The following interview with Ed Macan ran in the September 2006 issue (no. 1) of the Spanish journal La Caja de Pandora . It appears here in its original, unedited form. Interview by José Luis Martínez.
First of all, what were your origins in music and why did you approach prog rock?
I grew up in Rochester , a town in southeastern Michigan 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 an influence from very early on.
My father was a jazz drummer, so jazz was another long-term influence—even though I have never really learned to play “proper” jazz piano, I always had a natural feel for the swing rhythms of jazz.
I began listening to rock music around 1974 or 1975. It was probably in 1976 when I first heard ELP's “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression” on the radio. It made an immediate and lasting impact on me: I realized I was hearing music that fused rock's energy and raw power with classical music's massiveness and grandeur. During 1977, I began buying every ELP album I could get my hands on. I discovered Pink Floyd about the same time—I remember buying Animals as soon as it came out. In short order I discovered Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and the other heavyweights of 1970s progressive rock.
I played in my first 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 just 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 go in 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 entirely lost interest in contemporary rock music. I took my Bachelors Degree in piano performance at Oakland University in 1983, then moved from Michigan to California . Incidentally, I began playing marimba while I was at Oakland University . 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 the 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 , which I began 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 Hermetic Science in early 1996. The rest, as they say, is history.
I think you play a real progressive rock because I really think that there has to be a regenerated prog music. I mean that there are a lot of bands that are merely clones of the bands of the 70s prog scene. What can you tell me about this point of view?
What can I tell you about it? That I totally agree with it! I have been saying this for the past six or seven years. This is an issue I discuss at some length in my book on Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which will be published next month (July 2006). I think there was a progressive music revival during the 1990s, but by and large it was choked off because instead of flowing outwards and fusing with contemporary styles, which might have won it an audience outside of the narrowly defined boundaries of seventies prog fanatics, 1990s prog turned inwards—especially during the second half of the decade--as clone bands simply reproduced their favorite Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson, etc. licks ad infinitum . To survive and thrive, a musical style has to continuously be cross-fertilized by outside sources. The biological analogy, of course, is that if you have an isolated population in which brothers and sisters or first cousins are continuously cross-breeding, you're going to progressively degenerate the population as each generation becomes more sickly and deformed. I'm afraid this is to some extent what happened to the prog rock revival after the mid-1990s.
And so, what's your opinion of the prog scene nowadays?
I think it was Mark Twain who said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I happen to believe there is progressive music today—that is, music that stretches out, explores new musical ideas, blurs stylistic boundaries, addresses contemporary cultural concerns, and doesn't worry too much about whether it gets commercial radio or MTV airplay. I'm talking about so-called “post-rock” bands like Sigur Rós, of whom I'm a total fan, Tortoise, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. But expecting progressive music of today to sound exactly like the progressive music of thirty to thirty five years ago—that just isn't reasonable. The culture has changed so much. Obviously, there are similarities between a band like Sigur Rós and seventies prog—the willingness to stretch out (longwindedness, a detractor might say), the conceptual ambition, the adventurousness in matters of structure, timbre and production techniques. On the other hand, the element of virtuosity and musical complexity that was so important in the seventies doesn't seem that relevant to the younger audiences that listen to this new music. Fine—it hasn't produced any virtuosos on the level of the prog rock greats of the seventies. But why say it isn't progressive?
As far as contemporary progressive rock bands that have gained approval within the prog rock scene—well, I am not going to make any friends by saying this, but in honesty, by 2000 or 2001 I stopped listening to those bands. I still am amazed that so many people could have been enthused about clone bands like Spock's Beard or Flower Kings. Maybe I missed something—but hadn't Yes and Genesis, or for that matter Kansas and Styx , already done the same thing, and much better, 20 years earlier?
What are your favorite recordings or/and musicians and why?
If I were to give you a really complete answer here, it would use up too much space. Let me try to be as concise as I can . . .
Renaissance choral music, especially Josquin and Orlando Gibbons. J.S. Bach, of course, especially the keyboard music. Late Beethoven—I really came to understand the last five piano sonatas through Pollini's recordings. Liszt's Sonata in B minor, which I came to know through Van Cliburn's recording. Cesar Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue and Busoni's Toccata , both of which I've played. Late Sibelius (Symphonies 5-7 and Tapiola ), which currently is exerting a powerful influence on me. Mahler's 9th Symphony (Bruno Walter conducting). Holst— The Planets and Egdon Heath , an austere orchestral piece whose evocation of vast open spaces influenced me enormously. Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Pastoral Symphony , and Job . The string quartets of Bartók and Michael Tippett. And some of the minimalists—Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians made a huge impact on me when it was released, and I'm also fond of some of Terry Riley's organ and piano music. And I think Arvö Part's choral music is beautiful and heartrending.
Good jazz from the late forties and fifties—a lot of Bud Powell's stuff, Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue , Dave Brubeck's Time Out and Time Further Out , and some of the West Coast jazz, especially the groups led by Shelly Manne, a superb and underrated drummer.
I also like a bit of seventies fusion, although a lot of it seems too slick and formulaic—there's a certain “unfeelingness” about it. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about the vast majority of prog metal—I am not a fan of bands like Dream Theater, although I can appreciate their virtuosity.) But the first three albums of Mahavishnu Orchestra are still mind-blowing: John McLaughlin is the greatest guitarist of his generation.
My interest in rock begins with late sixties psychedelic rock, but obviously my heart has always been with seventies prog. If I have to pick 15 classic prog albums, it would probably be ELP's debut album and Brain Salad Surgery , Crimson's debut album, Red , and Discipline , Yes's Close to the Edge and Going for the One , Genesis's Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound , Van der Graaf Generator's Pawn Hearts and Godbluff , U.K.'s Danger Money , the Refugee album, Egg's Polite Force , and Magma's Kohntarkotz . I also like a bit of late seventies North American stadium rock— Kansas 's Song for America and Rush's Hemispheres are particular favorites. And, I must admit, during the seventies Blue Öyster Cult was always a guilty pleasure, although in general I wasn't a big fan of metal.
I also am a big fan of some of the ECM so-called “spatial jazz” artists—the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, in particular. There's a certain austerity and “wide-openness” to his albums that reminds me of Scandinavian music both earlier (I'm thinking late period Sibelius) and later (Sigur Rós). The two Rypdal-Miroslav Vitous-Jack DeJohnette albums remain all time favorites. And I think Keith Jarrett is the greatest pianist of his generation—a pretty heavy statement, considering the achievements of Keith Emerson and Patrick Moraz.
Finally, I love the Bulgarian Woman's Choir—I was privileged to finally see them live this past spring—and I also listen to a certain amount of non-Western music. Ali Akhbar Khan, an astounding musician and master sitarist, is a particular favorite.
I think your rendition to ELP's way of making music is clear (the rhythm, the basis, the strength and the honesty of sounds). What are your major influences?
Well, as you can see from the list above, my range of influences is pretty enormous. However, in terms of my work with Hermetic Science, I've been particularly impacted by trios. I like the trio format—it leaves plenty of open space, which I like, and challenges the three members to give it everything they've got, without having to worry too much about holding back or getting in each other's way. So three of the major prog rock keyboard trios— ELP , U.K. , and Egg—have been important models. And, as I said above, so has the work of the Terje Rypdal-Miroslav Vitous-Jack DeJohnette trio. Of course, a certain amount of Hermetic Science's music is written for a vibes-bass-drums or marimba-bass-drums trio, and that's when things get really interesting, because then there are no direct models; there's only guidelines I can draw on from the keyboard and guitar trios.
You recorded a track for the Fanfare for the Pirates compilation released by The Italian label Mellow Records in 1998. How did the get in touch with you and why did you choose “Infinite Space” for that compilation? Is there any other track you'd have preferred to include?
As I recall, Mauro Moroni of Mellow Records contacted me in 1998 and asked if we would like to contribute a track to that compilation. Hermetic Science had included “Infinite Space” on our debut album of 1997, so I simply gave Mellow permission to include it. Obviously it's not ELP's greatest masterpiece, but I still think it's a cool little track, and it fit our instrumentation very well. The piece has an Eastern feel that's nearly unique in ELP's output, and Emerson seemed to be treating the piano as if it were a giant marimba, so arranging it for marimba-bass-drums was no big stretch, and I felt it worked well, and that we put our own stamp on it. No, there was no other ELP track I was particularly anxious to cover—it's hard to cover ELP without sounding like ELP, which I was anxious not to do.
Hermetic Science is a curious definition of your project (maybe it means something I don't know) but... what has Hermes Trismegistus to do with Ed Macan?
Good question. I don't know that Hermes Trismegistus has that much to do with Ed Macan. However, as Carl Jung said, the real objective of hermeticism is the conjunctio oppositorum —the integration of seemingly mutually opposed, irreconcilable elements. As a psychologist, Jung saw alchemy—the supposed transmutation of lead into gold—as symbolic of something much more important, that is, the attainment of psychological wholeness through the integration of one's contradictory tendencies into a kind of greater self. At a musical level, I've tried to bring seemingly irreconcilable musical styles and elements together and produce a new composite that's greater than the sum of its parts. I would daresay this was what all the best progressive rock was about during its heyday, and progressive rock began to fail at exactly the point when it no longer concerned itself with integrating different musical traditions and practices, but simply began to repeat itself. I guess what I'm saying here is that the best progressive music was all about creating a fusion of disparate and seemingly opposed styles and was utopian in both a social and an individual, psychological sense. The name “Hermetic Science” simply acknowledges what my aesthetic goal is. I remember Christian Vander once saying that in their earlier days, Magma didn't always live up to their iconic name. I suppose the same could be said about Hermetic Science as well. But the name represents the goal that I always try to hold in front of me.
You have released a double compilation and a bio of ELP. Tell me about the book because I'm a great fan of the band. Anyway, what are your future plans in music and literature?
In 1997, Bill Martin, author of a book on Yes ( Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock ), on prog history ( Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978 ), and avant-rock, asked me if I would consider contributing a book on ELP to Open Court 's popular music series, of which he is editor. I thought about it for a year, and then said yes. I began working on the book in autumn 1998. It became much bigger and more ambitious in scope than I ever dreamed it would, and I didn't finish writing it until the summer of 2004. It's called Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer , and it's coming out next month (July 2006). It's nearly 800 pages long! It contains a complete biography of the band from their inception in 1970 to their demise in 1998, plus an account of E, L, and P's solo work and work with other bands through 2005. It discusses all the ELP albums at length, and surveys the solo work and work with other bands of each musician as well. There's a lot of appendices, including ratings of every ELP album, video, and solo release, and a complete listing of ELP, ELPowell, and 3 concerts. I hope this doesn't sound too arrogant, but this book will in all likelihood be the authoritative study on ELP's music for at least the next generation. I was privileged to present a bound galley copy to Carl Palmer when his trio played in San Francisco last week. He looked a little nonplussed—I hope he enjoys it!
My band, Hermetic Science, just released a double compilation CD, entitled Crash Course: A Hermetic Science Primer. It collects five out of eight tracks from our first album, Hermetic Science (1997), seven out of nine tracks from our second album, Prophesies (1999), and all eight tracks from our third album, En Route (2001). I think the compilation makes a very strong argument for the assertion I've been making all along—in the five year period from 1996 to 2001, no progressive music group released a more original and adventurous body of music than Hermetic Science. The tracks on Crash Course , incidentally, have been remixed and remastered from the original tapes, and are sonically superior to the original releases.
Also, Hermetic Science are currently at work on our fourth studio album. We recorded the first third of the album—about seventeen minutes of music—earlier this month. All we have at the moment is a rough mix—we will do a final mix at the end of July. I am currently working with bassist-guitarist Jason Hoopes and drummer Angelique Curry. Jason played on the third H.S. album, En Route , and is becoming an accomplished composer in his own right. He will be entering the Mills College graduate program in musical composition this coming fall, working under Fred Frith, formerly of Henry Cow, of course. Angelique brings an elegant, melodic style of drumming to our music which suits it quite well. Our new music builds on the well-established Hermetic Science sound without repeating it: our new arrangements are influenced by some of the major post-rock bands (Sigur Rós, etc.), and I'm integrating my mallet percussion and keyboard work at a new level of sophistication now. Unlike the last two H.S. albums, I will not be using any analog synths on the new album. I feel I have to do that because, as much as I respect the achievement of En Route , at times it drew a bit too close to vintage seventies prog rock revival for comfort. For me it is extremely important that this album sound both modern and timeless. I am hoping that my use of digital keyboards and Jason's use of e-bowed guitar and bass will bring a sense of something modern, and my acoustic piano and mallet percussion work will contribute a timeless element.
Incidentally, later this summer I am hoping to post a seventeen minute clip recorded live at a rehearsal session in May on the Official Hermetic Science Web Site, http://www.hermeticscience.com . It will convey the energy of the new lineup very well, I think.
Finally, please, say whatever you want or feel to the readers of La Caja de Pandora .
I've always been grateful for the support I've received from Spanish prog journals—Toni Roig ( Lunar Waves ), Rafa Dorado ( Margen ), and J. J. Iglesias ( Atropos ) were among the band's earliest and most sympathetic supporters. I hope that Spanish prog audiences will enjoy the new Hermetic Science compilation and, eventually, our next studio album. Here's the point I hope I can make clearly to everyone this time around: if progressive music fans actually want the music to progress, then they've got to support the bands that are making genuinely progressive music, rather than the more “comfortable” bands that are simply copying riffs from classic seventies prog.