Surfing the net a few years ago I ran into an American artist who calls himself The Psychedelic Ensemble. The name, understandably, made me listen to his music, but what I discovered was truly unexpected. This guy played progressive rock, but not in the way some former metalheads do it after they've seen the Light. Also not in the way some show-offs with mediocre talent do it. The prog rock of The Psychedelic Ensemble was something entirely convincing, magical and unique, blowing clean 70s air through my sound system. The ultimate revival! It gave you the impression that you had unearthed some forgotten prog masterpiece from the legendary days of old. Really creative, inspired music with the quality you hear in the old records of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Caravan or Gentle Giant. As a natural consequence of my discovery, although I was seemingly the only person on planet Greece who had discovered him (a situation not entirely unknown to me during my tenure in the music press) , I decided to follow his progress fanatically. And I was fully rewarded, because all four discs he has so far released - 'The Art of Madness' (2009), 'The Myth of Dying' (2010), 'The Dream of the Magic Jongleur' (2011) and 'The Tale of the Golden King' (2013) - are unique magical worlds, different from one another but sending your mind on a trip to the time when rock music was the true avant-garde.
Interview with Pierluigi Daglio (Rome, Italy)
Hello Pierluigi. Thank you for taking time to interview me. It’s a great honor to address my music in Italy.
Can you please introduce yourself to the Italian fans of progressive music?
I am a composer primarily and have had a long and successful career in classical music. My music is performed by leading artists around the world and on major concert stages, like Carnegie Hall and so forth. I have also been deeply involved in progressive music and fusion for over 30 years.
How would you like to be perceived by Italian people keen on music?
I guess I would like to be perceived by listeners as a composer and performer who made a meaningful contribution to progressive music. It is my hope that listeners find something consequential in my music.
Your music ranges from symphonic progressive rock to classical with some incursions into jazz fusion. What is your musical background and which bands or musicians influence your musical compositions?
I grew up in the 60s and became deeply fascinated by the music that was emerging. Bands like The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and many others completely captured my attention. I began playing guitar, piano, drums, and other instruments at a very early age. In the 70s, I began playing progressive music and fusion with different bands. Later, while still performing, I earned three degrees in composition, including a doctorate. Since the 70s I’ve worked in the music industry as a performer, composer, arranger, producer, and engineer. I’ve also taught orchestration, studio techniques, and composition at several major universities in the U.S.
My musical influences are very varied. I am certainly influenced by rock music from the heyday, but also progressive music and fusion from the 70s. I have long been a fan of Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Joe Zawinul, Larry Coryell, and other fusion guys. I also have a deep love of classical music, particularly music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 20th century—Stravinsky and Schoenberg, for example. Electronic music from the avant-garde has influenced my work as well. I guess that covers a lot of musical ground.
Do you really play all the instruments in your albums?
Yes, I play all of the instruments and also sing most of the material. There are a few exceptions. On The Myth of Dying I have a guest violinist who also appears on The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. I’m not much of a fiddle player. On the latest album, The Tale of the Golden King, there is a full orchestra and Ann Karen contributes lead and backing vocals throughout. Otherwise, I play everything including exotic instruments such as cigar box guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, and some odd percussion instruments.
Your four albums so far are all concept albums. Why this tough choice? Is it a special challenge for you?
I was trained in composition to unify and develop my musical ideas from movement to movement or section to section. In other words, if one writes a four-movement string quartet, for example, the movements should use the same material in transformed ways and therefore unify the entire composition. This is nothing new, of course. It has been going on in composition for centuries. So in my progressive music I try to unify all of the tracks on the album by reusing motives and themes but always changing their character. It seems to follow that the lyrics for the songs should be unified too. And that leads to a concept wherein each song on the album is a participant in a large-scale drama.
This is a challenge for me both musically and lyrically. I have to create a story or concept and then create lyrics and music that unfold the inherent drama of the concept. It is much more difficult than, let’s say, writing an album where the tracks have nothing to do with each other. At least it is more difficult for me.
All of your albums seem to be a trip inside unexplored territory. Is it like that? Why this unconventional choice?
Exploring unusual musical and dramatic terrain really excites me. All of the concepts are, like you say, a trip or journey through other worlds. In The Art of Madness it is a journey into the psyche of a disturbed artist. In The Myth of Dying it is a journey along side a departed poet who roams through the afterlife. The Dream of the Magic Jongleur is a journey into the magical dreams of a roving musician, the “Jongleur”. When I finished that album, by the way, I actually kind of missed the ole Jongleur! Now the new album, The Tale of the Golden King, explores an enchanted medieval kingdom and is based on sleeping hero and mountain king stories from the Middle Ages. I love inventing the music and concepts. It’s fun and a challenging endeavor.
In particular what would you like to highlight with your last record “The Tale of the Golden King”?
What I would like to point out about The Tale of the Golden King is the way the album flows from one track to the next without seams. It is like one 72-minute song. Also the orchestral sections bring a new dimension to The Psychedelic Ensemble project. It is difficult to bring electric instruments and full orchestra together, but I am happy with the results.
Your music is complex and structurally well constructed, sometimes sophisticated. How difficult is the creation of this kind of music? Does it come out spontaneously or is it the result of long recording sessions?
Sometimes the music comes quickly and without much effort, but most of the time it requires a lot of work and a lot of reworking of material. The trick is to make sure the listener can never sense the compositional struggles a work might have imposed on me. I have to find, in the end, solutions that work and feel quite natural. Sometimes that takes time.
All of my music takes a long time to record. I have my own studio and I play all the instruments and record and mix the music myself. It is a time intensive process to say the least. It may take a month or more to record a single track because I am writing, performing, recording, and mixing all at once. Also, if one listens carefully, many tracks include two or three keyboards, two or three guitars, four-part vocal harmonies, bass, drums, and a multitude of other instruments. I have to write the music for each instrument, work on it a bit so I can play it well, and then record and mix the music.
How do your compositions originate? Do you start always from one instrument like keyboard, for example, and then you add all the other parts?
I begin all of The Psychedelic Ensemble music with either a guitar or a keyboard. I begin working out a theme or melody on one of those instruments. I then record that section of music and then begin adding other instruments one at a time. I work through the entire composition that way. In other words, I don’t write the entire keyboard part, then the entire guitar part, and so on. I work back and forth between different instruments.
One exception to this process is the orchestra music from The Tale of the Golden King. Those sections were composed sitting at my studio desk and writing with pencil and staff paper.
What is the importance of the vocal parts in your compositions? Are they fundamental or do you consider them as an add-on to the music?
Unlike many bands, vocals in my music tend to be treated simply as another instrument in the layers of sound. With the lyrics, vocals serve to advance the plot of the concept too. I don’t mean that the vocals are unimportant but the emphasis on most tracks is on the instrumental sections. On the other hand, I carefully craft the vocals using polyphony, imitation, choral effects, and sometimes up to six simultaneous voices. The vocals are often a complex part of the arrangements.
Do you know Italian progressive music of the seventies? Is there any group that inspired or influenced your music?
Yes, I know some of the Italian progressive groups from the 70s. Of course I know PFM. Those guys are incredible. I recently watched part of a live video they made not long ago. It blew my mind--great musicianship, great compositions. Those guys can flat out play. I would love to record a track with PFM.
Do you know any modern Italian neo-progressive groups?
Honestly, no. At least I don’t know any Italian bands from the “neo-progressive” genre. I do know a few of the bands that are playing fusion and symphonic rock. They are amazing. I find in Italian prog so much musical passion, which I love. It is what I try to create in my own music. Over the centuries Italian music has always been passionate and emotional, never cold or merely calculated. I think that tradition has continued in Italian prog and fusion. But to be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of music these days because I am so busy writing and recording. I’m sure there are many amazing bands in Italy I need to investigate.
In “The Tale of the Golden King” there are bucolic and sweet parts opposed to dramatic and dark parts. What about this dualism?
I find that some progressive music attends to only one sensibility, but I believe music should attend to many different sensibilities. This is a common attribute in all great music. Think, for example, of the Beethoven symphonies or string quartets. Within each work one experiences so many different moods and emotions. I wouldn’t dare compare my music to Beethoven’s, but I try to follow his method of viewing his musical materials from different dramatic perspectives.
All of the TPE albums traverse different terrains and the protagonists in the concepts experience different emotional states. We learn something new about each character in each song. The queen, for instance, in The Tale of the Golden King sings a song of great sorrow—“The Queen of Sorrow”—and then a song of great joy—“Great Day”. So different emotional states are seen in her character.
Arrangements on this record are really impressive. Are you also arranging all the tracks?
Yes, I write, arrange, and orchestrate all of my music. I created all of the orchestrations for the orchestra on The Tale of the Golden King. Thank you for noticing the arrangements. I spend a great deal of time considering the structure of each track and the structure of the album and carefully arrange the music with many layers of sound.
The vocal style often reminds me of the vocals found on 70s Yes albums. Isn’t that the case? Why this choice?
Well, if that is the case, it is unintentional. Yes used a lot of classical vocal techniques like imitation and polyphony. I do too. Perhaps that is what creates similarities.
Some organ parts show influences from the ELP style. Can you comment?
I was asked this question during a live interview on the International Prog Rock Show and I remarked that it is hard to play a B3 organ in complex, fast prog and not connect to Keith Emerson. I’ve always enjoyed Keith’s playing and admire his technique. I guess my admiration for his style and technique shows through.
“The Tale of the Golden King” is one of the best progressive albums of 2013 and I think many Italian fans appreciated it. Are you already planning a new work in 2014?
Thank you for the compliment. Well, actually, I have two albums in the making. I don’t know if both will be released in 2014, but I will certainly release one of the albums this year. Both are concepts, but of a very different sort. We’ll see which I finish first. Also one of the albums will include some surprises.
Probably the sophistication of TPE music is not for everyone but for music experts and progressive rock fans. Can you comment about that?
I think that is true. My music isn’t for everybody. I find though that listeners who like complex progressive music tend to like my music. My music challenges the listener both from the musical perspective and the conceptual perspective as well. It is demanding of the listener. To fully understand it I believe one needs to listen to the complete album, not just a track here and a track there because the tracks are connected and form a single musical thought. Also, my music moves from symphonic prog to fusion to classical to folk prog. Some listeners just can’t make the connections and want the music to fit nicely into a single prog category. I’m not interested in that.
Do you want to tell something special to TPE Italian fans?
Yes, I would like to thank listeners in Italy for supporting my music, particularly The Tale of the Golden King, which has attracted a lot of attention in your wonderful country. I’d like to add that Italian music, particularly Italian contemporary classical music, has had a tremendous influence on my music. I have forever been a fan of Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, and Luigi Dallapiccola. Their work and musical ideology has significantly shaped my musical output. I am of Italian heritage, so perhaps my love of Italian music is simply in my blood.
His latest album, 'The Tale of the Golden King', took him double the time to complete and goes beyond any of his previous efforts. It utilizes a full classical orchestra and classical soloists and I think that maybe in the future it'll rank among the most characteristic records under the article "symphonic rock" in the great rock encyclopedia. Wild Thing is familiar with the 'theory' that supposedly prog rock is outdated dinosaur business, a 'theory' that goes strong even in our days, but we give little attention to various misconceptions that still circulate the rock crowd. We felt that this time we needed to introduce The Psychedelic Ensemble to you properly. The interview with the artist below will hopefully inform you about his story and will get you started to look for his releases. They're worth it.
Wild Thing: Correct me if I'm wrong but you haven't revealed your identity. It's the first time you're going to be 'exposed' to readers in my part of the world; so I have to ask - why? Is there a concept behind this? Do you plan to change this at some point in the future?
The Psychedelic Ensemble: Having worked in the music industry for over 30 years, I've grown so tired of image. Often it seems one's image is more important than one's music. I wanted my music to stand on its own two feet. So I decided to release the music anonymously under the moniker of 'The Psychedelic Ensemble'. I am not interested in personal fame or fortune, just the music. It is truly that simple.
Will I ever release my identity? I guess, if people really want to know, but only when The Psychedelic Ensemble project is finished.
WT: Excuse me for asking but how old are you? What's your story and musical background? I think you have been 'properly' educated in music and that you have what people call a 'classical' music training. Have you played with any rock bands in the past?
TPE: I'm in my 50s according to the calendar, but in my mind I'm 22. Ha! And, yes, I have been classically trained in composition and piano and hold a doctoral degree in composition.
I grew up in the 60s playing rock music. When I was quite young I had a Silvertone guitar, a Ludwig drum set, and a piano in the house. I took lessons on all three instruments. By the time I reached high school I began playing progressive rock and fusion with some older guys. We had a very successful band in the late 70s and early 80s. I then played with a few other bands in the 80s and 90s. I also have done session work and still do when I have time.
WT: Dealing with 'identity' issues, why did you decide to call your project 'The Psychedelic Ensemble' when your music can clearly be placed into the 'progressive rock' genre (as the term has been used after the 70s)? Does the word 'psychedelic' contain any special meaning that you value? Or is it a code of some sort?
TPE: To tell you the truth, I regret titling the project 'The Psychedelic Ensemble'. Too late now! (laughs) The concept of the first album, The Art of Madness, is psychedelic, or so it seems to me. The protagonist delves into the world of madness and experiences delusions comparable to a psychedelic experience. So I thought the project name was appropriate. At that time, I had no intentions of releasing additional albums with this project. Had I know other albums would follow I would have chosen a different 'band' name. By the way and for the record, I do not subscribe to psychedelics. I get lots of email from people who believe I advocate the use of psychedelics. I don't. I've seen too many people who didn't return from those experiences. Besides, I'm far out enough already!
WT: Being an American rock musician, your music has a very European 'quality' about it. It's really an incredible comeback of classic 70s prog; not so Canterbury, RIO or kraut but certainly ELP, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant and the like. American art rock had understandably a different, more 'folk-based' quality (by 'folk' I don't just mean folk, but also jazz, blues, gospel, world, etc.). How come your sound as TPE is so European?
TPE: Well, progressive music of the 70s had a tremendous impact on my musical development. The principal bands of that time - Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant, Genesis, et al. - were, of course, European. That music is in my blood. It shows itself in my classical work as well, which employs complex rhythm, harmony, and polyphony.
WT: All four of TPE's albums so far are concept works. Is the inspiration behind them of a philosophical, spiritual or even political nature? The Tale of the Golden King tells a medieval fiction type of story; are there any underlying ideas behind it which are applicable in the modern world?
TPE: Yes, all of the concepts have political, philosophical, or sociological allegories. In The Tale of the Golden King, the great king is turned to gold by the gods with the promise that in the kingdom's time of need the king will rise to save the people - like in many medieval sleeping hero tales. But when a calamity befalls the kingdom and its people, the king doesn’t rise. What then? The people of the kingdom are left to fend for themselves. There is a political message that we depend too much on political leaders or government to save us. I believe we the people should take control of our plight and save ourselves. There is also an allegory regarding Christianity afloat in the concept. I'll let the listeners figure out that one.
WT: In the process of time, TPE seems to undertake more and more bold projects. The Tale features a small orchestra! I believe there's an incredible amount of work if one writes the score for an orchestra. Also a significant cost. Having in mind that nowadays prog fans (excluding prog metal that I personally don’t count as 'prog') are basically a small worldwide community, has the promotion and acceptance of TPE so far been able to support these ambitious undertakings?
TPE: Has the project been able to support the production costs of The Tale? Well... no. Ha! The production of The Tale of the Golden King was monumental - a full orchestra, conductor, orchestral recording sessions, and more. Jon, the conductor, and I literally hand picked each member of the orchestra. We approached the best orchestral players in town and we got them! And yes, it is a tremendous amount of work to create all of the orchestra scores and play all of the electric instruments. Also I record it all myself in my studio.
Regarding the cost, I have invested a great deal of money in this project. But getting back to my earlier point, I'm not in it for the money or fame. It's all about making music that I feel I need to make. Don't get me wrong, I hope the music sells, but that is second to my hope that the music is widely disseminated and enjoyed by listeners.
WT: Tell us a few words about the musicians you have utilized in The Tale: the vocalist Ann Caren, the orchestra conductor Jonathan Roberts and other soloists. How did you find them and decide to work with them?
TPE: I decided to include a few tracks featuring a female voice as 'the queen' on The Tale of the Golden King. I considered a few singers I had worked with in the past, but they didn't quite have the sound I was looking for. By chance, I heard a performance by Ann Caren. Immediately I knew I had found the voice for the queen. One of my assistants contacted Ann and she agreed to contribute to the album. Ann and I worked very closely for nearly a year on the album. Ann made fantastic contributions to the album both as a lead singer and backing vocalist. She's a keeper!
The conductor, Jonathan, I've known for some years from my work in classical music. Jon is a fabulous conductor and also an engineer. He seemed the perfect fit for the project. After a great deal of discussion, we decided Jon would record and conduct the orchestra, which eliminated a lot of work for me. He has a meticulous ear and the results he obtained from the orchestra are incredible - not an easy task.
There are two other guests on the album. Kurt Fowler contributes a cello solo on "The Queen of Sorrow". I've known Kurt for about 20 years and have worked extensively with him. He has played with leading orchestras and chamber ensembles in the U.S. The other guest, C. Francis - a pseudonym - contributes an incredible falsetto as a kind of 'leitmotif' throughout the album. He has an incredible falsetto voice - one of the best in the business.
WT: In the artwork of your albums a generally successful effort has been made to imitate classic 70s album art. The Tale's artwork, with a medieval children's tale feel, was done by Yimin Li. Can you share some information about this artist? Also there's a dedication on the cd-booklet to Sam Del Russi, the artist who painted the cover art for The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. Can you tell us a few things also about his work with you?
TPE: Yimin Li is a graphic designer from China. He produces art in different media. I liked the beautiful simplicity of his work and so enlisted him for the album. What he produced inside the CD booklet is quite beautiful - a kind of medieval sketching on parchment paper that also blends modernism. The concept provided in the CD booklet notes that 10 annotated and illustrated scrolls were found in a cave and tell the story of 'The Golden King'. Li created these 'scrolls' inside the booklet.
The Dream of the Magic Jongleur artwork was produced, I believe, using oils and acrylics by the incredible American artist, Sam Del Russi. I found Sam's artwork online some years ago and asked to use an image or two for The Myth of Dying. Later Sam and I worked very closely for a year on The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. Sam's artwork received 'Best Album Art 2011' from Gert Hulshof at Dutch Progressive Rock Page. Sam is a remarkable talent and now my dearest friend.
One might think that these artists were off on their own producing the art. That isn't the case. They worked along side me, so to speak, song by song. We communicated daily during the production of the albums.
WT: I know this is generally a difficult question but which do you think have been the 10 most important albums in rock history that have pushed the rock music agenda forward into the world of artistic / creative / pure - call it as you like - music?
TPE: Wow! That is a tough question because it is hard for me to limit the list to just 10 albums. I would say... hmm... Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, Are You Experienced?, Led Zeppelin III, Dark Side of the Moon, and The Yes Album.
Three other albums I believe to be important in the development of rock music are Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy and Quadrophenia. I believe these three albums changed the way rock musicians think about musical structure or musical form. Rather than a mere collection of songs, these albums are conceived as a single, large-scale work. Form in much rock music changed after these albums appeared. The musical structure of those albums is definitely an influence on The Psychedelic Ensemble's output.
WT: After the 60s, I feel there has been an observable (although largely unconfessed) influence of the rock 'avant-garde' on the world of 'serious' or 'classical' music; both the increasing interest into pre-classical works, composers, instruments etc. and the development of minimal and other modern trends can be partly attributed to the impact of rock on classical musicians. At least this is what I suspect. Is rock music a serious art form? Or can it be?
TPE: If I didn't think prog music was a serious form of art, I wouldn't have written these four albums. I won't claim that all rock music yields serious art, but certainly the progressive giants - Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant - produced what I construe as serious art. The classical violinist who played on The Myth of Dying, my second release, said in an interview, "playing in a prog band is very much like playing in a classical string quartet". I believe that's true. I would also contend that prog and classical music demand the same extensive training and musical skills.
And, yes, I think you are correct that a lot of recent classical music includes rock tendencies. That is in part, I believe, because many of the composers working in classical music these days came through the 60s and 70s - the golden age of rock music. So, like myself, these composers have that music in their blood.
WT: Who are your favorite modern American composers? Can you name some of their works that had an impact on you and your work?
TPE: The music of Elliott Carter has influenced me. He is not well known outside of contemporary classical music, but an important composer, nonetheless. His string quartets are some of the most important contributions to that medium. Truthfully, I've always turned to European composers for inspiration. I pointed out earlier how European prog influenced me. European concert music too has been a tremendous influence. I am deeply influenced by Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez. You might find in my progressive music some latent traits of those composers.
WT: What do you think lies in the future for the Psychedelic Ensemble? Could your music be played in front of a live audience at some point? Also have you made any thoughts about your next record?
TPE: I'm already at work on a fifth release. It is in the very early stages, but moving along nicely. Like the other TPE albums, it is a concept. I don't want to say too much about the concept because it will develop and change as I work through the piece. I will say that I plan to incorporate orchestral instruments again and I'll play all of the core instruments - guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, and more. Ann Caren will join me on vocals. I have a few other additions that I think will be really cool.
Regarding live performance, I had begun putting together a tour of The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. Unfortunately, in the middle of all that, I had some serious health issues arise and major surgery, which ended those plans. I would love to tour with The Tale of the Golden King. In fact, I have discussed this with several people. There would be a lot of logistics to work out, namely, how do we cover the orchestral parts? I wouldn't want to use MIDI instruments, so it would require a great expense.
WT: I'd like you to end this interview with a message of The Psychedelic Ensemble to Greek music lovers. Would you like to share some of your personal wisdom in these tough times with us?
TPE: I know that Greece is in a severe economic and social crisis that is comparable to the years of the Great Depression during the 1930s in the U.S. It appears that there is not only an economic crisis but a political and moral crisis as well. Forgive me if I'm wrong. But Greece is the place where democracy and philosophy were born. I am sure that the Greek people, although now truly suffering, will finally overcome this depressing reality and move forward as they have always done throughout their rich and prosperous history. I wish Greece well.
Matt Di Giordano of Progulator hosts a facinating and exclusive interview with TPE in October 2012.
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. (Matt Di Giordano)
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.
JM: With "The Dream of the Magic Jongleur“ you have already released your third album. For those who still do not know who The Psychedelic Ensemble is, please introduce "the band".
TPE: I am a composer and multi-instrumentalist who writes and performs alone the music released under the moniker of The Psychedelic Ensemble. I have had a long and successful career in the music industry since the 70s. I have worked with some of the leading performers and ensembles around the world and I have garnered dozens of music awards, most notably about 25 awards from ASCAP –the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
JM: When comparing the three albums released so far, where do you see the typical trademarks identifiable on all albums and where do you see a certain development or obvious differences?
TPE: A number of things unify all three albums and some might be considered “trademarks” of The Psychedelic Ensemble. All three albums are concepts presented in gapless format on the CDs. Also, the instrumentation is largely the same on all three albums. In other words, it sounds like the same “ensemble” or “musicians” performed all three albums although, of course, I play the music myself. Also the instrumentation, if one listens closely, often includes multiple keyboard and guitar parts, as if two or more keyboardists and guitarists are performing. I use the same compositional procedures on each album, too. For example, in the first song on each album a musical theme or motive is introduced. This theme or motive is reused in each song to unify all of the tracks. It is really just old-school classical developing technique I learned from years of studying Beethoven, Brahms, and others. Of course the music is progressive, but borrows compositional procedures from the classics.
Regarding differences, the most recent album, The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, I believe is more unified in style than the previous albums. It is, I think, straight symphonic prog or art rock, as people would say. The first two albums, The Art of Madness and The Myth of Dying explore the musical materials in ways that lead to more variation in style. Also, the disposition, or “affect” as Spinoza might put it, is different on all three albums. The disposition of The Art of Madness is very dark, while The Myth of Dying is contemplative, and The Dream of the Magic Jongeur is lively.
JM: If you should categorize your music, which keywords would you use?
TPE: I would categorize my music simply as “progressive rock” and “concept albums.” I suspect, however, symphonic prog, fusion, retro prog, and art rock, would be keywords others use to categorize my music. I’m not really sure about all these style categories people apply to progressive music. In Eclipse magazine the writer called some of my music “math rock.” I don’t even know what that is. In the 70s, groups who performed the kind of music I write and record were simply called “progressive rock” bands. Now there are so many categories.
I don’t think my music can be squeezed into one of these categories because the music undergoes complex thematic and stylistic development. How to explain? As I said earlier, the songs on each of the albums are unified by themes, motives, and harmonic progressions that appear over and over throught the album. But these materials are strongly influenced by the development of the drama or concept. So the nature of the music is developed too. This can lead to varied styles. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that the songs are wildly different in style. But one might find what could be classified as a symphonic prog track followed by a folk prog track, followed by a neo-classical cut, all of which explore the same musical materials. Isn’t that what Gentle Giant, and ELP, and Yes did? Fragile includes Cans and Brahms and Mood for a Day, which are classical in orientation, and Roundabout and Long Distance Runaround, which are forthright progressive rock tunes. No one had an issue with style. Christ, these musical and stylistic investigations are why that music was called “progressive” in the first place.
But in my music these so-called style shifts have ruffled some critics’ and listeners’ feathers! People want to be able to squeeze music into a single, established style rather than join me in a dramatic and musical journey that investigates the potential of my themes, harmonies, and concepts.
JM: How about sales figures – is there an album that clearly sold best or is it all on one level?
TPE: The most recent album, The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, has sold more copies than either of the previous CDs. The Dream made several Top 10 charts for 2011 and there have been an overwhelming number of great reviews that boosted sales. I’ve been fortunate to acquire a terrific group of listeners worldwide who support all three albums. To tell you the truth, I don’t really need the money, and the money is not what I am after. I simply wanted to make these albums and I enjoyed the process very much. Listeners from around the world have written to me over and over noting how much they enjoy the music, and that is more important to me than sales.
JM: Regarding sales, are there any geographical significances? Where do you sell best?
TPE: My biggest markets are in Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. Each of these being about equal, but Germany is at the top. All three albums have done very well in these markets. In short, my market is in Europe, which does not surprise me. The first two albums sold well in Belgium, too. The U.S. has yielded more sales of the recent album than the first two albums. With the new album I have developed a very large number of listeners here in the States. And the thing I love about my U.S. listeners is that they communicate with me regularly. I dig that connection to my audience.
TPE: As a matter of fact one of my assistants, Caitlin, posted an announcement on The Psychedelic Ensemble FaceBook page that I am presently negotiating a tour with seven other musicians and a management company. We hope to perform The Dream of the Magic Jongleur and a few tracks from the previous albums on 10 to 15 shows in the U.S. northeast and west coast. Initially, I had hoped the tour would occur in the fall of 2012, but I am now aiming for the spring of 2013. Of course, there are logistical factors that need to be worked out. I had to find seven musicians who could play multiple instruments because the instrumentation on my records is so varied and demands multiple keyboards, guitars, mandolin, timpani, violin, harp, several vocalists, and a host of other instruments. Also, the music is very difficult, so I’ve had to enlist performers who are highly accomplished. I’ve managed to enlist an all-star roster of musicians who have agreed to perform. But we face the problem of finding a solid month to rehearse and another month to tour. All of the musicians are involved in other performing projects. Finally I am investigating various venues and the total cost of the tour. Hopefully, we will work out the details in the next month or two.
regarding my anonymity, a fan on FaceBook offered to
lend me a mask. Maybe I could dress up as Elvis Presley!
All kidding aside, I will simply play and sing and those
who care will discover who I am.
JM: What are your plans for the near future and where do you see TPE, let’s say, in five years?
TPE: I’m actually at work on a fourth album from The Psychedelic Ensemble as we speak. The music is of the same character as The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, but the production, as it were, holds a few new twists. I don’t want to say much more about the album since my initial ideas may change as I delve deeper into the project. Suffice it to say I think this new project will be The Psychedelic Ensemble’s most fascinating and successful creative effort. We’ll see.
I suspect in five years I will be doing the same thing I have been doing since the 70s—composing, performing, and producing music. I’ve been very happy and successful doing those things my whole life. I wouldn’t stop for anything. I hope that in five years I am still recording TPE albums. Also, I formed my own label, Glowing Sky Records, for the release of the last album. I am working with a few young bands. I hope to release their music, which I will produce, on my label. So retirement day is not on my calendar.
JM: Would a collaboration with other musicians or even playing in a band be an option for you?
TPE: Absolutely! Well, I don’t know about playing in a band and traveling on a regular basis. I’ve had some health issues in recent years. But collaborating with other musicians? Yes, absolutely. That’s what I do every day. I work with some of the leading performers in the world. It has been wonderful. I love the interaction with other artists. There are a few prog musicians I admire and still hope to work with someday—Fripp, Howe, and Bruford. I’m available for collaboration with them. Tell them I can be reached by telephone at 555-5555! Actually, I am in the middle of a deal where I will be working in the coming year with one of the members of a super group from the 60s and 70s. I think it will be a lot of fun. The details will be publicized soon.
JM: Are you aware of the reviews of TPE albums that can be found on the world wide web? How do you handle negative reviews? Is this something where you might correct yourself in future works or does that not have any influence? Have you found negative reviews, and if yes, what was the main point of critics? Is it something that you can reconstruct?
TPE: Were there negative reviews? I was certain everyone on the planet would enjoy every note of my music. (Laughs)
Yes, I know of the reviews that appear. Not all, I suspect, but some. Most have been very, very positive. I am very pleased when critics or listeners like my music. That’s what I hope for.
How do I handle negative reviews? Hmmm. That’s a good question. You know, most of the time I feel nothing more than a little regret regarding a negative review. I’ll explain why in a moment. But sometimes it really affects me. I recently read a review of The Myth of Dying at Prog Archives. The writer completely misconstrued the music. It is as if he heard the music through a strange filter. So when critics misconstrue my music, that bothers me.
But back to why most negative reviews don’t deeply affect me. Recently I chatted with John Kay from Steppenwolf. We were talking in a public forum about writing music and success as a writer and I said something that caught our audience’s attention. Following the forum I received a lot of positive comments about my statement from young musicians. What I said is that all one can do is to write the music one wants to hear, do it to the absolute best of one’s ability, and be honest. That’s precisely what I do. So in the end, if someone dislikes my music, that’s unfortunate, but it is the best music I can write and the best playing I can muster in the space in time that music was created. I don’t pander to fashions. I write the music I want to hear, which is honest, and I do it to the best of my ability.
You know, my journey into music has been deep and varied and it continues to be. I have done all I can to make myself the best musician I can be. So I write and play and all I can hope for is that those who listen will find something they dig. I keep writing; I keep studying scores by Bach and Beethoven and Stravinsky and others. I continue to learn and apply my learning to my music. I get better by the day, so if you didn’t like my last work, check out my next work. It will be a little better because I continue to grow from my musical studies and efforts.
JM: The music of The Psychedelic Ensemble sounds like the efforts of a band, but it is a one-man project. Who is the man behind this project?
TPE: I am a composer and a musician who plays keyboards, guitar, drums, bass, and other instruments. I’ve worked in the music industry as a composer, performer, arranger, and producer for over 35 years. Along the way, I’ve also held positions teaching music, primarily composition and orchestration, at a few major universities in the United States.
JM: Can you tell us more about your musical background and what you have done so far?
TPE: As a young kid in the early 60s, like many kids of the time, I became intoxicated by the incredible music that was emerging. I got a cheap drum set and a Silvertone guitar; my family had an old upright piano in the house. I took lessons on these instruments and by the time I was fourteen I was proficient on all three. My interests turned to writing my own music and I began taking lessons in composition. I was studying classical composition, harmony, ear training, and counterpoint. I used to take the train on weekends into New York City to study with a well-known classical composer who accepted me as a student in his studio. He later won the Pulitzer Prize. It was an incredible opportunity and life-changing experience for me.
JM: So how did you get involved in progressive rock?
TPE: In my mid-teens I met some older guys at school who had an interest in progressive music and jazz. They invited me to jam and then to form a band. We were investigating rock, progressive music, jazz, and the avant-garde. These guys were well trained, mostly in classical music or jazz. Meeting them was another life-changing experience. We dabbled with music from Miles Davis to The Beatles. I began writing for the band original material that was a unique kind of progressive rock music. Little by little, this band gained popularity and in my late teens and early twenties we released two recordings that hit the mark.
When the heyday of prog dried up after the 70s I became a sort of hired gun playing studio sessions, performing with other bands, producing recordings, and writing and arranging material for other artists. I turned momentarily to academia and earned a doctorate in composition. I then embarked on a career as a composer of contemporary classical music where I have been very successful. I have written for some of the leading soloists and ensembles performing today, and my works are regularly performed worldwide on major concert stages—Carnegie Hall and so forth.
JM: Was it your plan right from the start to perform everything yourself or did this evolve?
TPE: When I began writing Ecstasy, the first song from, The Art of Madness, I thought, this instrumental part I will re-record with so-and-so, and this instrument I will re-record with another so-and-so. Several performers with whom I had worked back in the 70s and 80s came to mind as contributing artists. I contacted most of them to ask if they were willing to play on the record. They agreed. But by the time the first song was finished I had decided I liked the sound as it was and decided to finish the album on my own. In retrospect, I think subconsciously I had always wanted to do an entire album on my own. Also, there was the problem of how to get so many musicians from different parts of the globe to record in one place at the same time.
JM: Were the musicians angry that they were not included on The Art of Madness?
TPE: No, not angry, but disappointed. When The Art of Madness was released I got phone calls and messages from them and each expressed regret that they were not included. I mentioned that I had ideas for a second album, The Myth of Dying, and perhaps I could arrange for them to appear as guests. Again, they agreed. But when I finished the first song, Transcendence, from The Myth of Dying I liked that the song sounded like a performance by the same band that produced The Art of Madness. So, I finished the album on my own.
JM: So will The Psychedelic Ensemble ever include these musicians on a recording?
TPE: I have promised, crossing my heart, that I will produce a third album with contributions from several of these fantastic players. I think other players will bring a different sensibility to the sound of The Psychedelic Ensemble. Soloing styles, for example, will be different because the musicians I have in mind play and think differently about improvisation principles.
JM: I suspect it would simplify things for you to enlist other musicians and technicians for the next record.
TPE: Yes, it certainly would. Even though I would write the material, the other musicians would offer up ideas that would certainly enhance the project. That is something I miss when I work alone. One of the wonderful things about working with a group of musicians whom you respect and who are truly gifted is artistic interaction. With the right people involved, great ideas can emerge in rehearsal, performance, and recording.
Also it is a daunting task to record and perform every part by one’s self. I set up the microphones, control the recording process, edit the takes, mix the album, and produce and master the recordings. It would be nice to have help in those areas. On the other hand, I like that I can sit and work as long as I want and re-record or remix as much as I deem necessary and not worry about driving anyone crazy with my mania to get things as close to perfect as possible.
JM: If you were to describe your music in a few words, how would you categorize it?
TPE: My music mixes progressive rock, progressive folk, fusion, and classical influences, all of which, I believe, are synthesized into a personal language.
JM: Can you tell us more about the concept of your debut album, The Art of Madness?
TPE: It’s funny, some reviews and blogs to which I’ve been alerted consider if The Art of Madness is autobiographical. It isn’t. I’ll admit I’m a bit eccentric, but I am not insane. (Laughs) A guy actually wrote to ask if The Myth of Dying, whose principal character is roaming through the afterlife, is a true story! Look, I’m neither insane nor dead--at least not yet.
Anyway, I had been thinking about recording a progressive concept record for several months. I kicked around a few ideas, but none hit the mark. Around the same time, I saw in New York an exhibit of works by psychiatric patients from the Living Museum, a kind of sanctuary for creative activity at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. The exhibit blew my mind. Later, and by chance, I heard the curator of the Living Museum and psychiatrist, Janos Marton, on an NPR interview. Marton remarked that, “creativity and artistic production is almost a symptom of mental illness.” That provocative remark, and the indelible images of the artwork I had seen in New York, provided the concept for The Art of Madness. In fact, the work opens with the actual NPR excerpt of Janos Marton speaking the provocative idea that “creativity and artistic production are almost a symptom of mental illness.”
JM: So how did you unfold this initial idea into a dramatic concept?
TPE: I decided to create a drama partitioned into three sections: the transfiguration of the protagonist into madness, his suffering of different manifestations of madness, and a resolution of his trauma. So on the album an ordinary man suddenly descends into a world of madness. There he has psychotic visions that he recreates in the form of art and music as he suffers various manifestations of mental illness—panic, breakdown, despair, and the like. In the end, the protagonist recognizes that from his madness springs his artistic production. So rather than suffer his madness, he embraces it.
JM: Where do you see the main differences between your first and your second album?
TPE: The principle difference lies in the concepts of the records. I believe that The Art of Madness is introspective and psychological in its orientation whereas The Myth of Dying is more extroverted and mystical. Similarities exist in the concepts of both albums, though. I believe, for example, there is a similar pathos associated with the protagonists on both albums.
JM: And what about musical differences?
TPE: The second album, The Myth of Dying, is less laid back than The Art of Madness. The second album has an edge to it. That is not to say that lyrical aspects are not found in the second album—I think, for example, of the folk-like song The Realm of the Skeptics, or the instrumental and introspective Mysterium of the Divine, and parts of Transcendence—but for the most part, The Myth is more aggressive than The Art.
Also I used acoustic guitar more at the core of The Art of Madness. The Myth, on the other hand, uses electric guitar, organ, and synthesizers more at the foreground.
The harmonic language, arranging, form, vocal styles, and melodic writing are largely the same on the two albums.
JM: How are the reviews concerning both albums so far?
TPE: I have been very fortunate and I am honored to have received so many wonderful reviews of the music in important sources. Most of the reviews have focused on The Art of Madness because The Myth of Dying was just released. But I know of several forthcoming reviews of the new album. I’m very grateful to the critics who have clearly invested a great deal of time investigating my music. I have my web guy post all of the reviews on The Psychedelic Ensemble website if anyone wishes to read them.
JM: Meanwhile both albums are distributed by MUSEA? How did it happen that a U.S. album is distributed by a French label?
TPE: Well, I received several offers from labels around the world and, in the end, I felt that Musea was the right choice for the music. I like the manner in which Musea postures its label and artists. Also, Musea is often tauted as the leading progressive rock label, so I felt fortunate that they offered me a deal on both records.
JM: Are you familiar with the Prog scene in general and specifically the festival scene in the U.S. with NearFest, RosFest, etc.?
TPE: No, not really. I should be, but I don’t pay that much attention to any one scene—prog, classical, or jazz. For better or worse, I’m off doing my own thing.
I certainly know of the more illustrious prog festivals like RosFest and NearFest—I grew up not far from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where NearFest is held—but I don’t know much about new progressive bands. I listen to music recommended to me by friends and former band mates who insist I check out so-and-so. Most of the time I listen to classical music, contemporary classical music—Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Berio, et al—and older progressive rock—Yes, ELP, Tull, King Crimson.
JM: Are there plans of forming a band to play your music live?
TPE: Well, yes and no. Some of the musicians I mentioned earlier in this interview have prompted me to consider touring with one or both of the records. During the last year some of us have had very long and serious talks about the practical aspects of taking The Psychedelic Ensemble on tour. There is interest from performers, but it is a big project and a financial investment. We figure we would need about 10 musicians, some of whom would need to double on more than one instrument. Touring is an on-going discussion. Let’s put it this way: If there is interest from the progressive rock community to hear The Psychedelic Ensemble live, then it will happen.
JM: What are your plans for the near future?
TPE: I am under commission to write two classical chamber works for eminent performers. I put these commissions aside to write and record The Myth of Dying. I have contractual obligations to finish these commissions and The Myth put me behind schedule. So I’m in hurry-mode to finish the new chamber works. Also, I have been asked to produce some new records by a few young bands. One of the bands I liked, so I am negotiating with their people right now about producing their new record in early 2011. I’m most enthusiastic about an idea I have for a new record by The Psychedelic Ensemble. Hopefully, that will materialize.
JM: One last question: if your task would be to create an album exclusively consisting of cover versions, which songs would you select?
TPE: That is a terrific question! In my home studio, my son and I record a lot of covers. It is a way of owning for a moment music you really love. Also it forces one to really investigate in great detail what other musicians do. You learn from that investigation. Covering music makes me nervous though. When you take on a great song by one of the great artists you better have something to contribute and provide a perspective on the song that is equally important. That's a daunting task.
Speaking of daunting tasks, there are Beatle's songs I would love to cover. Which songs would depend on the day I sat down to record because my favorite Beatle's songs change by the day. But today I would like to record Don't Let Me Down and Fool on the Hill. I would love to do an extended Hammond B3 organ solo on Don't Let Me Down and I think my voice would work on this song. I have in mind an interesting twist on Fool on the Hill I'd like to explore with some exotic instruments, a different groove, and solos of extended proportions.
Speaking of Hammond B3, I would love to cover Dazed and Confused by Zeppelin and open up on an organ solo. I'd love to include electric violin here and there in unison with the guitar and I would like to hear a great electric violin solo. I don't think I could keep up with Jimmy's inventive guitar playing and meticulous technique, but I would approach the solo in my own way. I'd like to do the same with You Gotta Move by the Stones.
I would cover Promise of a Fisherman by Santana. I love Carlos's playing--I think he is my favorite guitarist--and I think Promise is one of his most beautiful compositions. It affords lots of room for experimentation and soloing.
Manic Depression is a Hendrix tune I'd love to investigate. I am perpetually amazed at how much sound was produced by his trio. It sounds like an orchestra. My music is very dense and heavily orchestrated. I could learn from investigating how to produce such a full sound with bare-bones instrumentation.
I'd love to cover with my old band mates Echidna's Arf of You by Zappa because I dig the complexity of the work. Siberian Khatru, too, by Yes.
Finally, I would love to explore in detail It's Five O'Clock by Aphrodite's Child. What a beautiful song. With all due respect, I always felt this tune could have been opened up more compositionally and in solos, and that's what I would do.
Well, that's a weird list, I know. Ask me the same question tomorrow and I'll have a different list altogether. A final comment: I really love your question about covers. Do you know the Italian composer Luciano Berio? Well, I heard him speak once in Chicago. He was talking about the hypothetical idea of speaking with Beethoven. Someone asked him, "would you ask Beethoven to discuss his music?" Berio said, "No, I would ask Beethoven to discuss the music he was listening to when he wrote such-and-such a piece. That would be far more interesting and revealing of Beethoven and his music." He continued: "What Beethoven found interesting or important in, say, Haydn, would speak far more about Beethoven's own ear, mind, and music than his own analysis of one of his pieces."
I always thought this was a great point and I wish more reviews would explore this question deeply with musicians. I know, say, Jimmy Page has said Delta blues influenced him, but let's go deeper--what specifics and details are influential? What specifically about Delta performance practice, harmony, melody writing, etc. influenced Page? What did the guitarists do tonally and technically that he extracted? I'd love to know that because it would speak volumes about Page’s musical mind and ear. You should interview him!
Just rambling on a Sunday afternoon . . .
year, The Psychedelic Ensemble, the solo project
of the American musician, published The Tale
of the Golden King, one of the most
interesting albums, not just of 2013, but the
entire history of progressive rock in general.
Backed by his previous work, in the same vein
without ups and downs in the final result, the
album got rave reviews from the media and by fans
of the genre and has been the talk of any site
worth its salt in honest and professional
independent music, so often maligned. Without
going any further, the album reached fifth place
in the list of the best independent albums of this
page, Discover the Pandora's Box.
I am a composer and multi-instrumentalist. I have worked in the music industry since the 70s as a composer, arranger, and performer. I write both classical and progressive music.
I started at a very young age playing drums, then guitar and piano. When I was still in my teens I got very involved in progressive music. I played in a couple of good bands and then became a hired gun, so to speak. I didn’t actually have a gun, just to be clear. Ha!
How do you compose your ideas? Are you one man devoted to music or it’s a hobby?
I have always used the old-fashioned method of composing with paper and pencil. But on these TPE records, I play and sing everything—except for vocals contributed by Ann Caren, a few violin contributions from a well-known classical violinist, and the full orchestra on The Tale of the Golden King. Since I play everything, there is no need to write things out. I just figure out what I want to play and record it.
Regarding the second part of your question, I have been very fortunate to be able to earn a living in the music business all of my life in a full-time capacity. So music is my only job. I have, however, done different kinds of work in music, as I said earlier. I have composed, arranged, and produced albums, for example. That is something I feel fortunate about as well. I have had lots of different opportunities and experiences in music. That continues to this day.
By the way, why do you hide your own identity under an alter ego?
I’ve been asked that question a lot; it’s a fair question. The answer is very simple: I have grown so tired of all the hype and image surrounding music. I thought when I released the first album, The Art of Madness, I would simply identify myself as “The Psychedelic Ensemble”. Listeners have just the music, no image. You either like the music or you don’t. My image, name, and other work doesn’t intersect with The Psychedelic Ensemble music.
Seeing your web I have discovered that you have a lot of reviews coming from very different prog magazines and prog sites, but I guess you are more into a private, independent distribution of your releases. What’s your opinion about that fact and what do you think about major labels?
I’ve had nothing but trouble with record labels and music publishers my entire career. Christ, I have publishers who own the rights to so much of my music and I can’t get back the rights to the music. It’s horrible! I now work exclusively with a publisher in California who agreed to my terms.
The last three albums I have self-released on my own label. It’s a lot more work, but it just makes sense to me in a number of ways. Primarily, I can control all aspects of the CDs from artwork, to distribution, to promotion. Of course I’ve had to hire assistants to help with the promotion, sales, and distribution of the albums, but it is more…how to put it?...comforting to self-release.
What are your favourite prog, or not so prog, musicians or groups ever?
You’ll be surprised I believe. Certainly I like the big prog groups from the 70s, but I like a wide range of music. I like a lot of fusion. I was very active in that genre in the 70s and 80s. Return to Forever, Larry Coryell, Mahavishnu, Zappa—bands like those-- still deeply interest me. But I like old rock music, too, like Traffic, Santana, Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, The Who, and others.
I think your music is devoted to that sound of the 1970s. Is it deliberate or do you try to keep that essence in your recordings with the technology of today?
I guess one can’t musically escape one’s musical roots. And as I just mentioned a second ago, the music that really speaks to me is older music. It is the music I love and lived with all my life. So, old or new, my music is honest. I write what I want to hear. But there is a lot more to my music than old roots. There are contemporary classical influences and contemporary prog tendencies as well.
Related to the previous question, what can you tell me about your equipment (keyboards, devices, interface and so on)?
I have my own studio. It is Pro Tools based. I could send you the inventory of equipment but suffice it to say, I have lots of gear.
I own a lot of electric guitars but primarily use a Gretch as my main electric. I also use a Fender Stratocaster here and there. I really like Alvarez acoustics and use both a 6- and 12-string Alvarez as my principal acoustic guitars. The 6-string is a limited special edition that is beautiful and sounds like an orchestra.
And now the inevitable and classic question: Analogue or digital keyboards and why?
Oh, analog—no question. The sound is warmer. I have an old ARP 2600 and Moog. Love ‘em, but try keeping them in tune. Ha! I have lots of digital keyboards that are my main instruments. Those are what I use on The Psychedelic Ensemble albums.
An intimate question: What is your daily life about?
When I am working on The Psychedelic Ensemble albums I work about 10 hours each and every day. Because I write, play, and record all of the music myself. I have to invest that kind of time or the albums would take forever to finish. When I am not working on TPE albums I am involved with composing for other performers. At the moment, I am also teaching a course on recording technology at a major university in the city where I live.
What do you think about the prog scene nowadays?
Oh, man, there are some incredible bands working today. I don’t have time to listen to a lot of music these days, but I check out some of the new prog. Musicians just keep getting better and better.
Do you think that progressive rock has emerged or, on the contrary, is a label abused by a lot of psychedelic or post rock acts in order to deserve more attention by the listener?
I hear some music today that is labelled as prog and think, “well, gee, that sounds more like pop music to me”. But on the other hand, that very music seems to be deeply supported by the prog audience. But I think prog has developed wonderfully since the 70s. And there are so many different prog genres, which makes things interesting.
I know you are releasing a new recording of TPE. What can you tell me about that? Have you already recorded it? Have you mastered it? Please, tell me.
In 2013, I released The Tale of the Golden King in October. I took a short break then began work in December on a new album. Like the other TPE albums, the new record is a concept.
I am about halfway finished with the record and hope to release in September of 2014. I am still writing material and recording, but also mixing tracks that are complete. That’s how I work. I write and record and mix all at once. In other words, I don’t write the entire album, then record the entire album, and then mix it. I work on all of those processes simultaneously. When the entire record is complete, I then master it.
Do you know the Spanish progressive scene? If so, what’s your opinion about it?
Oh, sure. I know a lot of the Spanish prog bands and love the music. I don’t know if this is an accurate observation, but it seems that many of the Spanish prog bands with which I am familiar are influenced by fusion. I love fusion, so I like the music. I’ve heard many incredible musicians active in the Spanish prog scene.
That’s all for now, dear friend. Good luck with your new CD and, please, add whatever you want to my Spanish readers.
I would like to thank you, Jose, for
your interest in my music, your wonderful review
Tale of the Golden King, and this
interview. Thank you, too, to all of the
listeners in Spain who have supported The
Psychedelic Ensemble. I know that the recent
release received a lot of attention in Spain,
for which I am grateful. Muchas, muchas gracias!
Interview with Didier Gonzalez at Highlands Magazine, France
Highlands Magazine : THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE is both the band’s name and yours, a mysterious person who wants to keep your secret. Do you think it’s the best way to get more recognition among the music audience ?
TPE: I release my albums under the pseudonym “The Psychedelic Ensemble”. I play all of the instruments on the albums with the exception of an orchestra and a few guest appearances on a couple of tracks.
Releasing my music anonymously certainly does not bring more recognition to my project. In fact, I believe it lessens recognition because there is no image, no face behind the music. Nonetheless, I just want to release these albums and let the music speak for itself.
Highlands Magazine : You’re coming from the United States Of America and your current album : THE SUNSTONE is your fifth one. But please, let’s introduce the band. How do you meet the different musicians who founded the band ?
TPE: Well as I said, I am the band and play all of the instruments. So there was simply a point in time when I began the project on my own.
Highlands Magazine : Some words about THE ART OF MADNESS, your first album released in 2009. Did you recall the circumstances of its recording ?
TPE: Yes, I recall vividly. I grew up playing drums, guitar, and keyboards. I had been thinking about releasing a concept album where I play all of the music myself. I was searching for a concept and came upon an art exhibit in New York. All of the paintings were produced by psychiatric patients at the Creedmore Psychiatric Center in New York City. The facility offers a kind of art therapy for patients. None of the artists are trained but the works they produce are incredible. The exhibit was stunning. Many of the paintings are included in the CD booklet for The Art of Madness. So I used this idea of creativity and madness as the idea for the concept. The music was written and recorded very quickly—in about three months—in my studio.
Highlands Magazine : THE MYTH OF DYING was the second album by THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE in 2010. Would you say it delivers a more mature music, and what are according you the differences with the previous one ?
TPE: Yes, I believe The Myth of Dying demonstrates more attention to my abilities as a composer, performer, and producer. I had no intentions of releasing the first album, The Art of Madness, it was initially just a side project. But when the album was completed I liked it and signed with Musea. But when I decided to release The Myth I took more care in performing, composing, and producing the album knowing I would release it.
Highlands Magazine : in 2011 you issued THE DREAM OF THE MAGIC JONGLEUR, certainly your strongest effort at the time. Did you use the same team of musicians than in the previous ones. What are the major differences with the previous records ? What is the main theme of this one ? Your comments, please…
TPE: Again I play all of the instruments and perform all of the vocals on The Dream of the Magic Jongleur with one exception: I enlisted a classical violinist for a couple of tracks. I think The Dream of the Magic Jongleur demonstrates my performance technique more than the previous albums. I really focused on performing at my very best on guitar, keyboards, and bass. The album is different from, let’s say, The Myth, in the sense that it is more symphonic prog. The concept, set in medieval times, led to a different sensibility than the other albums. Otherwise I would say that all of the albums have a certain “Psychedelic Ensemble” blend of symphonic prog, fusion, and even classical styles.
Highlands Magazine : What are your main musical influences ? And your greatest musical icons ?
TPE: I am a classically trained musician, so I guess my main musical influences reside in the classical genre. I am also deeply interested in contemporary classical music—Schoenberg, Berio, Stravinsky, and composers of that sort. But I have a background playing rock, prog, and particularly jazz fusion music which I did a lot in the 70s and 80s.
Highlands Magazine : THE TALE OF THE GOLDEN KING was issued in 2013. What is the main concept of the album ? In which circumstances did you record it ?
TPE: Like all of my concepts, The Tale of the Golden King presents a dilemma that is resolved by the conclusion of the album. In The Tale of the Golden King the concept has an underlying allegory about social and political problems. To summarize, the concept suggests that we as a society should not rely on government and other forces to resolve cultural and social problems but that we as a society should become active and save ourselves. These ideas unfold in a tale about a great medieval kingdom that faces calamity and how they resolve their social problems.
Highlands Magazine : THE SUNSTONE is your current album, issued in 2015. The sound is always evolving from the previous one, in a more symphonic/dramatic way. What would you say about the band’s evolution since THE TALE OF THE GOLDEN KING ?
TPE: Truthfully, I believe the two albums are very similar in style--heavy symphonic prog, fusion, and the use of orchestra-a real orchestra not MIDI instruments but great classical players from Boston. I work very hard to blend these styles and not make the juxtaposition of the genres feel unnatural. I use a bit more orchestra on The Sunstone and the music is more complex and dissonant. I wanted to explore more adventurous harmony and counterpoint on The Sunstone. That is not to say that The Tale of the Golden King is simple music, far from it. In fact it includes complex polyphony and quite difficult passages to perform.
Highlands Magazine : What is the main concept behind THE SUNSTONE ?
TPE: The concept is based on ancient folklore that tells how mariners used crystals call “sunstones” to navigate the seas. By gazing into the sunstones it was said that the sun could be found even when it had dipped below the horizon. In my concept an evil siren places a spell on a sunstone and strange visions are seen when one gazes through the stone. Gazing into the stone brings about madness and various sorts of trouble. Over the centuries the cursed sunstone resurfaces again and again. The concept is a complex story based on the Nietzschean principal of perpetual return.
Highlands Magazine : Would you say THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE is a real band, or rather a studio project ? Is it a chance to see you live on stage ?
TPE: Well, I hope both. I had planned to tour with seven other musicians after the making of The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. I developed very serious health problems with which I am still living so the tour never came to be. I do hope, however, that in time my health will improve and a tour and traveling will become a possibility.
Highlands Magazine : What are the current projects of THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE ?
TPE: I am working on a new album as The Psychedelic Ensemble. I hope to release it in late 2015 or early 2016. It is another concept and will include some exciting guest performers and orchestra. Stay tuned!
|TF: Your biography has
been covered in your ProgArchives profile so let's
bypass the biography details. But why did you choose
that name [The
Psychedelic Ensemble] and which bands were
you influenced by?
TPE: The "Psychedelic" component of The Psychedelic Ensemble derives from my belief--and perhaps I am alone in this belief--that both albums are neo-psychedelic projects. Psychedelia lies more at the core of the concepts of both albums than the musical style. The psychotic experiences of the protagonist in The Art of Madness and the mystical experiences of the protagonist in The Myth of Dying are psychedelic in nature, or so it seems to me. I don't suggest that it is the same kind of psychedelia one finds in the landmarks of 60s psychedelic music, but the drama of both albums takes as a point of departure the sensibilities of psychedelia. I suspect purists of psychedelic music will now sink their proverbial teeth in me, but that is how that component of the name came to be.
The "Ensemble" component of the name attempts to foil the notion that because the music is performed entirely by a solo musician, the resulting sound will be necessarily small or intimate. Instead, I believe that the sonic result of the production is that of a large group or ensemble. In discussions about touring with The Art of Madness, we calculated that a minimum of 10 musicians, some of whom would need to play more than one instrument, would be required. That certainly constitutes an ensemble. Also, if one pays attention to the vocals, for example, on both albums I employ different "voices" of different timbres and ranges to suggest multiple musicians. In other words, the sound creates the illusion that at least three or four different singers performed on the records. Compare, for example, the lead vocals on Moon Mad and Despair from The Art of Madness. They are completely different in timbre and style.
Regarding my musical influences, they are numerous and varied. I have had a long and successful career as a composer of contemporary concert music--"classical" music, if you will. I write chamber music and orchestral works, which are regularly performed worldwide. Also, after the prog and fusion heyday, I earned a doctorate in composition and studied the musical classics comprehensively. I am strongly influenced by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Berio, and others of that musical ilk. Atonality is at the center of what I typically write. But I grew up in the 60s on The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and then in my teens developed an interest in progressive music--Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, et al. My musical interests later turned to fusion--Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and others. So my influences are varied. I believe that you can hear faintly all of these musical styles in my work.
TF: You have also chosen to stay anonymous and nobody knows your real name. Please explain this choice.
TPE: It's simple and not at all mysterious: I wanted to release these records without connection to any other work I have done in prog or fusion or classical. These records, The Art and The Myth, are unique in my musical output because I play everything myself. I wanted the records to be released tabula rasa, with a clean slate, so to speak.
TF: Please tell us more about your first album The Art of Madness from 2009
TPE: My son, who is an accomplished musician, and I often record cover songs for fun in my home studio. We began fooling around with covering bits and pieces of some early 70s concept albums, but didn't like the results. My son suggested that I write my own concept album, an idea I had been informally kicking around for years. Around the same time, I happened to see an art exhibit while attending a performance in New York. The exhibit featured paintings by artist/patients from the Living Museum, a sanctuary of sorts for artistic production at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. I was blown away by the depth and skill of the works exhibited. Later, and by luck, I heard psychiatrist Janos Marton, who curates the Living Museum at Creedmoor, on a PBS interview assert, "creativity and artistic production is almost a symptom of mental illness." That's a pretty provocative notion, wouldn't you say? At that moment, I found the idea for my concept album and The Art of Madness was begun. I decided to use Marton's provocative statement as the opening idea of the work. Later I coordinated my songs with images painted by the patients, which appear in the CD booklet.
As I began work on The Art of Madness, I decided to conceive of the work as a continuous cycle of songs without interruption--a continuous journey, if you will, into madness. I created a few musical motifs that I unraveled in different compositional ways to unify the songs. You hear, for example, the same motives recur in transformed ways throughout the album. This musical transformation process is analogous to the psychological transformations the protagonist endures in the drama. But the work is largely improvised around these musical motives. I would roll the tape and sort of fiddle with the motives' chord progressions, licks, or melodies until I hit the mark. Then I would clean things up and add layers of additional instruments one by one. There was no practicing of parts. In fact, most of the material is played straight to tape. I put aside all of my other work during that time and locked myself in my studio for a solid three months until I completed the writing, recording, mixing, and mastering of the album.
TF: Please tell us more about your second album The Myth of Dying from earlier this year.
TPE: The Myth of Dying was musically produced in the exact same way. Dramatically it differs though. I have a great interest in literature, particularly literature from earlier centuries. I had been reading some passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and was fascinated by the different visions of the afterlife suggested in Eastern and Western philosophy and literature. I began to think of ways of combining these different visions in a concept album. As a model, I turned to 20th-century classical music, where the principle of collage became a focal point for many composers. I then created a story in collage fashion by mixing excerpts from great literature about the afterlife to produce my own vision of eternity. The protagonist in The Myth of Dying is a young poet who has read and loved great literature, poetry, and philosophical and sacred texts. Following his demise, the protagonist enters the afterlife and experiences many of the different ideas he had ardently read about the hereafter. In the afterlife, for example, he visits The Realm of the Skeptics where the great thinkers and agnostics--Hume, Kant, Protagoras, Huxley, and others--hover above ground, circling like a carousel in endless contemplation. The image pokes fun, I guess, at the futility of perpetual thought--which is like the endless circling of the carousel--about matters that cannot be resolved through lofty or erudite contemplation--hence, the floating philosophers. In the end, the protagonist understands that what we believe about the afterlife is what actually happens to us. In the case of the protagonist, he encounters and experiences the visions of the great writers he admired.
Musically, the same developmental techniques I described for The Art of Madness are used in The Myth. In addition to the paraphrased text I borrowed from the classics, I also paraphrased or excerpted the 19th-century composer, Niccolo Paganini's violin Caprice 13 (subtitled "The Devil's Laughter") at the end of track 6--The Devil's Lament.
TF: Is your ensemble a band or is it yourself with added hired studio musicians?
TPE: I play and sing all of the music on both albums. One exception is that I don't play violin but I wanted to include that instrument on The Myth of Dying as a musical and age-old connection to the devil whom the protagonist meets. I enlisted a great violinist who is an old and dear friend from the heyday. He is well known and quite accomplished as you can hear on the record. By the way, I gave him the option of citing his name on the record but he said, "I'll stick with The Psychedelic Ensemble's spirit of anonymity." But yes, otherwise I perform all of the music myself--no studio musicians or hired hands on board.
TF: How is the creative process for you of coming up with a theme/riff/idea until you get it down onto an album?
TPE: For me, all music begins with some kind of improvisation, whether it be a small idea played on an instrument, heard in one's head, or otherwise. From there, I begin to question what the material is. I analyze the musical idea. I actually ask myself what the musical idea is comprised of harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, and dramatically. I investigate the nature of each of these musical attributes and let my discoveries dictate how I move forward with the musical idea. In other words, I believe that inherent in the smallest musical idea is every bit of information necessary to tell the composer how to continue in an intelligent and musically coherent way.
I work out musical ideas differently. Sometimes I "sketch," meaning I write with paper and pencil transformations of my original idea. Some of these sketches I ditch; some I use. At other times, I will investigate the musical idea tactilely, meaning I'll fool with it at the keyboard or on the guitar, investigating its musical possibilities. And finally, sometimes I combine these processes. That is a condensed and perhaps confusing summary of how I work. I could actually show you if we had a short musical idea, a piano, and manuscript paper, but oh well . . .
TF: Just to give those of us who are unfamiliar with your music a bit of a reference: How would you describe your music?
TPE: I would describe my music as a complex mixture of styles but with a personal voice. I think, for instance, of The Myth of Dying that has elements of symphonic prog (Transcendence), fusion (Beyond the Light), classical influences (The Mysterium of the Divine), and so forth. What I am very careful about is ensuring that these somewhat different styles effectively coalesce and don't sound disconnected. What I believe unifies these styles in my work are the musical ideas or motives that migrate from song to song but which are transformed or projected differently. Also scoring or arranging techniques are similar from song to song, harmonic progressions might be the same in a fusion-like track and a subsequent prog-like track. In other words, the styles and songs are unified through recurring musical materials and techniques. And although I might be influenced by Stravinsky, Yes or The Beatles, I believe there is a personal sound that is different from these musicians that permeates all of my work. Also, similar instrumentation and vocals unify the pieces. Both albums are a kind of journey: in The Art, it is a journey of psychological states; in The Myth, it is a journey of mystical states. But the idea of a journey suggests to me different musical styles or terrains. I don't think that the drama of the records would hit the mark I intend if, let's say, only one prog style were employed throughout. One loses the sense of journeying then. Everybody who has reviewed the records gets a little hung up on what the style of my music is. For me, that's good. I'm not interested in being a staunch " such-and-such-prog" kind of musician. I want to explore lots of musical possibilities, but I am always careful to unify things. In the end, too, I think there are many musical similarities between prog, fusion, and classical. They are not, at their cores, such different animals really.
I think my music is complex, too, more so than initially meets the ear. Yes, there are odd meters and tricky licks but it is complex at the structural level--the form--of the music. Both albums are 58-minute songs conceived on a large scale. There is a lot of polyphony, or counterpoint, too, that makes the music complex, at least from a compositional perspective. For example, Apparition from The Art of Madness is a three-voice canon--a Baroque technique. I don't want to wear complexity on my sleeve as a composer or performer. Instead, complexity is something I hope will be integral to the music and spring from sophisticated and thoughtful development of simple musical ideas--fully integrated, not just complexity for complexity's sake. I dislike so much prog and fusion that forces odd meters and one thinks, "oh, the meter is 13/8, now 7/8, now 3/8"--who cares? Then there are the soloists who play 100-miles-per-hour from beginning to end. It's all like a parlor trick. Who cares unless those meters or speeds derive meaning organically from something in the music--a melodic phrase or shape, a developmental idea, or the like.
TF: What is your experience with the music industry and the new internet music scene?
TPE: I have had just about every possible type of experience in the music industry. I have been a studio musician, engineer, producer, performer, composer, arranger, and even an agent for an early band with which I worked. (Laughs) I wasn't a good agent, just the only one in the band who would agree to accept the task. I'm not boasting about these varied experiences, I'm just a composer and performer, but out of necessity, I've had to do all of these things.
The internet-music scene is terrific in most of what it affords musicians. Of course the music piracy stuff is an enormous drag, but the ability to access so much information about new music, especially in forums like this, and readily accessing the music itself, is something we didn't even dream of back in the day.
TF: Not to blow your anonymity, but are you involved in any other bands or projects and what are your plans for the rest of this year and next year?
TPE: At this moment I am not performing. I am under commission to write two classical chamber works, which I have neglected because of my work on the most recent Psychedelic Ensemble album. I need to get back to these commissions or lose a lot of money. There is talk about a third Psychedelic Ensemble album in early 2011 with a number of guest appearances from guys with whom I performed back in the 70s and very early 80s. Each song would include a solo, or cameo if you will, by one of my guests. There are some great players who are interested, but the question is how to get everyone in the same place at the same time for an extended period given the busy schedules everyone still has in the music business. I also have received some requests to produce some young bands, but most of the music doesn't interest me. I might produce one of the projects I liked. We are negotiating now.
TF: To wrap up this interview, is there anything you want to add to this interview?
TPE Just a word of thanks to those who have taken an interest in the records. As you might glean from the anonymity I self-imposed on these albums, I'm not interested in recognition. I just wanted to write these albums and released them hoping others would find something meaningful and interesting about the music. So far, so good and I appreciate everyone's interest, including yours, Torodd.
Interview with Esther Kessel-Tamerus
THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE BLIJFT EEN ANONIEME VERHALENVERTELLER
Esther Kessel-Tamerus | 10 May 2015 |
The Psychedelic Ensemble, kortweg TPE, is een pseudoniem. Deze muzikant zit al zo’n 35 jaar in het vak. Hij heeft vaak opgetreden, is multi instrumentalist, schrijft en componeert. Hij heeft veel prijzen gewonnen, ondermeer ruim 20 ASCAP awards. In 2009 kwam zijn debuutalbum onder zijn pseudoniem uit. Dit album werd genomineerd als Beste Debuut Album van ProgAwards en werd wereldwijd goed ontvangen. Rockmuzine had een geheimzinnige ontmoeting met deze intrigerende muzikant, waarbij hij alle tijd kreeg…
“In mijn tienerjaren ben ik naar prog.rock gaan luisteren, naar Yes en ELP”, verklaart TPE, “Ik voelde me meteen aangetrokken door de prog. In één klap had ik de muziek gevonden waar ik mij ei in kwijt kon met mijn opleiding in klassieke muziek. Bovendien was ik, om dezelfde reden, aangetrokken tot de fusion. Ik weet dat door ik mijn anonimiteit (dus ook door het ontbreken van een image van een band) minder ‘populair’ ben. Maar ik wil dat mensen naar mijn muziek luisteren om de muziek zelf. Wat doet het er toe wie ik ben?? Het gaat toch om de muziek? Er zijn fantastische radio stations die progressieve muziek promoten. Ik hou van the House of Prog, Friday Night Progressive, the Prog Mill, en the International Prog Rock Show. Deze stations maken goede reclame voor de hedendaagse prog.rock.”
“In mijn carrière heb ik met veel verschillende mensen samen gewerkt. Graag zou ik nog samen willen werken met Derek Trucks, de gitarist van de Allman Brothers. Hij is één van de beste gitaristen. Ook zou ik graag samen willen werken met Alphonse Mouzon. Ik hield van zijn manier van drummen met o.a. het vroegere Weather Report.
Over Weather Report gesproken: ik heb altijd de wens gehad om samen te kunnen werken met Joe Zawinul. De manier waarop hij de synthesizer bespeelde was geweldig. Helaas.. is hij al overleden.”
“Het is moeilijk te zeggen wat zelf mijn favoriete instrument is. Het ligt aan mijn stemming. Ik hou er van om op een oude piano te spelen. En ik ben erg gecharmeerd van akoestisch gitaar. Ook hou ik van de sound van de cello. Dit instrument wil ik graag leren spelen. Misschien ga ik dit verwezenlijken.”
“Ik haal mijn inspiratie niet uit de standaard dingen zoals liefde, het verleden, ervaringen uit het leven e.d. De inspiratie van het album The Art Of Madness komt bijvoorbeeld van schilderijen die ik zag.
Bovendien haal ik mijn inspiratie uit de manier waarop ik denk hoe ik gaan groeien als componist en muzikant. Ik stel mezelf doelen, dat inspireert me.”
“Een paar jaar geleden las ik in New York Times een artikel over de ontdekking van een ‘sunstone’ die werd gevonden tussen navigatie werktuigen in een viking-scheepswrak. In de oude folklore verhalen wordt al gesproken over deze sunstones. Een soort transparante kristal om ook bij slechte weersomstandigheden op zee te kunnen navigeren. Pas een paar jaar geleden is het wetenschappelijk bewezen dat deze stenen zelfs in het donker de zon kunnen lokaliseren. Het idee dat iemand de zon kan zien, ook al is de zon achter de horizon, alleen door in een steen te kijken, fascineerde mij. Toen dacht ik: ‘Stel dat iemand een vloek over die steen uitroept, en zo een verkeerd beeld geeft van de stand van de zon’. Allerlei gedachten tuimelden door mijn hoofd. Het concept voor een nieuw album was geboren.”
“Ik bedacht een verhaal waarin een gemene nimf haar vloek uitspreekt over bepaalde stenen. Zo is het nummer ‘The Sunstone’ ontstaan. ‘The Siren’s spell’ is er een logisch vervolg op. Deze boosaardige nimf leeft op een eiland en lokt zeevaarders met haar schoonheid en mooie stem naar haar eiland. Als ze haar eiland bereiken, blijkt haar betovering hun ondergang te zijn. Natuurlijk hoort ‘The Storm’ in het verhaal. De boosaardige nimf heeft een storm gecreëerd met de bedoeling het schip te laten zinken. In dit nummer speelt een goede vriend van mij elektrisch viool. Hij heeft een lange en succesvolle carrière opgebouwd in de klassieke muziek. Ook heeft hij op veel albums meegewerkt van ELO, Led Zeppelin en Rod Steward. Hij kan sneller spelen dan wie dan ook. Ik wilde hem op een leuke manier uitdagen en een duel aan gaan in dit nummer. We hebben allebei verdomd snel gespeeld!!”
Muziek schrijven en opnemen
“Als ik de inspiratie heb, dan begin ik als volgt: Ik heb een idee hoe het moet klinken en dan begin ik de details van gitaar of keyboard uit te werken, dat is de basis. Als deze af is ga ik verder en omdat ik een eigen studio aan huis heb, kan ik opnemen wanneer ik wil. Ik begin met het eerste nummer kies als eerste bijvoorbeeld gitaar. Ik schakel over op andere instrumenten en voeg de bas en keyboard toe zonder vaste volgorde van welk instrument ik het eerst opneem. Mijn studio gebruik ik ook om mijn muziek verder uit te werken na het opnemen. Dus mijn studio is ook mijn repetitieruimte. Er zijn heel wat takes nodig voordat ik tevreden ben!”
“Als ik alles opgenomen heb, kies ik een thema van een nummer en ga het uitwerken om te componeren voor het orkest, het originele thema probeer ik te veranderen in iets nieuws. Zo blijf ik de muziek ontwikkelen en nieuwe thema’s toevoegen. Toen ik bijna klaar was heb ik contact opgenomen met dirigent Jonathan Roberts. We hebben uitgebreid gepraat over alles: de balans in het orkest, hoe we het beste welke sectie op konden nemen e.d.”
“Het artwork is gemaakt door Sam Del Russi. Al eerder werkten we samen voor mijn tweede album The Myth Of Dying en voor het 3e album The Dream Of The Magic Jongleur. Dit artwork is uitgeroepen tot het beste artwork door Gert Hulshof van DPRP. Sam is een enorme fan van progressieve muziek en voor mij daarom een logische keuze om weer met hem samen te werken. Ik heb dagelijks contact gehad met hem want het artwork moet het hele concept omvatten. Op de cover staat daarom de mooie, maar boosaardige nimf. Ze betovert het schip en storm creëert een storm. De schedel op de achterkant van het boekje wijst er op dat haar betovering de ondergang is van de zeevaarders.”
Het album ‘The Sunstone’ bevat progressieve rock, symfonische rock, jazz, fusion en klassieke stijlen en is te koop via de website van de band.