorporating my work on keyboards—at that time piano, Hammond, and ARP string ensemble—into the compositions.
It took me a little while to recognize that the production and arrangement issues for a keyboard-based trio were quite different than those for the mallet-based trio of the first album. Specifically, much of the material on our second album, Prophesies, raised a question that the album’s arrangements and production did not completely answer—were we a chamber group playing rock-based music, or a rock keyboard trio? By the time we began work on our third album, En Route, in 2000, I had answered this question in my mind: we were a rock keyboard trio. Once I was clear on this, the keyboard arrangements immediately became more effective. Unfortunately, on the material we recorded in 2000, I made some questionable decisions about how the keyboards—which now included Micromoog and Rhodes electric piano—should be recorded, decisions I later regretted.
By the time we were ready to record the album’s three final tracks, during the summer 2001, I had further refined my keyboard arranging process, and had learned from my mistakes of the previous year how the keyboards should be recorded and subsequently produced. I think that is one obvious improvement that listeners respond to. But I think it’s likely that the biggest single difference is that Joe Nagy returned to drum with us for those sessions. Joe drummed on two tracks from the debut album, but was unable to work with us on the second album. By the time he returned in 2001, he was the best rock drummer on California’s North Coast—he had developed his own unique style by blending the influences of Neil Peart and Afro-Cuban drumming, and had achieved a high degree of technical mastery. With no insult intended to our previous drummers, Joe was simply playing at a different level: he brought a sense of authority and power to the drummer’s chair that we had not had before. My engineer, Mark Mayo, did a beautiful job in getting Joe’s sound down on tape, and made some key suggestions that I ultimately adopted—about generally pushing the drums up a bit in the mix, especially the kick, and about adjusting the balance between the kick and the upper part of the kit. Suddenly, as a result of Joe’s playing and Mark’s production suggestions, for the first time I totally heard it—the ideal Hermetic Science drum sound, and the ideal role of the drums in Hermetic Science’s music. I think that was the point when, as you put it, we shifted to that higher level.
c. This album uses all digital keys, correct? And, in your bio, you state that you abandoned analog keys after 2001. What brought you to that decision?
Two reasons. After the release of En Route in November 2001, I had a long time to come to an honest assessment of the relative merits and demerits of the first three Hermetic Science albums. I realized there are four instruments I play very well: piano, Hammond, vibes, and marimba. There are a lot of people who do more interesting things with analog synths than I, and it seemed to make sense to concentrate on my strengths. A second reason involved stylistic direction. Anyone who has followed my commentary on the prog rock scene since the nineties knows that I have always been critical about bands that simply ape the licks of the prog rock giants of the seventies. When I listened back to En Route, especially the “Against the Grain” suite, there was something very retro about the keyboard colors that struck me the wrong way. By then I had discovered Sigur Ros, Tortoise, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and some of the other so-called post-rock bands, and I decided that if Hermetic Science were to record again, I would want to create a more contemporary sonic identity. So when we began work on the most recent album, These Fragments, in early 2006, I decided each track would feature one of my four main instruments (piano, Hammond, vibes, marimba) accompanied by digital keyboards: the idea was that main instrument would be the soloist, and the digital keyboards the backing orchestra, in a kind of rock-and-roll concerto. As it worked out, the Hammond was featured in two tracks, the others in one each. I had become very fond of the use of guitar drones by Sigur Ros, so I purchased an e-bow and asked Jason to experiment playing bass with an e-bow. You’ll hear the sound of the e-bowed bass quite a bit on the new album; there’s also the cool e-bowed guitar choir at the climax of “Voyages.” Between the e-bowed bass and guitar and the digital keyboards, I think we succeeded in creating a more contemporary sonic identity. Honestly, I didn’t miss the analog synths at all.
a. Are there any plans for Hermetic Science to perform and/or return to touring?
At the moment, no. But that could always change.
b. What prompted you to remove yourself from touring in the first place?
From early 1996 through mid 2000, Hermetic Science was in fact a live band. We played about 25 shows, all in the northwest of California. Nearly the entirety of the first album, and roughly half of the second album, was performed live at one time or another. But here’s the rub. Most modern prog bands—which I’m defining as bands formed after 1990—have two choices: they can perform at local venues, or at prog festivals. Prog festivals have never shown an interest in Hermetic Science, so there was no access to that particular performance forum. That left local venues. The thing that most people who live in the rest of the continental United States don’t understand about Eureka, California, is how isolated it is. We’re located in Humboldt County—yes, that Humboldt County—which is as big as or bigger than several of the New England states, yet has a population of only 125,000. The closest city with a population of over 50,000 is Redding—that’s 160 miles east. The closest really large city to the south is San Francisco—that’s 260 miles south. The closest really large city to the north is Portland, Oregon—that’s 420 miles north. There’s nothing to the west except the Pacific Ocean. Playing anywhere outside of Humboldt County therefore involves a major investment of time and money. As far as local audiences go, a band that plays music as esoteric as ours, by mainstream standards at least, is facing a seriously uphill struggle even in a major metropolitan area, much less someplace as isolated as Humboldt County. Each year between 1996 and 2000 we played about half a dozen local shows. In most cases, these were played to very small audiences. We made a little bit of money, but the amount of time being spent to teach musicians a complex set list they would play maybe half a dozen times a year just was not cost effective and was not a productive use of time, which could be spent more fruitfully on learning new material for the next studio recording. That was the realization I came to at some point mid 2000, and that’s when I pulled the plug on the band as a live act.
c. On a related note: Your piece in the "Recommended Further Listening" chapter in Endless Enigma indicated a live recording was to be issued (Delivering the Goods: Hermetic Science Live 2-4-2000). What is the status of that project?
I spent a good deal of time in the studio with Mark Mayo, our engineer, in 2004 I think, going through those tapes and attempting to bring what we had up to snuff sonically. The problem was that the whole thing was recorded to cassette from an eight track mixer, which, I’m ashamed to say, was the best mixer available at College of the Redwoods at the time—they’ve since purchased a state-of-the-art mixer. At the end, we were able to sonically sweeten it up a bit, but only to a level of what I would consider high bootleg quality. The plan was that in 2006 we would release Crash Course, the two-CD compilation of our three albums, and then a year or two later release the live album. Of course, in late 2005, Hermetic Science unexpectedly resurrected as an active band creating new music, and for the next two and a half years, that’s where all available time, effort, and money was directed. The new studio album, These Fragments was finally released in June 2008. By then, I had begun to entertain doubts about the release of the live album, given the circumstances I outlined above.
However . . . just within the last two months, I unexpectedly discovered videotape footage of two shows I did with Andy Durham and Joe Nagy, the strongest of the live Hermetic Science lineups, back in 1997. The sonic standard isn’t really better than the 2-4-2000 show I had mooted releasing before, but the performances are hot, and include some covers that either were never released before or are no longer available. I’ve edited this footage down into a kind of bootleg DVD for personal use, and I am going to make some inquiries into what would be involved in releasing an inexpensive, “Official Bootleg” live Hermetic Science DVD. Despite the sometimes dodgy sonic quality and camera work, my initial feeling upon seeing this footage after so many years is that the spirit of the band really comes through. Maybe at least some of the people who never fully understood the premise of the original vibes-based power trio might get it if they could hear and see us in full flight.
HS the Concept:
a. The concept of HS as an educational springboard for it's members is intriguing and unique. Have you also resuscitated that concept and do you plan on moving forward with it?
I conceived Hermetic Science in the context of a Medieval guild, with me as the master craftsman teaching the students—the apprentices—the craft: how to put an arrangement together in rehearsal, how to record it, how to make it stageworthy. While I’ve always handled the business end of the band, I also tried to give the band members some sense of what was involved in publicity, in shopping a finished recording to a record label, and that whole end. My idea was that they would receive academic credit for their work in the band—and, in fact, nearly all members of Hermetic Science have at some time or another received college credit—and that they would leave the band as journeymen, prepared to form their own bands, having learned things that normally can’t be learned in an academic setting. In other words, I wanted to impart to them a kind of real-world experience that is extremely rare in the academic world: I know of very few programs in the U.S. where a student in a college music program could receive this kind of experience playing any form of rock music, much less prog. It’s an appalling fact that in the United States today, there is still not a single four-year college or university that offers a Bachelors degree in popular music studies. So, as a pedagogical concept, Hermetic Science was way ahead of its time, and I take a certain amount of pride in that, although it’s disappointing the concept hasn’t caught on. Of course, beyond the pedagogical concept, I also take satisfaction in passing the practice of and love for progressive music on to younger musicians.
b. Has the concept, as you envisioned it, been successful for the students?
Ultimately, I think you would have to ask them that. All I can say is that certain musicians—Jason Hoopes and Joe Nagy immediately come to mind—continued to play with Hermetic Science long after they had reached journeyman status themselves. I’d like to take that to mean that they found something musically sustaining in the Hermetic Science project.
Yes, although usually a book concentrates either on the biographical material or on the music: fusing the two together into a unified narrative is a bit more unusual. Some studies of the music of classical composers go into much greater detail than even I went into. Of course, those are written for specialists—by academics, for other academics. With Rocking the Classics, I made the decision I wanted to address an intelligent general public rather than a few hundred academics world-wide who are both capable of and interested in reading Schenkerian or pitch-set theory analyses of the music I’m discussing. To me, that kind of writing is naval-gazing and has no useful social function whatsoever. I’m all about trying to identify the ideas that drive the music and open those up to discussion amongst whatever segment of the general public is still interested in music and in ideas.
b. And part two of this question: One might get the impression that ELP consciously planned out their music in the highly structured terms you suggest in the dissection of their compositions. How much of that do you think is true and how much do you think might be structure in hindsight? Do you create your music in a similar fashion or is it more spontaneous than that?
Even with classical music, composition and analysis are two completely different activities—a lot of ink has been spilled over Beethoven’s music the last couple of centuries, and I don’t know that he would relate to most of it. For me, the goal of analysis is not to describe the compositional experience in a manner that will inspire the composer to say “Yeah, that’s just how it was,” although some writers try to do that, and there’s probably some value in it. I don’t feel qualified to re-create the composer’s inner experience of composing a piece of music, and even if I could, I don’t necessarily believe that tells the whole story about what a piece of music means or why people find it significant. That’s what interests me. I believe that without hearing structural interrelationships within a piece of music, one is not fully hearing the music—it’s like watching a play without really understanding the interrelationships between the characters. So what I try to accomplish through analysis is to enable the listener to understand the dynamics of the music’s structure and hear how the details of the music both derive from and support that dynamic. I also believe that many times cultural and social tensions play out at the level of musical structure—understanding the process through which a composer or a band bring musical ideas into an interrelationship can tell you a lot, both about the individuals involved, and about the era in which the individuals live, its ideals and its tensions. Sometimes I believe these tensions are fully understood by the musicians, but a lot of times I think they’re not—in the same way that novelists sometimes unconsciously create subtexts that are just as powerful and compelling as the external plot.
As to what degree ELP consciously pre-planned their music—I would say on the first three or four albums, they didn’t. It was all pretty spontaneous, and big pieces like Tarkus were cobbled together in an improvisatory way from a combination of pre-existing musical ideas and new bits and pieces, which were mixed and matched, expanded and developed more or less spontaneously. I recall Emerson saying he began to notate entire pieces beginning with the Fugue from “Endless Enigma.” With the “Karn Evil 9” suite it’s pretty clear, based on the evidence of The Manticore Special, that Emerson brought a more or less cohesive and firmly-conceived composition to the band, which they then fleshed out and fine-tuned in rehearsals and early performances. This was clearly the method used with “Pirates” as well. So I think at least with their big pieces, ELP’s approach did in fact become more consciously structured as time went by. This is basically the Hermetic Science method as well. I come to rehearsals with my parts more or less fully realized. Usually, I’ll give the bassist—Jason, let’s say—a chart, tell him to learn the written part, and then develop it as he likes. If he can come up with a better bass part than what I give him, he’s welcome to use it. Occasionally, I’ll be vaguer: for the entire opening movement of “De Profundis,” I told him to create a bass line around the chord changes, and what you hear on the recording is entirely his realization of that one instruction. With the drummers, I’ll usually chart out four- or eight-bar groove patterns for full kit, and tell them to develop something for a given passage based on that. Again, though, sometimes the process is more spontaneous. When Angelique Curry asked me what I wanted her to do during the opening Hammond theme of “The Second Coming” I said one word: “Bonham.” She immediately created the entire drum part for that section pretty much the way it’s heard on the recording based on that one-word instruction.
c. Progressive music often takes a rap for being too verbose, musically speaking. Your roughly 800-page book somewhat mirrors the thing that drives some people crazy about progressive music: That it takes itself way too seriously and, therefore does not fit into the perceived mold of rock music. How do you feel about that perception?
(Ed - it's OK to answer that with "Rick, you really need to read my book Rocking the Classics!)
Well, as you know, I begin the book’s introduction by pointing out, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that I take satisfaction in having written a book that’s as seriously long-winded as the band’s detractors claim their albums were! Seriously, what can I say about this that hasn’t already been said? The thinking of modern rock criticism—like so much modern cultural criticism generally—is anchored in a kind of postmodern cynicism—you know, nothing means anything. And if nothing means anything, there’s no point in talking about it—although it’s a bit ironic that modern pop culture, from People Magazine to Oprah, never tires of giving people who truly don’t have anything to say the forum to talk on and on. Prog rock was, in its attitude and sensibility, Romantic—in the sense of Byron, Liszt, Tolstoy, and Wagner. It had faith—a bit of a dirty word today—in the notion of Progress. In its stretching out toward the Infinite that it was always just on the verge of capturing, nineteenth century romanticism was all about monumentality, and that is a characteristic that prog rock inadvertently copped. Maybe my ELP book reflects a subconscious desire to participate in that kind of monumentality—I honestly didn’t set out to write an 800 page book, I simply wanted to say everything I thought needed to be said abut ELP, and about the prog-related issues I hadn’t fully exhausted in Rocking the Classics.
d. I believe that in the book you mentioned that you've not received much feedback from ELP. Is this still the case, or what kind of feedback did you get from them?
By the way, while I take no satisfaction in saying this publicly, I am very disappointed by the way Open Court has handled Endless Enigma. I told them shortly before the book was published in July 2006 that I would be ashamed if the book sold less than 2,000 copies in its first two years. In December 2007, much to my surprise, the first printing sold out: that’s when I learned the first print run was only 1,500 copies. It certainly would have sold 2,000 copies in less than two years had the first print run been big enough. It was out of print until June 2008, at which time a second printing—a tiny run of 200 or 300 copies—was published. By November, that print run had also sold out. The book is currently unavailable, although there are plans, vague at this time, to bring it back into print sometime in 2009.
d. I was really struck by the touring analysis, particularly the part on progressive rock and its popularity in the different regions of the U.S. Based on where you grew up/lived, how did you come to progressive rock and why do you think that happened for you?
There’s no question regionality had something to do with it. Would I have grown up listening to prog had I been raised in Dallas or in Omaha? I have my doubts. But it was definitely part of youth culture in the upper Midwest during the 1970s, and in my mid-teens I was drawn to it both because I heard refractions of the classical music and jazz that I had already discovered, and because of a philosophical, even metaphysical depth that I sensed but at that time couldn’t yet define. It felt meaningful.
e. If we can theorize why progressive rock was popular in certain areas, can we theorize why it’s more popular with males than females?
I discussed this in Rocking the Classics. First of all, males, especially young males, tend to appreciate virtuosic music more than females: the testosterone factor, you know? Two, until relatively recently, any musical style that involved a lot of cutting-edge technology was the domain of males, because technology was culturally a male thing. Keep in mind that during the 1970s, all of the more “epic” and experimental styles of rock—prog, early metal, jazz-rock fusion, and so on—were very much male-dominated both in terms of the musicians and audience.
f. In the book you mention, in the HS recommended listening segment, that nineties prog was too focused on the seventies and needed to open itself up to more outside influences in order to survive. What is your take on this now and how do you see the state of progressive rock these days? Who are some of your favorite newer progressive artists?
I felt all along that for reasons both stylistic and social, the nineties prog revival should have opened itself up more. You know the Mark Twain statement that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme—that’s the context in which I’ve heard bands as diverse as Phish, Sigur Ros (who really influenced me for a period of time), the Mars Volta, some of the so-called Math Rock bands. Are they progressive in the strict stylistic sense of the 1970s? No. Are they “progressive” in the philosophical and ideological sense that seventies prog was progressive? Yes. I think if the nineties prog rock revival bands had opened themselves up to those influences a bit more, and perhaps even had attempted to create a dialogue with those audiences, the nineties prog scene would have been the better for it. As it was, I always had a soft spot for bands like Death Organ and Anekdoten that participated in a prog/whatever fusion—even if I didn’t always love the music, or even totally get the music, I appreciated its sense of openness to contemporary currents.
This is perhaps an embarrassing admission, but since roughly 2004 or so I’ve had rather little sense of what is going on within the contemporary progressive music movement. During periods of my own creativity I get very egocentric and listen to very little outside music, only music that is directly nourishing what I’m doing: while we were working on These Fragments about all I listened to was Sigur Ros, the Terje Rypdal-MiroslavVitous-Jack DeJohnette Trio, late-period Sibelius, and a bit of Bill Bruford—although, ironically, These Fragments doesn’t sound exactly like any of them. Since work on the album has finished I’ve been both discovering and rediscovering post-1980 French prog, listening to a lot of Musea acts—Edhels, Minimum Vital, Lazuli, the late, great Pierre Moerlen—as well as some of the earlier Quebecois stuff like Maneige. Since 2006 I’ve also written significant monographs on Pink Floyd and now Led Zeppelin for books on these bands in Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, so I spent some time rediscovering and reassessing their music.
Do you have any thoughts on the digital revolution and downloading and how do you think that will play out in terms of the future of recorded music, the livelihood of musicians, etc.?
I’ve thought about it a lot, I don’t like the direction it has gone in, but I have no useful suggestions as to how to change that direction. Personally, I dislike the Mp3 format: this is the first time since Mr. Edison invented the gramophone in 1878 that a new medium of recorded music is of significantly worse sonic quality than the medium it’s replacing. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that P-2-P is in fact a form of theft. Like many artists have already said in these pages, I can support the hypothesis that illegal downloading is decimating CD sales with evidence: Hermetic Science’s CD sales increased every year from 1997 to 2000/2001, and then slowly but surely began to decrease after that. That was of course exactly when Napster came in and illegal downloads started to play a huge role in modern musical culture. Nowadays, I go into recording a new album knowing I am going to take a bath financially—I no longer even hold out hope of breaking even. In 2006, I did get into the Mp3 download game with H.S.’s back catalog, but most of our fan base is too old to be interested in that option, and young audiences are unlikely to discover us through that medium. And, as I’ve discovered, you’ve got to sell lots and lots of downloads to make even a little bit of money—way more than we’ll ever sell, I fear.
Having said all of this, downloads, both legal and illegal, are not going away. A lot of my students, particularly a lot of my male students, who are under 30 have never purchased a CD, and have no intention of ever doing so. To some extent this is a result of the death of the album as a coherent musical unit during the 1980s, which pre-dated downloads. I have students in my American Popular Music classes who don’t understand the premise of the concept album and the idea that the tracks are all interrelated and that the album’s full context is lost if tracks are excerpted or listened to out of order. Trying to convince someone who’s never paid for an album, and doesn’t understand the artistic possibilities of the album as a unit, that he needs to go out and start buying CDs is a non-starter. So technology has opened a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed. I blame the major labels as well: for years they kept CD prices at a ridiculously inflated rate and waited way too long to get into the legal download game, so that by the time they did the proverbial cat was out of the bag. I see CDs slowly but surely becoming less and less relevant, although I don’t foresee them disappearing completely any time soon. I think about the only people who will continue to buy CDs are those of us who grew up when the album was still a medium of aesthetic unity and who look to find that kind of coherence in the music they purchase. I think when we pass off the scene, the notion of the album will as well, and CDs will slip into obscurity. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.