PROGVISIONS INTERVIEW WITH ED MACAN
1. Bill Martin, in his book "Listening to the Future", mentions that one of the main elements of progressive rock is virtuosity. So, mentioning that Pink Floyd is not a group that highlights virtuosity, he says they don’t fit inside the genre. What is your opinion about this? Personally I do believe that it would be good to distinguish between the concept (the composition, the ideas) and the application (the instrumentation, the ability of the musicians) in virtuosity. Do you agree?
As I pointed out in Rocking the Classics, there are different types of virtuosity. Bill Martin argues the guys in Pink Floyd are no more virtuosic on their instruments than the guys in Traffic or Chicago, who certainly aren’t prog bands, and I don’t necessarily disagree. On the other hand, Pink Floyd are virtuosos of the studio in a way that Traffic, for instance, are not. Furthermore, Pink Floyd are masters of large-scale structure in a way that few other rock bands outside of progressive rock are, so one can argue there’s a compositional virtuosity at work in their music as well. I think your distinction between virtuosity of conception (composition, recording, etc.) and execution (instrumental virtuosity) is quite useful. I feel that it’s possible for a band to be a progressive rock band without having a great deal of virtuosity in their execution of their material: Bill doesn’t. Ultimately, I think the issue will be decided by consensus over time, which is fine with me.
2. One of the objectives or consequences of progressive rock is the expansion of the limits of rock. In this sense, if it had experienced innovation and change strongly since the seventies, the current progressive rock would not probably not sound a lot like that of the seventies, and yet it does. Isn´t this a contradiction? Progressive rock or progressist rock?
This is a good question. I would agree that progressive rock is defined by certain musical characteristics: beyond that, though, there is an ideology of progressive rock that is equally important in defining music as “progressive.” Obviously, the defining musical characteristics of progressive rock include large-scale structures, unusual and intricate meters and rhythms, some degree of instrumental virtuosity, and rock band instrumentation which may or may not also include acoustic instruments. There is, of course, often a link with fantasy or science fiction subject matter and iconography. On the other hand there is an ideology of progressive rock which in my view is equally vital. It draws from nineteenth century romanticism and twentieth century modernism and is characterized by very specific conceptions of idealism, authenticity, and art-as-transcendence. My contention is there is a lot of music being made today that may be “progressive” in letter—it has all the same musical characteristics as 1970s Genesis or King Crimson—but may not be all that progressive in spirit, since it concerns itself with copying an established musical style without any concern for the impulses that gave rise to that style. On the other hand, it’s possible, for contemporary music to concern itself first and foremost with the ideology of progressive: the belief that music is meaningful, that there is a difference between an “art” that is the creation of an individual’s conscience and a “product” that is created by marketing executives and producers who are concerned with saturating a carefully defined market as much as by the “artist.” Such music may not end up sounding a whole lot like seventies prog. With the first Hermetic Science CD, I was just as concerned with being faithful to the spirit of progressive as to the letter of progressive. That irked some people, who pointed out the music didn’t sound much like Yes or Genesis. However, I think that for the most part someone who remains faithful to the spirit of progressive should expect to take some liberties with the letter of progressive. If progressive is really going to progress, we need to realize we live in a very different world than we did 25 or 30 years ago. Musicians who are supposed to be creators can’t go on reliving “Cinema Sow” or “Close to the Edge” over and over.
3. Which are your favorite bands at the present time? Do you know MIND vol.I of Isildurs Bane and their great work with the drums and percussion, with Zappa reminiscences?
To be honest, I don’t listen to a whole lot of prog because nowadays so much of it is so predictable that you already know what it’s going to sound like. Maybe what I ought to do is name some CDs from the nineties that remain important to me. These are listed in no particular order.
Anglagard, Hybris and Epilog. Conservative yet distinctive, masterful composing and arranging. For me, the second CD is a particularly significant achievement.
Xaal, On the Way. Wonderful music and a wonderful concept. The mixture of Magma-like rhythms and bass lines with the middle-eastern tinged melodic figures works very well. It’s my kind of lineup—a power trio—and the arrangements are lean and mean. This does something genuinely original with the zeuhl approach.
Ozric Tentacles, Afterswish. Their early music continues to sound fresh and timeless to me. In recent years they’ve fallen into repeating a formula, but their earlier material is amazingly original, distinctive, and vital.
Djam Karet, Suspension and Displacement. A masterpiece that dissolves the boundaries between ambient and progressive. Intense, brooding music.
Deus ex Machina, De Republica. For me, this is the Italian prog album of the 1990s. Like Anglagard’s Epilog, it’s not startlingly original, but it is quite distinctive and is extremely challenging, both conceptually and musically. This album rewards multiple listenings.
Anekdoten, Nucleus. I must admit that all of their music isn’t to my taste, but I think their grunge-progressive fusion works quite well. “Book of Hours” is great.
Death Organ, 9 to 5. Okay, a lot of their music is way over the top, and quite a bit of it is pretty difficult for a man my age to take seriously. However, at the time of its release I think the attempt to fuse death metal and prog made sense. The closing instrumental track, “Miles Away,” is a masterpiece: imagine Emerson, Palmer, and Les Claypool!
Hermetic Science, Hermetic Science. A lot of people seem to prefer Prophesies, but I still feel that in its self-imposed limits the first CD is quite unique and accomplished a lot in terms of breaking down the barriers that had developed between prog, spatial jazz, ambient, and contemporary classical styles. I realize for many listeners the mallet percussion-heavy instrumentation becomes timbrally limiting after awhile, but I would argue that once a listener stops expecting constant timbral shifts this CD opens up a whole new musical experience, something that is a bit more meditative, in an intense way, than most straight-ahead prog rock.
I have heard a couple of Isildurs Bane tracks—enough to be aware of the Zappa influences—but I can’t claim to know their music well.
4. How long did it take you to write Rocking the Classics? How did you write it? How has its level of sales been?
I began writing Rocking the Classics in early 1992. I shopped it around in late 1992 and early 1993, received a number of rejection notices, and then rewrote it and greatly expanded it. In late 1993 and early 1994 I shopped it around again: there were yet more rejection notices before Oxford University Press accepted it for publication in mid 1994. Although the book was not released until November 1996, I had essentially finished writing it by the summer of 1995. Oxford University Press issued a print run of 5,500 copies—500 hardcover, the rest paperback. At this point the hardcover is sold out, and there are less than 500 paperback copies left. I don’t believe O.U.P. has any plans to reprint the book when the current print run sells out.
5. What comments have you received on the book? (Personally, I consider it the best theoretical book on progressive rock that has been written so far).
Like anything else, the book hasn’t been universally praised by everybody, but on the whole, its reception has been very, very positive. One thing that has surprised and gratified me is how well the book has been received in non-English speaking parts of the world. Subsequent books by Bill Martin and Paul Stump have forced me to clarify some of my thinking in terms of prog’s relation to the sixties counterculture, twentieth-century aesthetic trends, and capitalist economics. I am grateful for this, and I think my book on ELP, whenever it’s finished, will greatly benefit from me having been forced to refine some of my ideas. However, I remain convinced that my basic premises of Rocking the Classics are essentially sound, and I do think the book deserves the credit it has received from many quarters for having defined the parameters within which future discussion of progressive rock as both a musical and cultural phenomenon will take place.
6. Progressive rock is usually associated with a series of musical features, sometimes neglecting the analysis of the lyrics. In the genre there are many instrumental bands. Do you believe that the message that they want to communicate is the same one as the bands which use lyrics?
This is another good question. I think I would answer it similarly to the second question above. Not only is there a progressive musical style, there is a progressive ideology that stresses idealism, utopianism, authenticity (the act of creation as an individual act independent of corporate manipulation) and art-as-transcendence. I believe this philosophy informs both vocal and instrumental progressive music: in this sense, Yes and Mahavishnu Orchestra aren’t so different after all, despite some obvious surface musical differences.
7. What do you think the future of the progressive rock will be? Do you believe it’s possible that it will return soon to the forefront of popular music (4-5 years)? There are opinions that suggest that.
Well, I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, but I really don’t foresee prog, in any form in which it has manifested itself up to now, suddenly becoming popular. There are too many factors working against that. First, as we all know, prog is not MTV fare, and MTV and the music video have unfortunately become a central part of popular music culture since the golden age of prog. Second, popular music and teen music has become one and the same in the last 20 years—prog emerged at a time when popular music was targeted more towards college age people, which offered more expressive opportunities, both musically and in terms of subject matter. There have been a few contemporary bands (Dave Mathews, for instance) that have made it by targeting this somewhat older audience, but I’m afraid they’re now more the exception than the rule. Third, we live in a far more cynical era than 25 years ago: the idealism, utopianism, and transcendentalism of prog, while potentially a powerful antidote to today’s cynicism and apathy, is far removed from most young people’s experience of the world today. As Bill Martin points out in Listening to the Future, a really popular prog revival would depend on somehow reconnecting with late sixties/early seventies optimism. Right now I don’t see that on the horizon.
8. Nowadays many people use the word "progressive" as a label in order to promote some bands. Now there is "metal prog," "doom prog," "psych prog," and so on. In the same way, people who are getting tired of Yes and Genesis clones say that the future of prog rock depends on bands such as Anathema (in the hard side) or Mansum/Radiohead (in the pop side). What do you think about that?
I think in some ways I answered this when I named some prog albums of the nineties that I felt were important. I think most of them were important because they broke down barriers between prog and other styles and created a cross-fertilization between prog and other contemporary styles. I think that process will both keep prog alive as a vital, living style and give it continued relevance in the overall body of popular music. So I think the cross-fertilization process is important, yes.
9. In the 80´s the bands wanted to sound like Genesis. Now, in the 90´s, bands want to sound like King Crimson, very intricate and dark...why this change?
You’ve identified a real trend, alright. I’m not sure I can totally account for it, but I’ll try. In the 1980s Genesis were an important commercial phenomenon, which made them an attractive model. The popish model Genesis’s music provided made sense in the context of 1980s popular music. I think by the early 1990s the whole neo-prog approach of modernizing Genesis’s music had been run into the ground, and I think a lot of musicians realized that. In the 1990s, King Crimson were easily the most vital of the classic prog bands, which again made them an attractive model. Their music had some obvious cross-relations with contemporary rock styles, alternative and industrial in particular, which meant that using their music as a model made sense in context of developments in popular music of the 1990s. I don’t think this trend has quite run its course yet: the 1990s Crimson style, which really combines their heavy prog approach of the mid 1970s with their new wave/prog approach of the 1980s, is a rich style which is open to quite a bit of development.
10. I think there are three bands, very different, but with a really progressive attitude: Rush, King Crimson and Zappa. Do you agree? What do you think about them?
Rush, Crimson and Zappa have certainly created three distinct approaches to progressive music, although there are a number of others, as well. Perhaps I am missing the point of your question here.
11. Do you use Hermetic Science as a vehicle or reflection of your ideas on progressive rock as explained in Rocking the Classics?
No, because Rocking the Classics isn’t a manifesto for the future of progressive rock. It is a historical inquiry into how and why progressive rock developed the way it did, and it also gives a musicological definition of the stylistic parameters of progressive rock.
How did Hermetic Science come about?
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 clichéd 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 rock 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 deburt 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—as I explain below, 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 used more keyboards on Prophesies, and I will use keyboards on the next CD as well.
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. And, of course, I see Hermetic Science as an ideal vehicle for teaching a new generation of musicians about progressive music in a very intense, hands-on way.
Why the trio structure?
I have always had a preference for bands that leave a lot of space in their arrangements, as opposed to bands who like to fill up all the sonic space. I have always especially liked trios: ELP, Egg, Terje Rypdals’s band with Miroslav Vitous and Jack DeJohnette, King Crimson in their Red configuration. The trio format forces the musicians to focus on defining the essential aspects of an arrangement in a way that larger lineups don’t necessarily have to, encourages them to eliminate anything that’s superfluous, and makes the members contribute everything they’ve got.
12. Your musical tastes seem to be very clear, but if I had a record store I wouldn´t know where to put your CDs: jazz, avant-garde, experimental, new age, progressive rock ...what do you think about this?
As I said, I think one of the major contributions of the first Hermetic Science CD in particular is that it re-opened the boundaries between progressive and a host of related styles like spatial jazz and ambient music, boundaries that were in danger of being permanently closed off. Similarly, our second CD, Prophesies, reopened the boundaries between progressive and contemporary classical music. For progressive to remain alive, it has to cross pollinate with these other styles: then it’s like a lake that empties into or out of a river. As soon as you close the lake off from its sources, it becomes stagnant and dies. Likewise, as soon as you close a style off from outside sources and attempt to keep it in a state of unchanging stasis, it becomes stale and eventually dies. A style can’t go on feeding off its past forever, without admitting outside influences, or it will die. What I see as one of Hermetic Science’s major contributions is that our music has re-opened some of those boundaries with other styles that were in danger of being blocked off. Of course, there is a price to pay when you step out of your comfort zone and ask your audience to step out of theirs, too: a lot of your audience doesn’t want to go along, they would rather be comfortable. Distributors are even worse than audiences; while there are some notable exceptions, obviously, many distributors tend to be very lazy, and when they are confronted with a band that draws on elements of prog, spatial jazz, ambient, and contemporary classical, they throw up their arms and say “this is too hard to market: it’s easier to carry music by bands that sound just like Genesis or King Crimson.” So there’s no doubt our eclecticism has hurt our CD sales precisely because some distributors aren’t quite sure how to market our music and therefore don’t bother to try. But I remain confident that when one stays true to their vision, it always pays off in the end—even if not financially!
13. There´s a religious aspect to your music. In the USA there is a musical movement based on religious lyrics and/or concepts and there are lots of people who only listen to music with religious concepts and the music doesn´t matter. What´s your opinion about that? Is there any religious message in your music? Do you know the American band Savior Machine who has released a trilogy based on the Book of Revelation (Legend Trilogy)?
There is a religious aspect to our music, yes. I am a Christian, and I make no attempt to cut that part of my life experience off from our music. However, let’s put this in perspective. What we’re dealing with here is instrumental music, which is not ideal for preaching or promulgating a specific doctrine or religious message, since it’s open to so many different interpretations. I would guess that for most listeners what’s most “religious” about our music is its overall seriousness and its obvious references to different styles of Western liturgical music—renaissance sacred polyphony and the baroque organ music tradition in particular. Of course, some of our pieces, especially the Prophesies suite, are structured around religious concepts. However, I fully realize that since I’m dealing with instrumental music, where so much of the “meaning” is supplied by the listener, some of our audience might not hear the music as being religious in the same sense I do.
It is true that in the U.S. there is a big Christian music movement and there are people who won’t listen to anything that isn’t explicitly Christian in content. I can understand that point of view; a lot of popular music has become so toxic and lewd, and at the same time so cynical and un-revolutionary in its total inability to postulate a better world that we might strive toward, that it’s certainly hard to listen to a lot of it if you hold a Christian world view. I guess if I were more interested in vocal music, either as a songwriter or as a listener, that might be an issue for me. However, I don’t listen to a whole lot of vocal music and I’m a composer, not a songwriter. I would say that a lot of contemporary Christian music is great for singing along with in church, but it’s pretty simple and most of it doesn’t make for listening music. Most of it isn’t very adventurous or, for the most part, very ambitious. Contemporary Christian music has not produced a Josquin or a J.S. Bach, and I’m not convinced that it can, given contemporary cultural and economic constraints. I have not heard of Savior Machine, but now that you bring them to my attention I will try to check them out.
14. 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 are on a quest—we seek the House of Panorama.” Then I woke up. I had the impression they were on an epic quest, like Parsifal for the grail—a story that, at the time, I didn’t know. I also understood “House of Panorama” to refer not only to a building, but to a bloodline, like 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.”
15. I think your music has evolved since your first CD...you´ve added more keys, for example, but your sound remains intact and you´ve created your own sound. Are you going to evolve in other directions in forthcoming works or are you going to keep on creating your music from the same perspective? What is an ARP string ensemble?
I am proud of the fact that Hermetic Science is one of the few bands in prog today with a truly distinctive and instantly recognizable sound: I think most listeners can hear a few seconds of our music and know it’s us. I would also like to think that our sound has remained distinctive even when we’ve added more keyboards on the second CD: while the mallet percussion-heavy instrumentation is a big part of our sound, it’s not the only component by any means. I think our arrangements, with the pervasive polyphony and active bass lines, are also an important part of the Hermetic Science sound. Our chord progressions are distinctive, too, since we use a lot of chords built from stacked seconds, fourths, and fifths.
In mid-June we recorded roughly one-half of what will become the third Hermetic Science CD. I think it marks both a departure from and a further refinement of our earlier music. We recorded a four movement suite of roughly 21 minutes tentatively called “Against the Grain,” as well as a new cover of Holst’s “Mars.” We covered it on our first CD using a kind of gamelan orchestration—vibes, marimbas, etc.—whereas this time I used all electronic keyboards, some of them run through a fuzz box, and the result is a very fierce, aggressive arrangement that’s probably closer to the spirit of the original than what we did on our first CD. The new suite marks the first time I co-composed our music with anyone—in this case Jason Hoopes, our bassist who also happens to be a fine keyboard player—and that experience brought a whole new range of influences into play and also gave us new arrangement possibilities, since Jason and I play keyboards simultaneously on occasion. “Against the Grain” rocks harder than anything we’ve done so far and may be a bit simpler, too, although no one will confuse it with neo-prog! It’s definitely Hermetic Science material!
The ARP string ensemble, which I used on Prophesies and continue to use heavily on the new material, is a vintage analog keyboard that’s featured especially on “Hope Against Hope” from Prophesies. It was designed by ARP in the early 1970s as a kind of poor man’s Mellotron. Some people have complained it sounds a bit thin but when it’s properly recorded it sounds pretty good—I think it sounds great on “Hope Against Hope,” in fact—and in fact it gives you some options that a Mellotron doesn’t, in terms of indefinite sustain and registral separation.
16. Please, leave some final words with ProgVisions´ readers.
What I would tell ProgVisions’ readers is that I am gratified and grateful for the support we have received in Spain. We’ve been given fantastic coverage in the major journals—Lunar Waves, Margen, Atropos—and we’ve got some excellent distribution through Pan y Musica. I would like to thank all our Spanish listeners for their support, and urge those who haven’t checked us out yet to do so—we think they’ll like what they hear!
Interview by Eduardo Aragón, Team Member
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