INFRA-ULTRA-SONICS MEET THE HISS MACHINE
YES FOLKS, IT'S ANOTHER
By Michele Hush - Photos by Wendi Lombardi
On a sunny fall afternoon in 1970, while relaxing over cognac in someones London home, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer spoke mainly in the future tense. They had a lot of dreams then, and although ELPs eventual success seemed inevitable, there was still an air of suspense - it hadnt happened yet.
Slightly more than a year later, this time in New York, it was obvious that many things had changed. Emerson, Lake and Palmer have arrived, as they say at airports. In the past few months they have thrashed through several tours of this country, released two successful albums, and startled a lot of people with their music and on-stage histrionics. Everything around them now seems swept up in vastness. It just gets curiouser and curiouser...
Wednesday, November 10, 1971, 11:30 am: your writer innocently appears in a mid-Manhattan hotel lobby, dragging her tape recorder through the potted plants and bell hops. She notices a large number of very young women lounging around on chairs and divans. Groupies? Experience says probably, but investigation reveals that they are conventional delegates, no less. It says so on their blue plastic name-tags: Dry Gulch Annie, Leather Convention. Oh, well.
The hotel room - one of a suite, actually - is rather small; its single window overlooks a charming view of a brick wall, just a few feet away. The room is dimly lit and cramped with people, a tea cart, furniture, and mysterious machines.
As we arrive,a hairy gentleman from the New York Times converses with Mr. Palmer - slouched in an armchair, resplendent in canvas patchwork boots, jeans and tank-top - as well as Mr. Emerson and Mr. Lake, both on a couch, both in old jeans, both noticeably shoeless, sockless and shirtless. (Signs of a rude awakening earlier in the day?) Well, well, they dont seem to have changed much in the visual sense...a bit less of the Beau Brummel, perhaps. Emerson and Palmer have open faces; each, though, checks in at the eyes before emerging at the mouth. As for Lake, well, hes a little shaded... not so easy to believe.
Others notably present are June Harris and Jean Charles Costa from Atlantic Records, as well as two constantly ringing telephones. And oh yes - I almost forgot - a slight, grey-haired man who stands in one corner. Who is that? That is Dr. Robert Moog, of synthesizer fame. (See your usually mild-mannered writer nearly keel over; shes never met a genius before.)
The man from the Times says something about audiences: do males and females react differently to ELP-music? (What form of chauvinism is that?) The musicians seem to think that the reaction is not sexually determined; others think otherwise. June Harris: Women arent frustrated musicians. Eh? The idea appears to be that ELP produce a masculine form of music. Someone, Keith Emerson perhaps, suggests that most musical sex-objects have rather bi-sexual images (Jagger, Stewart...Alice Cooper...Jerry Garcia...Leonard Bernstein? Will this madness never end?) Anyway, he felt that since ELP do not, then they probably cant be considered sex-objects. The mind boggles; mine feels that music is music, and if theirs is good, it is good to women and men alike.
As the conversation continues, your writer lapses into one of her daydreams, which concerns the Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert shed most like to see. It goes like this:
The scene is a rococo concert hall of unbelievable dimensions; the curtains, tapestries of mauves and blues, slowly draw back as several thousand people burst into spontaneous applause. Crystal chandeliers which dangle from the ceiling begin to spin, sending multitudes of rainbow patches cascading across the walls and floor.
The stage, at first a gaping cavity, is suddenly flooded with light as somewhere below a mountain of amplifiers begins its ascension. As the center of the stage rises ever-higher, the gasping audience beholds an awesome spectacle. The three musicians, surrounded by countless pianos, organs, guitars, drums, gongs and machines, surface in their suede tuxedos. Bravo, bravo cries the crowd.
Still the stage, supporting it all, climbs higher until at last huge and hairy fingers, and a hideous head come into view. King Kongs music-loving cousin, Mighty Joe Young, crouches like Atlas beneath the weight of the platform. As the first seven rows of the theater begin to empty and a man from the Humane Society rushes forward with an injunction, the unfortunate ape collapses. Three tons of electrical equipment rain into the orchestra pit, and the three musicians (one ton each) leap like musketeers to safety. They roll in the aisles, consumed by their hysterical laughter ...fade out.
But now, what is this? Mr. Times is leaving; he packs up, recites the ritual Thank you., Thank YOU!, and disappears.
An intra-group conversation ensues: What are we gonna do tonight, then I dunno. What about a movie? Whats playing? Frank Zappas movie is around, isnt it?. They look it up in a newspaper. (Now you know how the other half lives.) Someone brings up their rehearsal, which is to take place this afternoon on Staten Island. June Harris says they should take the ferry. Yes indeed, they surely should, everyone agrees. Get a little fresh air, boys. See the Statue of Liberty. Twenty-five minutes of bliss, watching the turds float by.
Theyve been in town three days and theyre very bored. Wheres the sky?, Carl asks as he pokes his head out the window. Many, many bricks above. Keith mumbles to himself, Maybe I should go for a walk in the park, to remind myself there are still trees... I tell them its a nice day, but nobody can believe it. Really? Youre kidding. The time has come to start asking questions.
We begin with ELPs live version of Modest Moussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition, which was rumored to be their next album. Well, rumors will be rumors; Pictures will be released in England only. We Amerikanos will have to wait until February, when an album of new ELP material will materialize in our discount stores. Nevertheless, since they have been known to play the piece in concert, it seemed worth an investigation.
Now the original composition was Moussorgskys musical impression of the paintings of a friend, Victor Hartmann. Was ELPs version also derived from Hartmanns paintings, was it improvised from the music without visual-aids, or was it based on pictures of their own choice? The answer is that it is a bit of each. For example, one of Hartmanns paintings, Vecchio Castello, was about a building he had seen as a student; in the foreground looms a huge human figure, like a lute-playing troubador. Moussorgskys music for Vecchio Castello is ominous and eery; in the ELP version, we find, as Keith described it, Greg singing underneath - beneath the castle, if you like. Another painting was The Hut on Fowls Legs, which belonged to the legendary Russian witch, Baba Yaha. (Yevtushenko wrote a really supa-dupa poem about her.) Emerson has changed the locale - his music is not about the hut, as Moussorgskys was, but about other aspects of the legend.
On the whole, the ELP adaptation is not that well-constructed. Greg described it as confused, that it just happened to work. This may be why they dont want to release it here; other possibilities: it is, after all, over a year old now, and they are working on a new album. Incidentally, the new album is at this point a collection of separate pieces; so far, here is no major piece like Tarkus or The Three Fates. However, they did point out that you never know what it will be like by the time theyve finished it.
(It might be worth mentioning that when they played Pictures at the Isle of Wight in 1970, believe it or not, they ended it by firing off two cannons. Their general feeling at that moment was sheer terror - for themselves and the audience - and a great numbness about their ears. Recalling it, Greg smiled wanly and mumbled, God...we used to take chances then, didnt we?) A later remark added this interesting sidelight: Weve been known to play in our underwear. Oh?
By the time you read this, ELP will have made their debut at Madison Square Garden. I asked what they planned to do about the notoriously disastrous Garden non-acoustics. Greg: Well make it work. He sounded very positive about that; heres hoping he was right. Anyway, good old Dr. Moog will be there beforehand to hang-out and help out if necessary. (He certainly is a helpful character. After witnessing one of their concerts last summer, he totally rebuilt Keiths synthesizer; nothing like a custom-made Moog.) Aside from that theyve brought along their three tons of equipment...visions of crushed roadies parade before the eyes. It is because of all this equipment that they will only tour one half of the country at a time from now on; all this trans-continental migration has become overwhelming.
There is yet another point to be made about this Madison Square Garden business. Okay, so a band wants to play there because for one thing, the money is great,and for another, it does symbolize some sort of achievement, maybe. But after youve done it, what next? Do you continue to do tours at the heels of Ringling Bros. Circus for the rest of your musical life, or what? Greg: Were not going to play Shea Stadium, if thats what you mean. Carl opted for a return to Carnegie Hall and like places, halls with a musicians atmosphere. June Harris mentioned that famed tourist trap, Radio City Music Hall; the Emerson eyes took on a decidedly mad glow when he was reminded of its enormous pipe-organ wall and moving stage. In fact, the group has already secured a similarly outrageous theater in Picadilly Circus for their next London gigs. Look out, dancing girls.
Somewhere in the midst of the discussion above, Dr. Moog picked up and left and photographer Wendi Lombardi arrived. She asked the band to kindly step outside (onto the street), since this here black hole was no place to take pictures. Her request prompted assorted moans and groans, and then a directionless scramble for lost socks and other articles of clothing.
After the band had gone out, a syndicated columnist arrived for his virginal rock n roll interview. Lotsa luck, buddy. (The day was already hopelessly confused.) While we waited, the assembled multitude discussed such vital issues as Where have all the groupies gone? (Apparently theyve gone somewhere.) In the end the half-frozen trio made their triumphant return, a bit more awake than when they had left.
Sallying forth into twenty questions, our syndicated friend asked a few, including one about the relationship of ELP to classical music. Their reaction was slightly on the hostile side - the classical tag is a throw-back to Emersons days with the Nice, they say. They want this band to be contemporary, even futuristic. Okay.
Just the same, there is at least one classical piece which would certainly enhance the ELP repertoire - Haydns Farewell Symphony, during which, one by one, all members of the orchestra get up and go home. The piece was Haydns way of asking his patron for a vacation. Cant you visualize the ELP treatment? One by one, pieces of equipment leave the stage and go home, until nothing remains but a couple of knives and a guitar jack. Or then again, they might consider the Dipaka (fire) Raga; when it is played, the musician is supposed to burst into flames and disintegrate. Now there is a truly spectacular way to end a performance.
My colleague the columnist, doing his best to sort out the debacle around him, resorted to bluntness, and in so doing won the bemused admiration of all. The next question to tumble oer his lips went something like: What are you gonna do with all yer money? At first, the response was a strangled silence, seasoned with half-formed thoughts about security and being able to experiment and so forth. No, they said, they didnt want five castles and thirteen cars. Finally somebody mentioned that theyd really like to do an animated cartoon of Tarkus, a project they still cant afford. )The going price is somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000.) They explained that the story behind Tarkus is a sort of surrealistic cartoon anyway, so they would like to complete their original idea.
Dreaming again: Could When Tankadillos Ruled the Earth have box-office appeal? Or what about The Return of the Manticore? I rather like, Aquatarkus vs. the Crab Monsters and the Ghost of Charles Laughton on the Island of Lost Souls. Hear little Tarkie mutter, The law is...no more. Ah, lovely.
Somehow we got on to the subject of lightshows, which were roundly booed and hissed. However, Keith did recall one evening at the Fillmore, when he played there with the Nice. The lightshow people began to interpret the music with their amorphous monstrosities: when Keith played something smooth and soothing, melifluous blobs gently wafted overheaded; then hed play something jazzy...have you ever seen blobs bopping in counterpoint? In the end it became a duel of wits: Id play some rag-time music and the guy would really get into that, so then Id stop and do something completely different...I kept trying to fool him. We never established who won.
Scriabin, the late-nineteenth century composer who actually invented lightshows, tiptoed into the conversation. As Mr. Costa and I related some of Scriabins ideas on music-as-light, music-as-color, music-as-scent, etc., you could almost hear the gears turning in a couple of nearby heads...is the world ready for ELP in living, stinking technicolor?
In time, Keith, Greg and the columnist fell into an animated discussion of something or other. Meanwhile, Mr. Palmer and I had a rather odd conversation in which he revealed that not only is he on a diet, but that his $4,000 gong has an irreparable crack in it. Just thinking about it painted a pained expression where the usual smile had been. However, he still uses it, so people in the front row beware: at any moment you may be clobbered by a $2,000 half gong. Carl also described his dream drum, which would be a gadget that could produce any drum tone - a sort of special drum-synthesizer, if you will. He has asked someone to make this thing for him, in such a way that it could be operated by a keyboard or switches or something. I do not understand, but it sounds like a good idea.
It was just about then that all hell broke loose. Phones in rooms down the hall began ringing, the door swung open and shut while unknown persons (roadies?) entered and exited, and musicians whizzed by with amazing grace. Somewhere in the midst of all the chaos, the columnist made his break for the door. He got away.
After about five minutes things returned to what - by this time - could be considered normal...if trying to talk to someone while four thousand other things compete for his attention is normal. Anyway, earlier on, Emerson and Lake had been altogether adamant about their desire to do something new and alive with their music. I asked Keith if he had tried using any scales other than the traditional European ones. (In the past, many musicians anxious to create a new music have rejected the European aesthetic and gone on to either foreign traditions - i.e., Indian music - or have created artificial forms.) The general consensus of ELP opinion was that this approach was a negative one. They felt that in setting up a new system of music, you severely limit your possibilities; aside from that, there is the danger that the music produced will be sterile and academic. However, Keith did say that he had experimented with some of the Indian scales, writing pieces around them, but that in the end he hears with a European ear.
We then talked about the fact that their music is characterized by sounds which are traditionally very unpopular. The rhythms clash violently, the attack is aggressive, the chords and sequences are often unresolved, leaving you with that feeling of eery suspension. As a rule, this is not the sort of thing which makes for best sellers; in fact, studies done a number of years ago on peoples emotional reactions to music indicated that most people actively disliked disturbing music. Stravinskys Le Sacre, which employs many of these techniques, was named the No. 1 get-me-outa-here composition, followed closely by his Firebird and Debussys La Mer. (It makes someone like myself, who really likes all three, begin to wonder...) So the question was, how did ELP get so popular?
Keiths response didnt exactly answer the question...it probably cant be answered. However, it was such a good answer to some other question that right now I would sincerely like to kill my tape recorder. (Oh yes - nearly forgot to mention it: I la-de-dad my way through this interview under the impression that my tape recorder was taking it all in; later on I discovered that instead of the interview, I had 90 minutes of Sssssssssssss. Thats a bitch.) Anyway, Ill do my best to interpret what he said; here goes.
He began by speaking of societys consciousness of war and violence...Vietnam, Belfast, etc. From there he wandered into another warring society - ancient Rome, to be specific. Roman music, he explained, was largely involved with war-sounds - fanfares, eery blasts - the sounds which permeate Tarkus. He cited the background music in gladiator pictures as an example. Although he didnt say so, the implication was that the music which suited the mood of ancient Rome has found a new home in our time. How nice.
As you may know, music in Roman and especially Greek societies had great cosmological significance. Musical harmony, celestical harmony (the music of the spheres and the balance of the universe) and bodily harmony (mood, emotion and physical as well as mental health) were all one. Now, this Mr. Emerson is very interested in Greek music: Ive been reading these books...its not a hang-up, I really dig it. He is particularly fond of Greek ideas about musical intervals, and the way they relate to the feeling of the sound.
When the average person of today thinks about intervals (if he or she thinks about them at all) the thought is of a non-entity, a void - the lines and spaces between two notes. To the Greeks, the interval represented much more than this. They understood that when two notes are sounded (either simultaneously or in close succession) what you hear is not those two notes, but the ratio between them - the synergistic result of their combination. In other words, the interval. May I quote Mr. Aristotle? Thank you. Speaking of intervals in his Metaphysics, he said, Substance lies in the ratio, whereas number is the material constituent. So there you go - the interval is the substance of sound.
Getting back to Mr. Emerson: one thing which he finds especially fascinating is that as the interval narrows, the effect is one of uplift. For example, he said that a seventh (i.e., c-b) as compared with a ninth (an octave plus one), gives him the feeling of hovering...and then he hovered a little to show what he meant. Going still narrower, he said that the fifth and fourth really get him up there. As a matter of fact, they get anybody up there - the vibrations produced by these combinations have a noticeable effect on us humans, not to mention plants and other animals.
Another point Keith made in relation to this was that as our species has evolved, our capacity for hearing these intervals has grown. The first interval which people heard and understood, he says, was probably the ninth. These days, thirds are as common as VD, and even those cranky little devils, tone clusters, get their fair share of attention. However, were still a bit off; as Keith put it, I dont think people have ever experienced the octave as it should be heard. (If anybody is interested in pursuing the point, a certain Nichomachus of Gerasa got really hung up on it in his Introduction to Mathematics.)
What all this boils down to is that music can really freak you, zip you off to crazy places. The secret is in knowing how to make it happen. Old Mr. Emerson is heavily into his shit there, and when you think of all those electronic devices of his...my stars, its frightening. One of these days ELP may get together with Dr. Moog, and a corps of engineers and technicians and create a genuine musical Frankenstein. (It walks, it talks, it blows your brains out.) A special polyphonic keyboard is already in the making; with that, the boys would be able to create - on stage - all the multi-layered effects which have formerly been confined to the studio. When they get that together, and Carl gets the drum of his dreams, and Greg gets whatever the hell he has in mind...I think Im going to hide. How about you?