The following interview with Ed Macan
ran in a translated and slightly edited version in the January 2000 issue
of the Spanish journal Lunar Waves. It appears here in its original form,
in English and unedited. Interview by Toni Roig.
Interview by Toni Roig.
1. How is it for a musician to write about music?
I’d put it this way: my work as a writer is much more influenced by my work as a composer and a musician than my work as a composer and musician is influenced by my work as a writer. Obviously when I write about music I draw on insights I’ve gained as a working musician and composer. On the other hand, when I’m writing music I try to let the music dictate its own logic, without imposing some kind of ideology or theoretical construct onto it. For me the test of good music is finally whether it sounds good and whether it coheres—not whether it can be seen to demonstrate somebody’s critical ideology or whether it conforms to “accepted” theoretical models, which I think can be a real pitfall for music critics and theorists who also compose music. I think one problem with a lot of the modernist classical music of the 50s and 60s is that it was composed to prove somebody’s theory or demonstrate somebody’s ideology, with no thought whatsoever to how it actually sounded and whether it communicated anything emotionally. Obviously by choosing to write instrumental progressive music I’m addressing a much smaller audience than, say, Puff Daddy or the Backstreet Boys. But I’m still interested in fully engaging that audience, and if my music doesn’t express something meaningful to them on a purely emotional level, then it has failed, no matter how well it embodies this or that theory or ideology.
2. How did the idea for Hermetic Science come about in the first place?
3. Why aren’t you using guitars in your albums?
When I founded Hermetic Science in late 1995, I was addressing three issues. First and foremost, by the mid 1990s I had become very concerned about how neo-prog had become more or less the “accepted” form of new prog, since in my mind by that time neo-prog was no longer progressive at all. I was interested in progressive music in the original sense of the word—music that stretches out, takes chances, explores new stylistic directions—rather than music that’s “progressive” merely because it recycles the most obvious and cliched riffs by classic prog bands like Genesis, Yes, ELP, and Pink Floyd. The neo-prog bands seemed to feel their music was “modern” simply because they used digital keyboards and gated drums, and to me this stood the original premise of progressive music on its head. So my idea with Hermetic Science was to recapture the original spirit of progressive music: music that pushes back and breaks down stylistic boundaries, music that creates a utopian synthesis, music that takes its listeners somewhere new and stretches their comfort zone. Our starting point was earlier progressive music—instrumental ELP, as well as some of the chamber prog like Univers Zero—but we went on to draw on ECM jazz, minimalism, fourth world, and ambient styles that I feel have been sadly ignored by a lot of progressive rock musicians of the 1980s and 1990s. I still feel our debut album made a real contribution to re-opening the boundaries between prog and these other styles, a contribution which has yet to receive its full due.
I was also concerned that we not replicate the typical guitar-keys-bass-drums lineup, because in my opinion that particular instrumentation has been bled to death. In particular, I’m not too sure a lot more can be done with guitars in a rock context, which is one reason we don’t have a guitarist. The other is that I like the trio format—I’d rather have too much open space than not enough, because it gives not only me but the rhythm section more room to stretch out, and I was also interested in exploring the possibility of using the bass guitar as a second lead instrument. Early on I knew we’d be extensively featuring the mallet percussion instruments. I had developed a contrapuntal, almost keyboard-like approach to playing vibes and marimba, whereby I could supply melody and chords or chords and bass line simultaneously, and by using this approach, I felt the mallet-bass-drums lineup could carry an entire CD. I think the debut Hermetic Science CD proves that this lineup was completely viable, although it may perhaps have been just a bit dogmatic, which is one reason I’m playing more keyboards on Prophesies.
My final reason for founding Hermetic Science involved my work as a music educator. I’ve become very concerned that there is a gap between what we teach music students in the college classroom and what they encounter in their work as professional musicians. I wanted to give a select group of especially talented students experience they might not get otherwise in terms of letting them see what all is involved in recording and marketing a CD, setting up gigs, and so on. Ad, of course, I see Hermetic Science as an ideal vehicle for teaching a new generation of musicians about progressive music in a very intensive, hands-on way.
4. Before getting into the music of Hermetic Science, it was a surprise to find that Prophesies opens with a Rush cover version. Why was that? What do you think of the music of Rush?
Well, like a lot of young white American males coming of age in the late 70s, I went through a period of Rush-mania. I saw them live during the Moving Pictures tour, which may well have been the apex of their career, and they were very impressive. Looking back now, I don’t hear as much in their music as I used to: now, rather than hearing the unusual meters or instrumental virtuosity, I’m often struck by the endless repetition of riffs, the four-square phrase structures, and the rather ordinary chord changes. I also don’t find Neil Peart’s lyrics nearly as profound as I did in late adolescence. Strangely, for me the most compelling member of Rush was Alex Lifeson—he had a real flair for creating memorable melodic leads, and I regretted it when he became a textural rather than a lead player in the early 80s and Rush became a Police sound-alike band.
Still, I have a fascination with successful trios—I believe the trio format really stretches the players to their limit, and makes them contribute everything they’ve got—and there is no question Rush is one of the more successful trios in rock history. So it was logical for Hermetic Science to cover something by Rush at some point. I always liked “Jacob’s Ladder” a lot, as did Andy Durham, our bassist at the time, and as I felt we could successfully transfer the guitar lines to mallet percussion, we decided to have a go at it. “Jacob’s Ladder” has a real structural inevitability to it; I think the modulations from section to section are interesting, as are the rhythms, the transformations of themes, and the rise and fall in dynamics. In short, it’s something I would like to have written myself, so we covered it. The reason we put “Jacob’s Ladder” at the beginning of the Prophesies CD is simple—after the “Prophesies” suite it wold have sounded anti-climactic. In some ways, it feels like a direct continuation of “Mars,” the final track of the debut CD, so maybe there’s also a good symbolic reason for it being first track.
5. What’s the compositional method you use for your music? Do you jam with your band mates or do you have the whole piece in mind?
I have the whole composition in mind when the band starts learning it. In the early days, with the first lineup, it was a little looser: I would come in with the completed vibes (or marimba) part and a skeletal bass part, then we would develop the drum part and maybe develop the bass part a bit more. We did that on a piece like “Fire Over Thule.” When Andy Durham joined the band on bass, he had this very cutting, Chris Squire-like bass sound—and he was an excellent reader. It was then I began to see the full potential of the bass as a second lead instrument, with a continuous counterpoint between bass and the lead instrument. The first piece we did that really explored that approach was “Esau’s Burden,” off the debut CD. But in order to make the more intricate bass lines work smoothly with the lead instrument, I had to start scoring the bass lines out more literally than before, although sometimes we would still change things I had written during the process of the band learning the music. The fact that the bass lines were now charted out also demanded a more structured drum approach, although I’ve never charted out the drum parts: what I do is suggest groove figures I think will work against particular bass parts, and let the drummer develop those.
Sometimes when I’m teaching a later lineup of Hermetic Science a piece that was originally recorded by an earlier lineup, we’ll find a guy isn’t totally comfortable playing the parts his predecessor played—or maybe I’ll find I hear my own lead parts differently than I used to. At any rate, some of our live performances of certain pieces have developed in a rather different direction than our studio recordings. At some point I hope to put out a live recording showcasing the different Hermetic Science lineups. I think people will be surprised at how some of the material has evolved and developed from lineup to lineup.
6. It seems evident that religion is the thematic center of much of Hermetic Science’s music. Do you consider Hermetic Science’s music religious music?
Well, I am a Christian, and while I don’t see my music as a vehicle for preaching or proselytizing—instrumental music isn’t particularly good for conveying dogma, at any rate—my music naturally draws from my own perceptions and experiences, so if some of it has religious sensibility, I guess that’s not surprising. Perhaps what’s most important for me is the conviction that the most powerful religious music can be used as a vehicle for transcendence. Some religious music encourages a kind of communal transcendence—I’m thinking of black gospel music, for instance—and while that’s wonderful, I see our music as falling into a different tradition of religious music, that is, music that creates a space for individual spiritual contemplation. As a Christian, I’ve been especially influenced by music from the Christian tradition—renaissance choral music and Gregorian chant, obviously—but there’s no question that there are mid-eastern influences as well in Hermetic Science’s music. There’s certainly a ritualistic feel to some of our music.
In a world that’s so corrupted by cynicism and materialism, and so given to sensory overload as ours, there’s a real need for music that can create a quiet space, and maybe give us a glimpse of God, our better selves, and a better world. People aren’t going to get that from gangsta rap or grunge! It saddens me, how earthbound and cynical a lot of contemporary popular music has become. Too much contemporary rap and rock hides its lack of underlying message or substance beneath a “can you top this” barrage of shock tactics.
The Prophesies suite, incidentally, can be interpreted on several levels: as a paean to the fortitude and integrity of Jeremiah and a meditation on the responsibilities and burdens of the prophet-figure, as a historical saga of the fall of Jerusalem, or as a call to repentance and God-consciousness and parable of spiritual death and rebirth.
7. Is Hermetic Science a studio project or are you planning to play gigs?
Hermetic Science has always been a live band. I’m rather proud of the fact that of the eight tracks on our debut CD, we regularly played seven of them live; only “The Sungazer” was recorded with no thought for what was feasible in live performance. Likewise, the current lineup will play the first four tracks on the Prophesies CD as a medley in our live shows. We face two difficulties as a live band. The first is geographical isolation. The metro Eureka area has maybe 80,000 people, and the nearest large city, San Francisco, is 270 miles away! All prog bands have a limited audience base, and ours is even more limited because of the isolation and sparse population of this region. Touring hasn’t been feasible so far because I tend to teach nearly year around. And when we do play live, we find ourselves going to a huge effort to play for small audiences—like most prog bands, we have lots of equipment, and people are always amazed to see how much space we take up on stage. Currently I make do with vibes, marimba, ARP string ensemble, Micromoog, and recorder—which, unfortunately, makes it impossible for us to do the second half of the Prophesies suite live, since there’s simply no way to pack my Hammond around to shows. So playing gigs is something of a major production, and we do no more than four to six a year.
8. What is the “House of Panorama”?
One night many years ago I had an extremely vivid dream. I found myself in the midst of a vast array of foot soldiers carrying banners, mounted knights, and so on, who were all milling around a huge castle. Somehow I was certain they were dressed in 14th-century armor although I don’t know how I knew that, since at the time I had no interest whatsoever in things medieval. I also had no idea what I was doing in the midst of this throng, so I asked one of the knights what was going on. He said something to the effect “we’re on a quest—we seek the House of Panorama.” The I woke up. Somehow I woke up with the impression they were on an epic quest, like Parsifal for the grail—a story which, at the time, I didn’t know. I also understood “House of Panorama” to refer not only to a building, but to a bloodline, as in Poe’s “House of Usher.” I still don’t know what, if anything, that dream meant. But I was inspired to create a network of pieces that would give a kind of musical reality to the “House of Panorama.”
9. Can you tell us something about your ELP book?
My book will offer an analytical and critical survey of ELP’s music. My approach to the first six albums is quite in depth, taking a song-by-song approach: readers who are familiar with chapter five of Rocking the Classics will have a very good idea of what I’m up to here. Later albums will be considered in somewhat less detail, but nothing will be ignored.
Since there has never been an ELP biography, my book will also fulfil the role of an ELP history. There will be one or more chapters detailing the band’s pre-history, and my discussion of the band’s albums will be set of chronologically with an account of the band’s other activities. I think anyone who reads the book will emerge with a comprehensive understanding of the band’s history. As in Rocking the Classics, I am not interested in dates as trivia, but in tracing ELP’s rise and fall during the 70s as it relates to progressive rock in general, to contemporary social and cultural trends, and to the band’s changing interpersonal dynamics. I do think that by offering a careful chronological account of the band’s activities, I will be able to shatter a number of tenacious misconceptions about their output.
In some ways, this will be a very different book than Rocking the Classics. I have not retraced the social, cultural, and musical birth of progressive rock in any detail, nor spent a lot of time defining the genre’s musical, visual, and literary parameters. I have definitely not built and then explained my methodology for analyzing the music from ground zero, as I felt compelled to do in Rocking the Classics. However, what this book lacks in breadth, I believe it will more than make up in depth. One frustration of writing Rocking the Classics was that I was dealing with so many things at once, I often had to generalize more than I liked to. Here, that isn’t necessary.
On the other hand, there are some topics from Rocking the Classics that I will explore further. The issue of critical reception demands further attention: if ever a band’s critical reception cried out for careful scrutiny, it is ELP’s. There are also a couple of issues raised in the two later prog studies by Bill Martin and Paul Stump that deserve attention, and so long as these issues can be addressed in the context of ELP’s music, I plan to do so.
I have made considerable progress on this book. I have written seven substantial chapters, which begin with the band’s formation and first album and take in all their work until (and including) Welcome Back My Friends. In other words, the heart of the book has been completed.