The following interview with Ed Macan ran in a translated and slightly edited version in the February 1999 issue of the French journal Big Bang. It appears here in its original form, in English and unedited. Interview by Aymeric Leroy.

  1. With the Hermetic Science project, you’ve become a part of the "progressive scene" after studying it as a musicologist. Did it take you a long time to feel ready to enter "the other side of the mirror"?

  2. Actually I was playing the music years before I ever undertook a scholarly study of it. I played in a couple of Detroit area bands in the late 1970s that had a progressive rock orientation. The bands went nowhere, though, and even at that relatively early date I could clearly see that the writing was on the wall for progressive rock. I went on to other things for a number of years. When I re-connected with progressive rock in the early 1990s, I immediately started work on the book that eventually became Rocking the Classics. It was also during that period that I conceived the Hermetic Science project. However, at the time conditions weren’t right for me to put a band together, and therefore Hermetic Science didn’t happen until after I moved to Eureka, California and took my current position at the College of the Redwoods in 1994. By that time the book was well on its way to completion, so I decided I would finish the book first and then work on getting the debut Hermetic Science CD released. However, a lot of the most characteristic material on the debut CD–"Fire Over Thule," "The Sungazer," "Trisagion"–was composed in the early 1990s.

  1. Was the choice of the vibes/bass/drums instrumentation on the first album a way of proving that one can play progressive rock without all the grandiose orchestration generally associated with the genre?
  2. 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 Rypdal’s various trios (his team-up with Miroslav Vitous and Jack DeJohnette is one of my all-time favorite albums), King Crimson in their Red configuration, and, in the jazz world, the Red Norvo-Tal Farlow-Charles Mingus lineup. 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. Another factor in the debut CD’s instrumentation was my firm belief that the mallet instruments have been tremendously underused in a rock/electronic jazz format, and that it was entirely feasible for mallet instruments to carry the lead role across an entire album, as long as things were arranged carefully. I do believe in a lot of contemporary prog there has been a tendency to emphasize grandiose orchestration and big-time production as ends in themselves. For me, if the compositional ideas aren’t there, sterling production and all the digital keyboard orchestrations under the sun won’t rescue things. So yes, there is a certain "less is more" philosophy behind the first CD. I attempted to create a lot of subtle timbral shifts by constantly switching mallets, turning the vibes motor on and off, varying the rate of the vibrato, sometimes doubling vibes with marimba or marimba with piano, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that some listeners are so geared to more obvious timbral shifts–organ sound changes to string sound, or electric guitar sound changes to acoustic guitar sound–that it was hard for them to get into the more subtle timbral shifts I was doing.

  3. On the new album, the instrumentation is largely expanded, but it is still a trio. Do you want to keep the line-up down to a small size? Why?
  4. Yes, and the reason is that at the end of the day Hermetic Science is primarily a live band, not a recording band. The purpose of our studio recordings is simply to give you a clean-sounding example of what we are all about in live performance. Therefore I’ve tried to stay away from arrangements that we can’t reproduce as a trio in live performance, although "The Sungazer" off the first CD is one exception–there’s no way we can do that live as a trio. While I wouldn’t rule out adding a second lead player (that is, a fourth member) to the band, it would have to be someone whose playing and musical philosophy fits in with what we do, and who is available to perform live with us. Since we’re located in a pretty remote area–the far north of California–that eliminates a lot of potential candidates. There just isn’t a big progressive music scene up this way to draw potential players out of.

  1. Because of the predominant use of vibes, the music of Hermetic Science is generally soft and quiet; is the use of keyboards on the new album a way to give it more "edge"?
  2. The different instrumentation reflects the somewhat different goal of the second CD. With the material on the first CD, I was really trying to evoke a kind of mystic state. Now, when most people think "mystic," they think of bands like Popul Vuh or Jade Warrior in their Island releases–a kind of mellow, blissed-out state of mind. That’s really not what I was after at all. I think that the state of genuine mystic revelation involves awe, wonder, perhaps even terror–when you read the accounts of the Old Testament prophets, for instance, what they are mainly trying to express is the sense of awe and wonder they felt during their state of divine revelation, not how blissed out or mellow they felt. In our music on the first album, I was really trying to capture that sense of awe and wonder. So while the music on the first CD is often quiet, it’s also very intense–that’s the beauty of fusing the "floating" sound of vibes with the intensity of a prog rhythm section. The first CD is not a concept album; it’s a series of individual pieces contrasted by mood, tempo, and instrumentation. The second CD is a concept album, and is much more concerned with the notion of heroic struggle, tragedy and redemption–more "epic" concerns typical of a lot of 70s progressive rock. In order to convey that kind of goal-oriented concept, where we’re building towards bigger and bigger climaxes, we really needed the heavier, more "classical" instrumentation–hence the prominent use of Hammond, ARP string ensemble, and piano in a lead role. Incidentally, the new CD has practically no jazz influence on it. That’s a big difference from the debut CD, where there are fairly obvious links with Canterbury prog and with ECM artists like Terje Rypdal.

  1. The new album has two very long compositions (suites) rather than a succession of shorter pieces. Would you say this is a more "ambitious" work? What are the advantages, for a composer, of having an extended format at one’s disposal?
  2. First of all, I had better emphasize that the contents of the second CD aren’t absolutely set in stone yet. The six-movement, 42-minute Prophesies suite is a certainty; the only change we’re considering there is remixing the fifth movement. The three movement Triptych suite for solo marimba was originally intended as a bonus track, but now we’re reconsidering. If we don’t include it there are a couple of possibilities we could pursue. We may include a performance of ELP’s Tarkus that I did on solo piano some years ago as a bonus track. Or we might even record more band material, although at this point I’m a bit leery of that because that could really hold up the release.

    I don’t know that the second CD is a more "ambitious" work than our debut CD, although I suppose it is more "epic" in the sense that it is definitely more consciously unified into a conceptual whole. Again, the reason I went with the "epic" approach this time is that I had something to say that I don’t think could have been said outside of the longer forms. I’m certainly not into writing long pieces just for the sake of it! All you have to do is go back to 70s prog to see that while there were some great epics, there were also a lot of really amateurish attempts at epics by people who weren’t able to control the large-scale forms and didn’t really have anything vital to say, but just wanted to write an imposing, "serious" piece of music. Something I’ve noticed about all really vital music, of whatever style, is that if it’s saying something really urgent, the form just kind of takes care of itself. Most of the times people sit down and say "well, I don’t know what I want to say, but I want to use four movements, each ten minutes, with sonata form in the beginning and fugue in the middle"–that approach seems to lead to pretty lame results.

  3. Your training was originally as a pianist. What made you switch to vibes? Were musicians like Ruth Underwood, Pierre Moerlen, Mireille Bauer or Kerry Minnear influential? Would you say vibes fit easily in a rock context? Is your writing influenced, or limited, by the constraints of the instrument? In interviews, you mention playing in a personal way, playing independent parts with the left and right hands, in order to have a fuller sound. Can you explain how you developed this technique?
  4. When I was in my last year of study at Oakland University for my Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance–this would have been 1982, I think–I was told that in order to graduate, I would need a certain number of units of study on a second instrument. I gave marimba and harp roughly equal consideration, and then decided to go with marimba. Marimba was my main mallet instrument for a number of years, vibes came a bit later. My approach to piano had been so strongly impacted by my study of classical music I knew I could never totally escape it, so one goal I had with mallets was not to be influenced by anybody else! Therefore, while I have listened with enjoyment to a number of the players you mention–as well as jazz vibists like Gary Burton and especially, the late Cal Tjader–I can honestly say that they had virtually no influence on my own approach to the instrument. Because of my training as a pianist, I have always tended to approach the vibes contrapuntally. I’ll do things like get a chord progression going with my two right hand mallets and my top left hand mallet, and then put a bass line going in contrary motion against it with my lowest left hand mallet–there’s a lot of that on "Fire Over Thule." Or I’ll arrange a part on vibes in such a way to produce the illusion of two vibists doing call-and-response with each other–it’s an effect I create by switching rapidly between the treble and bass end of the instrument, and using the damper pedal to blend the parts together. That’s something you can hear a lot of in parts of "Esau’s Burden" and "Trisagion" on the first CD. Or sometimes I’ll play a bass ostinato with my left mallets and a melody with my right mallets–you can hear that in our arrangement of ELP’s "Infinite Space," which I play on marimba instead of vibes. None of this is ordinary mallet technique, and I didn’t learn any of this from listening to other mallet players. All I can say is it works in the context of Hermetic Science’s music. And because I tend to approach the mallets contrapuntally, I was always convinced that I could make them work as a lead instrument in a trio format. In our music, at least, I hear vibes more in terms of a Hammond organ or a 12-string electric guitar than vibes.

    In writing for Hermetic Science, I have always tried to write idiomatically for the instrument. I think the vibes epics on the first CD like "Fire Over Thule" and "Trisagion" really are vibraphone music, and while I’m sure you could re-arrange those pieces with other instruments, I think you would risk losing something of their essence. When I’m writing something and I find that my compositional ideas simply don’t fit within the confines of the vibes, I look for another lead instrument. That happened a lot more on the second CD, and that’s why that CD features a lot more keyboard in lead roles.

    Does the vibraphone fit easily into a rock context? Yes, if you’ve given some thought beforehand to what ideas and moods you want to express and how the vibes might express them. I’m sure it’s not everyone’s idea of a rock and roll instrument, but neither was flute until Ian Anderson and Thijs van Leer showed what could be done with it in a rock context. Neither was violin until David Cross, Eddie Jobson, Robby Steinhardt, or Jerry Goodman showed how it could really bring a unique voice to rock music. Neither was the bassoon, until the advent of Gryphon–and Univers Zero! I happen to believe that the vibraphone is still an underused instrument in a rock context, and there’s still a lot more exploration to be done with it.

  5. What are your plans for the project in the future? To keep "pushing the envelope" by integrating other instruments into the line-up, of keep experimenting with the vibes-led trio lineup?
  6. I think the best way to answer this is to say we’ll do whatever the music seems to demand. The concept driving the second CD seemed to demand a more classical, keyboard-driven prog approach, but I think it’s fairly safe to say the second CD may prove to be a one-shot deal in terms of both its very serious, "epic" concept and its more traditional prog orientation. I think it’s possible that Hermetic Science at some point could include a second lead instrument, if someone came along who was compatible with where we are stylistically and philosophically. On the other hand, I do think there is more terrain to be uncovered within the vibes trio format. One promise I have made myself is that Hermetic Science will not release albums just for the sake of releasing them. If I find we are running out of valid ideas and are repeating ourselves or repeating other musicians, we will put the project on ice until we have something new and vital to say.

  7. In the editorial of the latest issue of Progression, John Collinge makes the following point: "It would be ludicrous to expect every musical genre to progress, as though being progressive in the purest sense is an artistic ideal to which all musicians should aspire. What would happen to the blues if all blues artists felt compelled to push boundaries? I’ll tell you what would happen. It wouldn’t be the blues anymore." Do you agree with him?
  8. No. One could almost write a book on this issue, so I’ll have to pare my comments here to a few observations. First, I’m not sure that the blues is a good basis for comparison. The blues is, after all, a very elemental musical style; from a musical point of view, progressive rock is infinitely more elastic. Second, "progression" is part of the progressive rock ideology, whereas I don’t think anyone is necessarily expecting a style like the blues to progress. Having said that, though, it is a fact that even the blues progressed! If you examine the blues historically, there is a definite shift from the rural blues of the early twentieth century to the Western jump blues or the Chicago style urban blues of mid-century. The social context of the music changed, the venues the music was played in changed, the musical instruments and technology available to the musicians changed, and these changes impacted the music.

    A much better basis for comparison, I think, is the classical music tradition. The music of the classic era (1750 to 1825 or so) by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven established the norms for what we today call "classical music" in terms of instrumentation, forms, underlying philosophical ideology, performance, etc. In other words, these composers created a blueprint, much like the "classic" prog bands of the 70s. There are some who feel that after Beethoven classical music had nowhere to go but down–he had taken it to such a lofty pinnacle–and there are obviously many who feel the same way about the classic prog bands. The fact, is, though, that the most vital music of the nineteenth century was written by composers who latched on to a particular aspect of Beethoven’s legacy and ran with it, even though they knew they weren’t doing the same thing as Beethoven. They were updating Beethoven’s legacy in a way that was responding to the cultural and social currents of their own time. The composers who were trying to keep Beethoven’s style alive in a spirit of nostalgia–we don’t hear their music any more, because we have Beethoven’s, and his is so much better. Even a very conservative composer like Brahms was actually updating Beethoven’s approach and changing it a bit to more faithfully reflect the tastes of his own times. So I don’t have a lot of patience with that segment of the prog audience who are saying "Let’s keep the 70s prog style alive in a state of pristine perfection." That’s just nostalgia. It doesn’t allow the music to respond to more contemporary cultural and social issues. Furthermore, except in extremely rare instances–the two Anglagard releases, maybe–it won’t produce music that was as good as the original prog. The original prog was great music in part because it was the right music at the right place at the right time. So let change come! Maybe at some point the music will have changed so much that its lineage from classic prog will no longer be easily recognizable. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. At least in the meantime the music will be living, breathing, and responding to contemporary life, rather than being a museum display in suspended animation.

  9. Part of your book is an attempt at a "musicology" of progressive rock. To what extent do you think it is possible to "define" prog, stylistically, and say what sort of rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and lyrics are, or aren’t, "prog"?
  10. Chapters 2-4 of Rocking the Classics are in fact an attempt to define prog stylistically, by pointing to the specific forms, instrumentation, rhythms, lyrics, etc. that serve to differentiate prog from other types of rock. I think that in terms of explaining the essential characteristics of "classic," 70s prog, my characterizations are quite successful. The thing is, though, that kind of characterization and classification can only be done posthumously–you can’t do it while the music is still developing. Therefore, the danger comes when someone tries to use those characteristics as a blueprint for creating progressive music today. That goes back to what I said earlier: you start with the idea you want to express, and the form the idea needs to take will come in and of itself. Trying to ape someone else’s style without understanding the idea that gave rise to the style isn’t going to produce anything very profound, in my view. Even if I wanted to produce a piece of music that was intended to explore the same idea as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony–the brotherhood of all humans–I would obviously need to express the idea in terms of my own era’s music, not his era’s, if I were to create something truly vital and meaningful. In my view, is the problem with a lot of contemporary neo-prog is that it puts the cart in front of the horse. Those musicians have copped some of the more obvious characteristic qualities of classic prog, but it becomes a recipe for creating some rather contrived music.

  11. How do you account for progressive rock’s enduring existence in spite of the almost total absence of media coverage? Would you say there is something unique, and uniquely strong, about the relationship between the music and its listeners, that makes them go through all the difficulty of searching for info, records, etc.?
  12. I believe progressive rock , whether of the 70s variety or more modern offshoots, still remains relevant for a lot of people because it is dealing with certain issues and is conveying certain attitudes that no longer have many other outlets. As I said at the conclusion of Rocking the Classics, I think one of the hallmarks of the 1990s is its prevailing cynicism. Progressive rock, I think, is all about constructing blueprints for different worlds, better worlds–it’s utopian–and this is true whether the music focuses on a utopia to come, like Yes’s, or rails on our current world’s shortcomings, like Van der Graaf Generator’s. In other words, progressive rock suggests that a better world is possible, and I think it’s a good antidote for contemporary cynicism. I definitely believe that’s one reason people respond to it. Furthermore, I think a crucial part of progressive music’s ideology is that music can be important, that music can change the world. Again, in today’s cynical world it’s hard to get the idea of art-as-transcendence off the ground. What a lot of the imbecile main-stream critics call progressive rock’s "pretentiousness" could just as easily be turned into a virtue–progressive rock is one of the few musics left in popular culture that is self-confident that it has something important to say. In this age of media homogeneity, I think a lot of prog fans appreciate the genre’s defense of individuality and its anti-conformity. Finally, the modern media machine seems less and less interested all the time with live music–in the sense of music that is produced by real musicians playing real instruments together in real time–and I think there are plenty of people that are still looking for the experience of real musicians working together, sweating together, mastering their instruments together, playing music that gives evidence of their teamwork and their mastery of their musical craft. For those people, prog is a godsend. I could get even deeper into this, but someone who wants to explore these issues more deeply ought to read the close of Rocking the Classics as well as pp. 272-280 of Bill Martin’s Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock.

  13. The history of the progressive rock genre is almost unanimously acknowledged–we generally agree on what bands were the most groundbreaking, influential, and talented . . . that is, until the late 70s, when prog was "banned" from the media. It’s much harder to do the same with what went on in the 1980s and 1990s (with the possible exception of the very early UK neo-progressive movement), that is, when prog became both an underground an international phenomenon. Your book makes no real attempt at a thorough study of the evolution of prog since the late 70s. Why? Because this is an impossible task? Which leads to a more general question: is musicology a science of the past, given the extremely complex and varied ways in which musicians influence each others in our modern "global" society, in contrast to the classical music era where there was usually one "official" line of artistic evolution?
  14. No, I don’t think it’s impossible at all. However, when I began writing Rocking the Classics in 1992, there was no scholarly or even halfway intelligent systematic history and analysis of progressive rock available. None. So it would have made no sense for me to write a book about contemporary prog when the story of prog’s formative years hadn’t even been written yet! For that reason, my goal in Rocking the Classics was to write the definitive history of prog’s early years in its "homeland"–a task which, while it may not have been as exalted as writing the definitive history of all prog in all places at all times, was a lot more realistic.

    As to writing the history of prog since the late 1970s, no, I don’t think it’s an impossible task, although I don’t envy the person who eventually takes up the challenge. The thing is, British neo-prog of the early 1980s was the last time that new prog was moving in one unified direction. From the mid 1980s on, there have been a number of currents of new prog running in tandem. The best proof of this today is opening up Progression or Expose and seeing the complimentary (or sometimes competing) coverage of neo-prog, prog metal, space prog, "new symphonic" prog, neo-zeuhl, neo-RIO, acoustic prog, etc. Another way of looking at it is that many of the major prog bands of the 1970s have spawned their own stylistic tributaries! So there has been a stylistic de-centralization of prog. Then there’s also its geographic de-centralization, where we now have a thinly spread fan base across much of the world–Europe, North America, South America, the Far East. So whoever wants to write a definitive history of prog after 1980 has quite a challenge ahead of them! To answer your final question above, I think musicology has developed away from its nineteenth century, European biases, and is becoming increasingly capable of grappling with the music that is coming out of our post-modern society. However, no matter what kind of musicological approach an author decides to adopt in attempting to chronicle the development and significance of contemporary prog, I think it might be more realistic for them to break their study down, and write about it by country, by chronological period, or by sub-style.

  15. Progressive rock has survived, supported by an underground network, and spread to the world outside the UK, resulting in countless variants of the progrock idiom–France, Germany, Brazil, etc., all have a very typical blend of prog that integrates local "colors." Is prog a much more adaptable and flexible idiom than many seem to think?
  16. Yes. And, to bring this interview full circle, that is one of the main goals of Hermetic Science–to offer one example of how the prog envelope might profitably be stretched by drawing on instruments and styles outside of the "classic" prog orbit.

  17. What is your perception of the current prog scene? What are, in your opinion, the bands that currently bring something new and valid to the prog idiom?
  18. I think that the internet, the fanzines, and the burgeoning festival circuit have given the progressive rock culture a unity and a sense of interconnectedness that it hasn’t had since the 1970s. As far as the musical health of the scene, I think it’s more of a mixed bag, and I doubt I’ll make any friends with what I’m about to say. As I’ve argued in Rocking the Classics and throughout this interview, I’m totally convinced that the desire on the part of some to keep the classic prog style alive in a state of pristine, unchanging perfection is, in the long run, the quickest way to kill the music, by rendering it a historical curiosity, of nostalgic value only, with no real connection to the times in which we now live. While I had some sympathy for neo-prog in the 1980s–that particular movement did keep prog alive during a very difficult time–I think it has served its purpose. I never felt the neoprog style was a very rich or rewarding musical style to begin with, and I think it is a lot less susceptible to repetition and development than 70s prog. For that reason, I’m astonished how many bands still want to copy and attempt to "develop" the style of Marillion, etc. Likewise, I don’t have much interest in what I call "new symphonic" prog–bands that take the most obvious elements of 70s prog and update it with new equipment (digital keyboards, etc.) and better production values. Here I’m talking about bands like Spock’s Beard or The Flower Kings. I suppose they’re very good musicians and they put on a good live show, but I find nothing that’s really vital in their music: to be honest, most of it sounds rather stale and unimaginative to me. I maintain the same essential opinion I voiced in Rocking the Classics: the most interesting and exciting bands of the last decade have, by and large, been those that have been willing to explore new directions. Most of them have been instrumental: I suppose because they haven’t had any chance for pop airplay, they’ve been willing to take more chances. Among the song-oriented bands I very much respect Anekdoten, who have done some really interesting things in terms of merging aspects of prog and alternative, although not all their music is to my taste. I do think it’s important for progressive music to stay open to contemporary trends in popular music, even if not all the attempts to "update" prog are particularly rewarding. I still think that for a number of years Ozric Tentacles were a really vital band, although it seems they’re beginning to repeat themselves now. I still like a lot of Djam Karet’s music–I think Suspension and Displacement is a classic of its genre. I think Xaal were a great band, and I was very sorry they broke up when they did: their fusion of zeuhl, symphonic, and Arab styles was fascinating, I thought. I have a lot of respect for the two Anglagard albums, especially the second, although I recognize they are a major exception to what I’ve been talking about here, because they did succeed in taking that "classic" 70s sound and did something very, very distinctive and individual with it. And, at the risk of sounding a bit self-serving here, I think the debut Hermetic Science CD was really innovative in terms of exploring the boundaries of a largely acoustic instrumentation and drawing on aspects of spatial jazz and ethnic music to create a kind of "minimalist prog." It has been very frustrating for me to see how wedded some of the major prog labels and prog distributors are to the more traditional, mainstream types of prog. I won’t name any names, but I think you can guess whom I’m talking about. I’m totally convinced there is an audience for newer types of prog. Unfortunately, many of the prog labels won’t release anything that’s too far afield from either 70s prog or 80s neo-prog, and many distributors won’t distribute anything they can’t easily pigeonhole, so it can be really hard for someone (Hermetic Science, for instance) who is doing something new to make their music readily available to prog customers. Considering how the owners of certain prog labels have railed on the major labels for not touching prog, their own mindset is disturbingly conservative and unprogressive. It tends to discourage innovation. One thing I’ve noticed–and I’m probably not going to make any friends by saying this, either–is that as a rule the 70s artists with a jazz orientation have remained much fresher and more vital than those who were closely tied to symphonic prog. For instance, Bill Bruford’s Earthworks is a marvelously inventive band–I think their output compares very favorably to his fusion work of the late 1970s–and some of Terje Rypdal’s recent releases, like If Mountains Could Sing, compare very favorably to his best releases of the 1970s. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone in their right mind is going to argue that Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, etc. have been getting better and better in the 1980s and 1990s!