The interview printed below was slated to appear in May of 2002 in an Argentine progressive rock web site entitled Nucleus (http://www.nucleusprog.cjb.net), translated into Spanish. To our knowledge, the interview has yet to appear on the Nucleus web page. For our English-speaking readers, here is the original, untranslated version of the interview. Interview by Sergio Vilar.
Hermetic Science’s music is a unique blend of several different stylistic sources: early twentieth-century classical music, the music of J. S. Bach, Renaissance church music, traditional Asian music, ECM-style spatial jazz, and of course progressive rock—both the more mainline keyboard trio format of ELP and Egg and the more acerbic approach of chamber prog bands like Univers Zero. Our music has always featured a lot of mallet percussion, and as time has gone by we’ve used more and more analog keyboards, as well as archaic instruments like recorders and lyres. Our characteristic blend of analog keys, vibes, and marimba is quite distinctive. Our arrangements are distinctive in other ways too: we often use the bass guitar as a second lead instrument, so our arrangements feature a lot of counterpoint, and our harmonies, which use a lot of stacked seconds, fourths, and fifths, give our music an “open” sound that compliments our instrumentation. We are one of a very few progressive bands of our era that have an original, immediately recognizable sound. Unlike the hundreds of clone bands out there, you won’t easily confuse Hermetic Science with anyone else!
I was trained as a classical pianist and my first college degree was in piano performance, so obviously I owe a lot to the classical piano tradition. My father was a skilled amateur jazz drummer, and I think listening to him play when I was a boy developed my sense of swing. I spent years studying vibraphone and marimba, and developed my own totally unique approach to playing those instruments that took into account classical and jazz approaches, but went beyond them. I did graduate work in composition, and the analyses of the music of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams that I undertook in graduate school made a permanent impact on my compositional style. Most importantly, though, I grew up at a time when a tremendous burst of musical creativity was underway and when what was happening in contemporary classical music, modern jazz, and rock all seemed to be converging. At that time, I could see a lot of connections developing between these previously separate musical traditions. I’ve never lost sight of that sense of interconnectedness between rock, jazz, and classical music, and exploring the connections between these supposedly disjunct musical traditions—which, sadly, have in fact been re-separated in the last 25 years—has been a driving force in the music of Hermetic Science.
The first album was not based on an extra-musical concept: it was all about demonstrating what could be done using vibes and marimba as lead instruments in a prog-rock context. While the album has no concept per se, there is a unity to it, but it’s a purely musical unity, based on a logical progression of moods, tempos, and dynamics. The Prophesies suite that dominates the second album is loosely based on the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, and musically depicts a progression of warning, doom, anger, mourning, and finally, renewal. En Route is based around the three major novels of the late nineteenth century French novelist J. K. Huysmanns. The three novels are more or less interconnected, and feature a spiritual progression that’s not dissimilar to the historical progression of Jeremiah—degeneration, spiritual death, finally rebirth and renewal. In the second and third albums, the progression of musical moods, tempos, and dynamics are shaped by the concepts—even as they shape it, to some extent.
something that I don’t prefer to discuss if nobody asks me, but since you’ve
asked me, I’ll answer you honestly. In sum: I’m not too enthused about what’s
going on in progressive music right now. Why? Because it’s not progressing
anywhere! I see several problems. First, while some of the print and internet
‘zines do encourage and recognize creativity and originality, distributors are
a very conservative lot, and if they can’t immediately pigeon-hole your sound,
they either won’t carry your product, or they’ll carry it only in very small
quantities. The result? Bands like us that think “outside the box” (as we say
Again, I’ll be honest with you at the risk of offending some: I don’t listen to much new prog anymore. I can only listen to so many bands rip off the same King Crimson and Dream Theater licks, I can only listen to Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings recycle the same old riffs from the seventies so many times, and then I can’t take it anymore. I’ve been working on a book about ELP since late 1998, so there have been periods in the last three and a half years when I’ve really intensively listened to their music, and I’m struck all over again by how fresh, new, and right the best of it still sounds. I don’t hear much prog today that sounds that fresh. There was a very real prog revival in the nineties—from ’91 or ’92 to ’98 or ’99—and on occasion I still enjoy listening to Ozric Tentacles, Djam Karet, Anglagard, Xaal, some of the Edhels’ earlier discs, and of course the first two Hermetic Science albums. Otherwise, though, in my view the prog revival is losing steam fast. Nowadays I’m much more likely to listen to classical music—especially from the sixteenth and twentieth centuries—or music that’s totally off the beat track, like ancient Greek music, North Indian sitar music, something like that.
First, as a field of knowledge—if that’s the right word—hermetic science includes
among its various branches alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold.
Our goal has always been to take our disparate influences and fuse them into
something new: to engage in musical alchemy, if you will. Second, when I first
heard of hermetic science many years ago, in a class on seventeenth-century
an author, best-known for my book Rocking the Classics: English Progressive
Rock and the Counterculture; a second book, a musical biography of Emerson,
I’ve lost connection with some of my former band members. From the first lineup,
Don Sweeney is finishing a degree in jazz at the
There are two reasons Hermetic Science is an all-instrumental band. First and foremost, I’m a composer, not a songwriter: they are two very different skills. Second, it’s my opinion that vocal prog has already been done. About all you can do is either repeat the epic, “philosophical” themes of the seventies, in which case you’re going to sound like Jon Anderson or Peter Hammill, or else you can work in a more modern singer/songwriter vein, in which case the lyric is the main thing and the prog element tends to go out the window. In my opinion, the most important prog bands of the last decade—Ozric Tentacles, Djam Karet, Xaal, Anglagard, us—have tended to be all-instrumental bands. The popular vocal prog bands of the last decade—Spock’s Beard, Flower Kings, for example—have tended to relentlessly recycle the same old seventies riffs. This is in fact more or less the position I took in the final chapter of Rocking the Classics, if I’m not mistaken.
working on a musical biography of Emerson,