It was a wonderful occasion to be able to communicate with the The Psychedelic Ensemble over the last few weeks. Ever since last year when I first reviewed his third album, The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, I have been a big fan of his spectacularly crafted symphonic rock wizardry, even to the point of giving him a nomination for best keyboard work in last years’ Proggies. A man who comes across as both humble and intellectual, The Pyschedelic Ensemble had lots to say regarding his album in progress, orchestra recordings, progressive rock’s role in university studies, and of course, his previous works. I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did.
P: In your music I hear a very intricate blend of prog, folk, and fusion, to the point where it’s very difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Rather than being music that tries to mix and match from each style, the various genres all seem to overlap each other in ways that seem very natural, not forced at all. Could you tell us a little about your approach to blending styles and genres in the music of TPE?
TPE: When I combine styles–prog, fusion, folk, or classical– I am recognizing my place in the stream of my own musical history I suspect. All of these styles influenced my musical development at some point in time, so they find their way into my musical language.
Regarding my “approach to blending styles,” I unify all of the pieces on an album by using and transforming the principal themes in each piece. I guess the different styles seem to belong together because they are unified thematically and harmonically.
It’s true that one finds folk and fusion influences, as you mentioned, in several cuts from my three albums. “Strange Days,” from the recent album, opens with folk-like influences but soon transforms itself into heavy prog. On The Myth of Dying, The “Realm of the Skeptics” certainly sounds like folk music at the surface, but in that song, some tricky guitar and keyboard passages suggest progressive music. And fusion shows itself, but infrequently I think, in tracks like “Beyond the Light” from The Myth of Dying and “Panic” from The Art of Madness.
P: In terms of your latest album, how would you classify your music, stylistically speaking? What specific influences or techniques did you see yourself going to on the record?
TPE: On the latest album, The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, I believe the musical style is best defined as symphonic prog. It seems to me this album is more unified stylistically than my two previous albums. I’m not suggesting the unified style of the recent album is an improvement of the previous albums, nor was it something I set out to do. It’s just the way that album wanted to develop. There are, however, two tracks on The Dream of the Magic Jongleur that are influenced by classical style and compositional approach. “The Benefaction of the Noble Wizard” is an organ work that includes imitation and fugal principles. “Magicking” is a solo guitar work that employs classical guitar technique. Both of these tracks, despite their classical orientation, borrow themes and motives from the other tracks on the album. They are tightly integrated with the other progressive cuts, in other words. Perhaps that, in part, is why these classical-like tracks don’t seem unnatural or “forced.” The reuse of themes from track to track is also used on the earlier albums, The Art of Madness and The Myth of Dying.
But you know, the blending of styles in progressive music isn’t anything new, of course. One thinks, for example, of the Yes album, Fragile. There we hear “Mood for a Day,” a classical guitar piece, “Cans and Brahms,” a work influenced by the great 19th-century classical composer, Johannes Brahms. Other tracks by Yes come to mind that employ folk-like style—“Your Move,” for example, seems very folk-like to me. Jethro Tull employed folk style as well in “Mother Goose,” for instance. ELP borrowed the thematic and harmonic material from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. The influence of classical music resides at the core of early prog. That, in part, is what made the music “progressive.” I could go on and on, especially if we invite classical music to this discussion. Bach’s keyboard suites employ dance forms from different countries that had very different sensibilities about musical style. But Bach found a way to reconcile these differences by imposing his compositional voice.
P: Could you tell us a little bit of how you seek to portray your albums’ concepts by employing certain musical approaches?
TPE: All three albums employ concepts that often suggest different styles. In “The Devil’s Lament,” for instance, from The Myth of Dying, the devil mourns having lost a soul who escapes from hell. It seemed fitting to include a blues to reflect the devil’s anger and disappointment. Although a blues, the song uses a 15/8 meter at times, and includes some complex passages that are far from old-fashioned blues and, instead, quite progressive. So, returning to my point, the concepts of each album traverse different terrains as the plot develops; so too does the music. So, the concept can suggest or even dictate musical style, I guess. That seems compositionally reasonable, right?
P: I hear a very distinct stylistic shift between your first album The Art of Madness, which had a sort of Floydian feel to the atmosphere, and your second and third albums, The Myth of Dying and The Dream of the Magic Jongleur.
TPE: The first album was unintentional, so to speak. It was written, performed, recorded, and packaged in just three months. Initially I had no thoughts about releasing it. But I had always wanted to write a concept piece, and when The Art of Madness was finished, I liked it and shopped it around. I was offered several record deals and decided to release it on Musea. You are right that there is a tremendous emphasis on atmosphere in The Art of Madness. I tried very hard to delve into the realm of madness and what that state of mind might be like. The second and third albums, on the other hand, are more focused on the performance and composition.
Now, regarding “Floydian feel,” yes the mad laughter and solemn mood are reminiscent of The Dark Side of the Moon, I guess. But a few critics insisted this album was just a replication of Pink Floyd. The Art of Madness includes so many tracks that are unlike anything Pink Floyd produced. The track, “Apparition,” for flute, harp, and cello uses Baroque canonic techniques. Several tracks from the album—“Panic,” “Breakdown,” and parts of “Revelation”–are hardcore fusion cuts. “Delusion” is an avant-garde work based on the electro-acoustic music of Stockhausen and Varese. “Dream” is a solo acoustic guitar piece that loosely borrows classical and flamenco-style guitar technique. I know of no Pink Floyd cuts that are similar to these. Consider the tremendous differences in instrumentation too. Look, I can’t tell people what to hear in my music, nor would I want to, but what I hear on The Art of Madness is quite distinct from Floyd other than a few surface elements or “feel,” as you put it.
P: I would agree with you very much on that point. Either way, I think you really grounded your own very unique voice on the latter two albums, which are characterized by a strong melodic interplay between instruments and a sound that to me sounds completely The Psychedelic Ensemble; as I previously mentioned, it’s a kind of uncanny merging of fusion, folk, and prog that is really cool. What inspired the shift in songwriting between the first and second albums? Was it really intentional, or did it kind of just happen to turn out that way and become the sound you would adopt from then on?
TPE: After the interest expressed by listeners and critics about The Art of Madness, I decided to create another album and provided more information, so to speak, about my musical interests as a composer and performer. This, in part, prompted both The Myth of Dying and The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. If you knew my other work outside of The Psychedelic Ensemble project, you would find it to be very similar to TPE music. So, I would agree with you that the last two albums are more from my true voice.
P: Out of the various instruments you play on the TPE albums, which is the one that you enjoy playing the most and what is it that you enjoy about that particular instrument?
TPE: Hmm. You know, my first instrument was drums and percussion. I was a pretty good fusion drummer, if I may say so. But my real love is the piano and the guitar. Which of the two instruments is my favorite? It changes by the day. It’s like my favorite Beatles’ song: if you ask me today, I might say “A Day in the Life”; tomorrow, “Norwegian Wood.” Which of the two instruments–keyboard or guitar– I like most depends on which is giving me the most trouble at any given moment. There, parenthetically, is an insight to my psychology! If I encounter problems at the keyboard with something–let’s say, something regarding left-hand technique–then all of my attention and enthusiasm is drawn to the keyboard and working out those technical issues. On the other hand, if I encounter problems on the guitar–let’s say right-hand technique and picking at very fast speeds across strings–then the guitar occupies the center of my attention.
In the end, I suspect guitar has always been my favorite instrument. That is probably because I had to work harder on guitar technique. The squeaky wheel got the attention. Besides, girls always prefer guitarists to keyboardists! (Laughs)
P: Do you play any other instruments that don’t appear on TPE albums?
TPE: Yes! I play a mean harmonica and ukulele. (Laughs) But those instruments don’t find their way into the musical environment of The Psychedelic Ensemble. Not yet anyway.
P: In your Empire Magazine interview from July you stated that there was originally a tour planned for northeast and west coast USA during fall 2012 but that it would be pushed back to spring 2013. I know that you have been suffering from some health problems recently; is there still plans/hope of a 2013 tour at this point? I would love to see a TPE performance in the San Francisco Bay area.
TPE: Unfortunately, 2013 will not see a TPE tour. My health won’t permit it. As you mentioned, I’ve had a series of recent and devastating health problems–heart attacks, surgeries, you name it.
My small, but devoted staff and I spent a lot of hours working on arranging a tour for fall of 2012. Practical issues pushed the tour plans back to 2013. Last summer I became seriously ill and had to undergo surgery, from which I am still recovering. I was forced to abandon plans for a tour. I had hoped to do three concerts on the west coast—L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle—as well as concerts in the northeast.
I think, and my doctors concur, the road is a thing I need to leave in my past. But we’ll see. Perhaps, in time, a tour will materialize.
P: We would love to hear about the fourth TPE album. Could you tell us a bit about the concept, what inspired this particular album, and any other cool details you might share?
TPE: The fourth album, like my previous albums, is a concept. I’m sorry, but the music and concept are very much a work in progress, so I don’t want to provide much detail about the story yet. The details of the concept change a little every day as the music progresses and suggests changes to the story. I will tell you that the concept is a fantasy set in an earlier historical period; however, there are multiple allegories in the concept that apply to our period in history. I apologize for not being more forthcoming about the details–sorry.
P: I understand that there will be extensive use of chamber orchestra on the new album. Have you already recorded with them?
TPE: Yes, but there is still much recording to be done over the next six or more months. It is a ton of work. First, I have to compose all of the music—both electric TPE sections and the orchestral music. Then I have to write the orchestral score, then prepare the parts for each instrument–flute, oboe, bassoon, brass, strings, and so on. I then have to organize sessions with the orchestral musicians. The scheduling is a nightmare. Finally, I have to oversee the recording sessions. Oh, and of course, I have to write, perform, and record all of the electric instruments. It’s overwhelming sometimes.
P: I would imagine it can get quite stressful, although I’m sure it will be very rewarding in the end. Speaking of the chamber orchestra, what do you see as its role in your music and in what ways do you think they will affect the sound of TPE?
TPE: The role of the orchestra is at times just another layer in the typical TPE sound. There are occasions where the orchestra is featured, though, without the electric instruments–guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums. You know, it’s interesting, while I was recording the last two albums I often envisioned the many layers of sound–multiple synths and keyboards, multiple guitars, and so forth–as an orchestra. This is what prompted me to include orchestra on the new album. If you listen carefully to all three albums, the textures are very dense. There are sometimes 12 or more instruments playing. This is somewhat analogous to an orchestra. And by the way, that is the reason why the moniker, The Psychedelic Ensemble, includes the term “ensemble.” Rather than a small band, I envisioned the music as a large “group” of performers or instruments, not just a four-piece band, so to speak.
P: In that sense the band name is very fitting indeed; honestly one thing that I’ve loved so much about your recordings is the detail you put into layering everything, making sure that nothing sounds thin, so to say. Regarding the orchestra, has recording with them/planning on recording with them influenced you to write music in a very distinctive style from what you’ve done in the past or should we expect something in the vein of previous albums?
TPE: I don’t think you’ll find much difference in style between the new album and the last album, The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. But the orchestra magnifies the symphonic prog idiom of the previous album and brings an incredible energy and new level of sound to The Psychedelic Ensemble project. I think this will be the best TPE album to date.
P: I know that you’ve taught composition and orchestration at the university level, and I was wondering, what role do you see progressive rock having in university level performance and/or scholarship? I know that there have been a number of scholarly studies on progressive rock on one hand (of various quality levels), but on the other hand there are some who see such things as popular music studies (if you could call prog ‘popular’ music) as having significantly less importance when compared to studying classical or jazz. What are your thoughts on this topic?
TPE: Well, I see you’ve done your homework! Indeed, I have taught composition, orchestration, and counterpoint at several major universities. I must say that each institution at which I’ve taught provided courses that addressed jazz and popular music. But I never heard of a program that included specific prog-rock performance studies or a specific course regarding the history of progressive rock. I’m not claiming there aren’t programs out there that do offer these studies, but I don’t know of any such programs.
P: So, you think doing prog at the university level would work?
TPE: I certainly believe that progressive rock is a genre that deserves a course of study. I recently spoke to a university official who asked me to teach recording technology at his institution. I proposed to him that I would accept a position where I could hand pick five really talented young players–a guitarist, a keyboardist, a bassist, a drummer, and a singer. These five musicians would enter the graduate program with the understanding that they would form an ensemble, just like a graduate string quartet, but they would write and perform progressive rock music. The idea I pitched is that I would oversee the writing, rehearsing, and recording of the group’s music. By the end of their graduate studies, the five student musicians would go through all of the procedures necessary to release their album–copyrighting, packaging, distributing, and all of the other post-production issues associated with a record release. We’ll see what turns up. We are still negotiating.
P: Amazing! I hope it works out for you. Honestly, I would have loved to see a program with that kind of direction and I definitely hope you will keep me posted on how things develop in these negotiations. I think Chris Cutler’s (from Henry Cow) statement in the latest Rock in Opposition documentary is very revealing, when he says that he realized that rock as a form offered a lot of potential, that they could show that it wasn’t just a throw-away sort of form. In that vein, I think its incorporation into the university is not only plausible, but necessary.
TPE: Oh, listen there is a lot to be learned from progressive rock music. Academics or classical musicians who might criticize this style of music clearly don’t know prog from the inside. I’ll speak to the older bands—ELP, Yes, Gentle Giant—these guys can really play, man. If you get to the core of what these musicians were playing and how they played it, you realize there is a lot to be learned there. When I think of the impeccable sense of musical time demonstrated by Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, it is certainly comparable to notable classical musicians. Keith Emerson’s technique, too, certainly rivals many of the well-known classical pianists. From the perspective of technique, progressive rock demands incredible musicianship and training.
On another note, but related to your question, I’m not proposing that there isn’t a performance practice in prog, but it has not been, as you said earlier, documented like classical performance practice. Do you know how much literature and documentation about Baroque performance practice exists? It’s overwhelming. Every year there are workshops worldwide devoted to Baroque performance practice, for example. How are dynamics, bowing, articulation, et cetera, to be understood and performed in Baroque music? These questions have been under consideration by historians and scholars since the Baroque. And the answers seem to change by the day. My point is that musicians working in the field of progressive music need to develop an analogous investigation. And the investigation needs to be shared through documentation, discussion, and workshops.
P: Indeed, which means we’re going to need lots of prog fans who are interested in academia and who aren’t afraid to promote this style of music. Obviously, there’s been a few. I’m thinking right now how a number of scholars have sought to theorize the sound of prog, but more from a critical listening and structural perspective than anything. What particular challenges, if any, do you see in theorizing prog in terms of articulating standard performance aesthetic and techniques? Is it too compositionally inclusive to be prescriptive given that prog has always been a melting pot of genres, be it classical, avant-garde, jazz, world, etc., or do you think its inclusive nature would make it easier to theorize? I apologize for the drawn out question, but I would like to hear your thoughts.
TPE: Let me first address your question about theory. I don’t really see any aspects of progressive music that cannot be explained or analyzed using conventional music theory. So the tools for approaching progressive music from a scholarly or theoretical perspective already exist. So you are right—we simply need scholars who will devote their attention to this genre. You know, at the surface, harmony and counterpoint may appear different in the music of, let’s say, Mozart and Mahler. But at the heart of this music is the same underlying principles of harmony and what is called “species counterpoint,” which dates back to the Renaissance. The same is true of good progressive rock music. At its foundation are the same age-old principles of music theory. I would welcome a debate with any academic about this notion.
Now, regarding what you termed the “inclusive nature” of prog, which often combines styles—well, gee, if the inclusive nature of prog makes it ineligible for scholarly study or theoretical explanation, then we better reconsider Debussy’s music that borrowed musical principles from the Middle Ages and included these principles in his late nineteenth-century style. How about Bartok who incorporated Hungarian folk music? Or what of Alban Berg, often hailed as the greatest opera composer of the twentieth-century, who employed medieval isorhythmic technique in his opera, Wozzeck? Look, the history of Western art music—classical music—is a gigantic “melting pot” to use your term. The innovations of Beethoven owed much to his predecessor, Haydn. And on and on it went. Progressive rock is in the stream of music history and deserves a place in music scholarship.
By the way, did you know there was a progressive rock symposium held last year, I believe, at the University of Cologne? I was told that it was a multi-day event with lectures by professors from around Europe. I know someone who attended the symposium. I will gather up details from him and later share them with you.
P: I actually wasn’t aware of the symposium, although I would gladly receive any information/details that you have on its proceedings and lectures. Thanks so much, I’m very excited to hear more. Well, I suppose it’s about time to wrap things up. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us and our readership in closing? It’s been wonderful getting to know you a bit over the past few weeks and I want to thank you so much for the time you’ve spent with us and your honest and insightful opinions.
TPE: I would like to thank you, Matt, and Progulator, for your interest in my music and conducting this interview. I loved your line of questioning, by the way. Many thanks to you and everyone reading this who has taken time to listen to my music.