JAM Magazine Main Features

Keith Emerson

Project Tempts The Fates

JAM Magazine Interviews Keyboardist and Composer

Photos courtesy Keith Emerson Facebook

Keyboard wizard Keith Emerson is well known for his innovative work with the legendary progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His pioneering efforts in fusing elements of the classical world with hard rock music are well documented. The catalog of daring albums these three musicians produced in the '70s sold over 40 million units worldwide. The outrageous live shows throughout the decade cemented the initials E.L.P. in the annals of rock history.

Over the years, Emerson has worked on various projects involving his compositions that pushed the envelope when it came to recording the music. The latest example of his cutting edge approach can be found on the recently released album, The Three Fates Project. With trusted guitar ace Marc Bonilla at his side, and maestro Terje Mikkelsen conducting the 70-piece Münchner Rundfunkorchester, the challenge Emerson faced in recording some of his previous compositions was quite daunting. First, he had to make sure the music didn't sound like a rock band backed by an orchestra. Second, the keyboardist had to make sure both the rock, and the symphonic components of the music, didn't dominate one another. Throw in the fact that Mikkelsen had never conducted a rock band before, and you have an interesting confluence of sound to say the least.

In part one of a three-part series with the major players of the Three Fates Project, Keith Emerson sits down to discuss one of the most ambitious musical undertakings he's ever attempted in his illustrious career.

JAM: The three of you have done a beautiful job with the Three Fates Project.

Keith Emerson - Well, we are very proud of the new album. A lot of the success goes to Marc Bonilla for the production side and, of course, to Terje Mikkelsen for conducting the Munich Orchestra. For me, it's wonderful to have realized that compositions of mine now sound exactly as I always wanted them to.

JAM: So in playing with this particular orchestra, you realized the songs you had previously recorded finally took on the full form of sound you always envisioned?

Exactly! I started working with orchestras back around 1968 when I wrote "The Five Bridges Suite" with my former band, The Nice. I also wrote a piano concerto which I recorded with the London Philharmonic. ELP went out on the road with an orchestra for the Works tour, but of course budget-wise, well...that didn't quite work out. (laughs) With that said, I have always enjoyed working with orchestras. So has Marc Bonilla. This effort, however, comes under the auspices of Terje Mikkelsen. He completely believed in the entire project, which was great. I must confess that I was slightly reluctant to start off with it because back in the '60s and '70s, orchestras were just not very receptive. But here, Terje convinced me it could be done.

JAM: When you say 'not receptive', are you speaking in terms of classically trained musicians feeling their world is being invaded by 'rockers'?

Yes, yes and yes! There was this great bureaucracy in the 1960's and '70s in which rock musicians, regardless of their expertise and writing ability, were denied access to the classical trained world. In doing live concerts with orchestras, it was very difficult to work with them. The musicians would have cotton balls in their ears and such. It really was not fun.

JAM: I find it surprising those musicians would look down on you in particular. They had to know that Keith Emerson was a pioneer in incorporating classical music with rock. I would have thought them to be more appreciative and welcoming.

Quite honestly, they didn't appreciate me back then. Today, that whole cycle is turning to where orchestras of this generation love the challenge of the music. Terje was very encouraging to both me and Marc Bonilla. Hence, we really got it together.

JAM: How did the three of you first come together for this project?

About six years ago, I was invited to Beijing for a project to bring attention to the Chinese government about pollution. A marvelous piece of music, "The Yellow River Piano Concerto", had been amalgamated with my first piano concerto. So, I was invited over to perform and that's where I met Terje. He was conducting the whole Beijing Orchestra with a film going on in the background. They had it together. The whole thing really accentuated the music with the film. We both felt some sort of alliance following the event. It was quite successful. The two of us then spoke about utilizing some music I had written for ELP, as well as additional music by Marc Bonilla, and how we could put that across. We did some fresh music, but I really wanted to perform music I felt should be done by an orchestra. Terje assured me that it could be done and sure enough it was done.

It was quite remarkable. In all of my 50 years of playing, and trying to create the crossover effect involving rock groups and orchestras, much as Rick Wakeman and Jon Lord did the same, I think with this project we achieved it. Not only did we do it well with the new music, but with compositions I had previously written and always wanted to hear an orchestra perform.

JAM: To what do you attribute the staying power of the music you have written and recorded over the better part of those 40 plus years you've been in this business? You could say your work is almost timeless.

It is, yes. I don't know how to answer that question except to say that when I started writing and composing for bands in the early '60s, I felt there was room in the worlds of music and creative arts for my work to have an effect. I'm just so very pleased that it indeed reached that fruition.

JAM: With these full orchestral arrangements, down the road, can you see your music taking on a second, or even a third life of its own?

Well it could, and the fact is, I am much more encouraged today now to spend my time composing and to occasionally perform live. It is just really heartening to see that this is all now possible. We now have these musical scores, we have these examples. I can only hope that future generations will be very much inspired by them.

JAM: Take me back to 1971. You are writing Tarkus. Does it ever occur to you that someday what you're doing could be fully scored for an orchestra, or used as a teaching tool in universities? As a composer of the band's music, were you just in the moment at that point in time, or in the back of your mind, did you even remotely envision the music evolving beyond what it was initially created for?

I think indeed I was. The thing is I never got dismayed that any of the music was an impossibility to take it elsewhere any time I played it. When ELP would perform Tarkus on stage, I would hear the orchestra, but never really imagined it would happen. If you check back on the ELP repertoire, you'll find there to be quite a bit of symphonic forms, sonata forms, fugue developments and more going on, yet we managed to make that quite popular across a very wide international audience. What we accomplished was quite extreme really. Looking back, it was frightening, yet exhilarating in hearing the way it all has come about.

JAM: It must be incredibly satisfying to hear those mastered orchestral tracks when they're completed.

Oh of course! Marc Bonilla, whom I have worked with for some considerable time now, has done a wonderful job on that. The three of us (with Terje) really work well together.

JAM: What was the thought process in deciding which new numbers you would record for this project, and which one of your classic compositions needed the full orchestral treatment?

Well we chose the obvious ones; things like "The Endless Enigma" and "Abaddon's Bolero" which I had actually lost the scores for. We had to reconstruct them in the studio. Mark had the desire to hear some of his compositions in the same way I did. It was really wonderful. I can't say anything more.

JAM: It is evident when you listen to each track how everyone is working together as one unit. To Marc's credit, no one is stepping on anyone else's toes. It all flows together as one organic piece. It doesn't sound like the generic rock band with an orchestra that has become so popular these days.

Yes, I think it's just the sheer glory of hearing one's own composition played by such a tremendous orchestra under the mastery of a great conductor. Terje provided so much in his arrangements and such, it's like he was a member of the band.

JAM: The three of you hit on something very special that hopefully continues into the future.

I'm sure it will. I for one was dubious as to whether a project like this would work. I am very confident now that it can. I think it will also show other orchestras that something like this can be done. All you have to do is give them this album and say, "Here's the proof!"

JAM: When you updated your compositions for the Three Fates Project, did you have any trepidation that comparisons would be made to the original ELP recordings?

Yes, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to differentiate the music a bit. That's why on the record the song is referred to as the "Endless Enigma Suite Part I" for example. Adding "concertante" after Tarkus is more appropriate because Marc Bonilla and I, as well as the other members of the band, employed their own ideas to the composition. A concertante is not a concerto, which is played by soloists. We are all soloists working together, and played a huge part in being members of the orchestra. Given those extremes, we all submit and provide to the music. It just happens to increase the intensity of what the original composition is all about.

JAM: Like each course that constitutes a perfect meal?

You could not have put it any better!

JAM: There is always the assumption you're going to show up to record with the Monster Moog and a plethora of keyboards. On the Three Fates Project, however, there are some beautiful piano pieces you created for the new songs. Could you share your views on how you approached the music and the decisions you made on what instruments to use?

I felt the Moog belonged in there somewhere as a member of the orchestra, but the piano is actually my first instrument of choice. That's the way I worked at it.

JAM: Were these pieces that you had in your archives, or were just waiting for the right vehicle to place them on?

I thought this was a great opportunity to bring them out and be able to rework them to see some new light. I'm sure Marc feels the same way regarding his compositions. Mine may have started as a piano solo or such, but then for some extraordinary reason I developed some for a big band arrangement and that obviously wouldn't work, can you imagine it? (laughs) Then I reworked them again into a string quartet, which had its own possibilities. I figured it could be done by a bigger orchestra with the other pieces, and Terje believed in it too. So that's where we came up with the idea. We are quite happy with it!