Saturday 29 March 2014

Saturday Morning Transmissions from Mercury

As a child I obsessed over space, and as an extension I also obsessed over Captain Future and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. I would play the theme songs fast forwarding between them, riding the buzz to get to the next only to rewind and start the process over again. And over again. And over again. I revelled in the imagery they conjured, and the repetition reinforced it. As I grew older and my affinity for technology grew beyond the battery I inflicted upon that VHS with the VCR remote, I would blast those songs down colour coded wires to recording cassettes to take them wherever I needed them. And for the longest time I was never without them.

I've spoken recently of my continuing affection for Captains both Harlock and Future, and the theme songs that embedded them within my psyche. I've also spoken recently of their creator, Mark Mercury, whose work I am still listening to. Especially when I am riding trains for the day.

Why am laying this all on you on a Saturday morning (which is, by the way, when this is getting posted)? Well, I made contact with Mercury. That's right NASA! I beat you to it! It turns out Mercury has e-mail, so I didn't even need a rocket of any kind. My one-up on space programs aside, Mark Mercury was super amenable to my asking him lots questions about the work he has done, has been doing, and is doing. Amenable to the point of actually answering them, which is the level of amenability for which I was hoping.

A ton of your work, including your involvement with the planetariums and your album releases, is about space and science. Is this some that you've always had an interest in?

Ever since I was a kid I have been interested in space. I would love gazing at the stars, reading space-based science fiction, and taking trips to the planetarium. My interest in science developed later in life, and it's not as strong as my interest in space.

Has it always had an impact on your music, or did that come later?

The real impact on my music began in 1988, when I began creating scores for planetarium shows. Prior to that, I occasionally had ideas for self-originated musical works that were inspired by space, but I never realised them.

Are you a fan of science fiction? Can you tell me about some of the science fiction that inspired you, or really piqued your interest?

Yes, I am a fan, but I must admit I have read so little compared to what I would like to read. The most inspiring and deeply satisfying science fiction for me comes from the written word, because reading best simulates my imagination and emotions. Novels and short stories by classic authors such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov made an early and lasting impression upon me. Science fiction about space, space travel and future civilisations is my favourite. What's most inspirational and interesting to me is the human role in future settings: the problems, challenges, and experiences that future humans face, how they affect humans physically and psychologically, and how the humans handle them. I do also enjoy audio and film productions of science fiction, but I don't get the same level of inspiration from them, probably because by their very nature they leave less to the imagination than the written word. Some of my favourite films are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Alien, and The Terminator.

Can you talk a little bit about the aspects of space that fascinate you most?

Space, with its beauty, wonder, and mystery, is a never-ending source of inspiration for me. When I look out at the stars, the immense expanses of space and time make me feel as big as and as eternal as the universe. They open my heart and stimulate my imagination. I am moved to dream about the distant past and future. I am moved to create music.

The awesome and desolate aspects of space also fascinate me. I find vistas of barren, frigid, inhospitable planets and moons depicted by space artists to be quite inspirational.

Science has made much of this possible for me. Learning what astronomy has discovered about stars and galaxies makes for a much richer experience.

My composing tools come from science: synthesizers, computer software, and recording technology. I find the sounds of electronic music, with their futuristic quality, to be perfect from communicating my impressions of space. Those sounds, coupled with traditional orchestral timbres and accessed via digital audio files, make up my tonal palette.

Science fiction, too, has spurred my imagination and creativity. The writers of science put into words many of the same feelings and dreams that I put into music. They tell inspirational tales of the human element in a space of the future.

I live in Australia, and don't think that I've ever had the pleasure of hearing any of your planetarium work in its intended setting. Are there any planetariums in Australia that use your work? How did you become involved in working with the planetariums?

The shows in planetariums change often, so I don't think there are any shows of mine currently playing.

I got involved with planetariums in a roundabout way. In the mid-80s I took up painting as a side activity, and I soon found myself creating paintings with a space theme. Shortly thereafter I happened to stumble upon an art gallery exhibiting space art by various artists from the group called the IAAA (International Association of Astronomical Artists). The artworks were beautiful and inspiring. I felt like I had just discovered a band of kindred souls. I joined the group and quickly discovered that many of the artists worked at planetariums, creating the art for public shows. I asked one artist about doing music for those shows, sent in my demo tape to the show producer, and was soon composing the music for my first show, "Flying Blue Marble", at what is now called the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

My first experience with your music was through Captain Future and Space Pirate Captain Harlock on VHS, and unfortunately there isn't a lot of information available on the extent of your work on these projects. Can you talk a bit about this work?

My writing and producing partner at the time Hal Winn, and I were hired by an American animation company to compose and produce the music. For each show, we created a main title theme and a library of music that could be used for putting together a soundtrack for all episodes. I think the shows were originally done for the Japanese market. We did new music that would be used for the American and other markets. Hal Winn first wrote the lyrics for the main titles, then I followed with the music. In those days we used live musicians to record the basic tracks. Later I overdubbed the synthesizer parts. (Nowadays I rarely use live musicians.) Together we composed the background cues, and, using our library of cues, we picked which music was to be used for each episode. We hired Rick Sanford, lead singer at the time of the rock band Legs Diamond, to sing "Take to the Sky" (the Captain Harlock theme) and Nick Uhrig to sing the Captain Future theme.

I have a deep affection for both Captain Future and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and they both had a huge impact on my life. Your theme songs are astounding. There is a distinct flavour to each of them that really matches their respective personality and style, even down to the perspective of the lyrics (first person for Captain Harlock and third person for Captain Future). At the same time they both really embody the spirit of that era of science fiction, capturing the morality, wonder, and grandeur of the post-moon landing/pre-cyberpunk era. Can you tell me anything about the approach taken in the writing of these theme songs in particular.

Thanks, I appreciate your comments. I remember working in the studio on these shows and wondering what would happen with the music. Would it just be background music and soon forgotten, or would it mean anything to anyone? So I'm glad to hear that you like the themes.

A lot of the credit goes to Hal Winn, who wrote the lyrics for those themes. As an experienced lyricist, he was very good at capturing the essence of a show in a creative lyric. I don't know how he approached the writing of the themes, but his lyrics inspired me to write the music. My intention in composing was (a) to make the rhythm tracks have some relevance to the styles of the day and (b) to create a feeling of adventure and space with the other instrumental parts and vocals that were overdubbed. While creating the music I constantly kept in mind and drew inspiration from the concepts of the shows, the various characters of the shows, and the space environment.

Your theme songs really capture the spirit of their shows. When writing theme songs, how much of the show would you watch throughout the writing process?

Enough to get a good feeling for what the show was about and how it was different from other shows....usually one complete episode plus sections of other episodes.

Would you ever listen to a show's original music when working with cartoons that were being dubbed?

If it was available, I'd listen to make sure I didn't inadvertently compose something that sounded like it. I would also notice which emotions were highlighted by the original music and compare them to my own reactions to the shows, as a test to see if I might be missing something important. Often the original music wasn't available for listening.

Are there theme songs of which you are particularly proud?

"Bad Baby"
"The Snow Queen"
"Ketchup Vampires"

All were animated shows, but without a space theme.

How difficult is it to balance your own artistic ideas with the directions given to you by producers and directors when working with studios or collaborators? Is there anything that you find that makes this process easier?

That's a great question. The ideal situation is that (a) I have been hired for a project because the director (or producer or choreographer) already likes my work and creativity and knows what to expect from me, (b) the director is willing to let me follow my heart and instinct and see what I come up with, (c) I find the project worthwhile, or high quality, and capable of inspiring me to create, and (d) I am in sync with the director's vision for the project. In that situation, it is not difficult to balance my artistic ideas with direction. Other things help too, such as when the director is confident about his (or her) vision and ability to make decisions, and when the director has a good understanding of what's involved with the composer's job.

Some media allow for more artistic freedom than others. For example, I will have more latitude working on a ballet than on a film.

How does your writing process change from when you are writing for yourself to writing for other people or projects?

Sometimes I think of creative work as simply a series of decisions...thousands of decisions one right after the other. What do I want to compose? What will be my tonal palette? What should the mood of this piece be? Should I use this note or that note? Should I set the filter on this patch to 83 or 85? Is this note too loud? Is this the best I can do?

When writing for myself, my creativity has no limits. Having that freedom is exciting and satisfying, and I can explore to my heart's content. However, I can't allow myself too much freedom. If there are continually no self-imposed limits, I run the risk of wandering all over the place creatively, which means I haven't yet made enough decisions.

When writing for other people or projects, the focus of my composing is predefined by the needs of the project, so on the one hand it means less work for me because a lot of the decisions have already been made, but on the other hand it means there are limits that I can in no way violate, so there is a sense of constraint. If there is enough room for me to be creative and to maintain my artistic integrity, the constraint is not excessive.

Are there any future projects that you can tell us about, or that you are really looking forward to?

I'm finishing up a short piece that features the erhu (Chinese violin), recorded live in the studio, set against a musical backdrop of electronic/spacy sounds. It's an experiment I wanted to try--combining the beautiful, traditional erhu with electronic music.

I will also compose more pieces for ballet and/or modern dance and have them realised by dance companies. I have several pieces in development now. One thing I would really like to do is find a choreographer who wants to collaborate on creating a ballet or modern dance piece using a space theme and setting.

Also, I plan on composing the music for a permanent, large-scale installation with an electronics/technology theme in collaboration with a visual artist (whom I have yet to find). The artwork (a sculpture or 3D work of some kind) would express the electronic aspect of technology in a highly aesthetic way. The music would be atmospheric and would will a large space, such as the lobby of a large building.

There is a really distinct progression in your available work, which gives the impression that you like to explore your own and style and approach. Are you working on any more album releases? If so, how do you think it will vary from your previous projects?

Yes, I am very motivated to explore my own style and approach. I am so glad to have electronic music to work with because it allows for so many new possibilities in sound. I am also lucky to be living in the digital age when recording technology provides so much creative flexibility.

When I have enough new, completed works that complement each other well as part of a collection, I will release another album. In any case, they will all be available singly for download on the 'net. One possibility is to release an album consisting only of my works for dance. Many of my past projects focussed on space. What I'm doing currently has elements of space, but the focus is more general. Nevertheless, how much I may roma about the universe of music, I always periodically return to a focus on space because it does resonate deeply with me.

You've written a book about playing jazz, and I believe there is also a YouTube video on clusters, and I was wondering if you get the chance to play jazz live very often, or whether it is something you do more for yourself?

Years ago I found that playing jazz regularly interfered with my composing. Daily improvising seemed to use up my creative energy for composing, and if I concentrated on composing continually my improvising suffered. So, I had to make a choice, and because I am fundamentally a compose and not a jazz musician, I chose composing. I still like to sit down and improvise at the piano now and then, not restricting myself to jazz, but playing whatever ideas come to me at the moment.

I wrote "How to Get More Ideas while Improvising Jazz" because I felt that I had something of value to offer to intermediate jazz musicians, something to help them access their creativity and express it through improvising.

Have you ever thought about recording and releasing a jazz piano album?

No, for the reasons given above.

I hope your other projects are going well. Can you say what they are?

I was recording an additional music track for a film titled A Man Called God. Some of my music is already in the film and the trailers. Then I was doing some audio work on the narration track for the same film.

This whole experience has been pretty exciting for me. I mean, I found out that Mark Mercury likes Blade Runner, uses Oxford commas, and contributed so much more music to the shows that I love than the themes. Have you seen these shows? You should if you haven't. The music is amazing.

I should organise a viewing of my VHS. Everyone can come and take part, you know, if you're interested. Look probably not 'everyone', but everyone who is interested. Hopefully. I can do this multiple times. Ask my mum. I'll back-to-back it as many times as necessary. She knows. She has seen it. Then I will keep going while the rest of you sleep. Anyway, it's awesome.

I would like to say thank you again to Mark Mercury, whose Art of Space and Music from Cycles of Spheres both live on my iPod these days, and whose earlier work had a massive impact on my childhood. 

1 comment :

Belinda Henwood said...

Great work getting to interview a personal hero! And a great interview!