Keith Emerson, Terje Mikkelsen & Mark Bonilla: The Three Fates

By Jeb Wright

The music of Keith Emerson was made for a large orchestra. And now, with the release of The Three Fates, it is a reality. The Three Fates refers to a melding of musical worlds. You have Keith Emerson on keyboards, guitarist Marc Bonilla and the conductor of the orchestra Terje Mikkelsen making up the three musical universes that came together to form this project.

The result is an intense album of music that creates earth shattering soundscapes and takes advantages of many diverse musical styles. With Emerson performing with the orchestra, the music becomes larger than life.

This is prog meets classical in a big way and every aspect of every song has been scrutinized to ensure the musical balance is perfect, with the band and orchestra working together instead of pulling apart.

The music includes some ELP classics as well as some new music, all done with the orchestra. The musical landscape is diverse and the end result is a true masterpiece.

Classic Rock Revisited was lucky enough to meet all three of the Fates and discuss this brilliant album as well as why professors of music once said Keith Emerson was ruining classical music, how the delicate balance came to be between the musical styles on the album and how Keith Emerson got ended up with a set of Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister’s knives.


The Keith Emerson Interview

Jeb: You have been involved in many different projects, but this is something rather unique.

Keith: It is obviously, for me, a dream of a lifetime and something that if you’re familiar with my background, I’ve been involved with this sort of crossover idea since 1968. It has had its own touch and goes, and now it seems to have come full circle.

Jeb: You played with a seventy-piece orchestra. What it is like to see your work presented in this way?

Keith: The lodging fees were quite expensive [laughter]. I think every composer that sits down and plays with a trio, as I’ve been doing in the past, it is just a wonderful moment when you walk into the concert hall and all of these people strike up and play the same piece of music, at the same time. It is very humbling.

I appreciate the Maestro’s, the heroes of music, such as Aaron Copland—I’ve got a documentary where he remarks about the very first time he walked into a concert hall and hears his music being played. It just blew him away.

Jeb: When you heard “Tarkus” what was your take?

Keith: It is a challenging piece of music and it is timeless. It is a very cinematic piece and it is incredible to hear it played back with the orchestra.

Jeb: Did you have to work harder on this album than on some of your more recent albums?

Keith: You work hard on every album, actually. There is no differentiating between the extra energy that you put into it. An album really is like a bank check. It is a promise to pay and it is your commitment to music. Every album has to be lived with. You have to live with it a very long time.

Jeb: Did this bring any additional pressure?

Keith: I don’t think so because a lot of the pressure, for me, was taken off because I was working with so many professional people. Terje Mikkelsen has had experience with orchestras all over the world and I have worked with Marc Bonilla for years.

There was more pressure with the trio I had, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, because we were so exposed. In an orchestra, you can sit back and have a little bit of a break while they do their bit and then you come back in and play. It is not like you’re playing all of the time. You’re reading the parts, but it is not nearly as much pressure as going on stage and playing with a smaller unit.

Jeb: How did you choose Terje?

Keith: Terje chose me, actually. I was invited to go to Beijing six years ago to oversee and to possibly perform with the Beijing orchestra he was conducting in China.

The project, which I believe was financed by the World Bank, appealed to me because it was bringing awareness to the Green issue. It was also very nice to be in a part of the world that I had never seen before. The concert was successful and Terje discussed using some material from my past and to work on orchestrations for it.

I didn’t hear much about it for a little while. Some arrangements were being done in Scandinavia, or elsewhere, and were coming in and I was contributing my parts for the arrangements as well, and that made me think that this could actually work.

Jeb: You get very animated when you perform with a three-piece. Do you still have as much energy when you play with the orchestra?

Keith: That remains to be seen. Obviously, when you’re in a recording studio then you have to behave yourself a little bit, as anything extra tends to be a distraction. This was not easy in terms of orchestration for the orchestra. I think throwing knives around might have been a little bit distracting.

Jeb: Marc wrote some new material for this album, as did you.

Keith: I think it is very nice to do something completely new. Marc has written some new songs and it allows the writer to have a second take on it and rework it so it works with the orchestra.

I have done “Abaddon’s Bolero” before with The London Philharmonic Orchestra, but technology has improved a great deal and this sounds so much better. You really make use of the technology concerning sound. Back when I did it, I think we had a 48-track machine but it was nothing compared to the advanced machines of today.

Jeb: Why is “Fanfare for the Common Man” so important to you?

Keith: I have loved Aaron Copland’s music since I first did “Hoedown” from his Rodeo. He represents the soul of American music.

I got to hear “Fanfare” after I heard his third symphony, where he incorporated “Fanfare for the Common Man” inside of it. I thought that was fantastic and then I learned he had recorded about ten Fanfares. Out of them all, “Fanfare for the Common Man” was his favorite and I decided to do something with it. I thought it would fit with a shuffle, which Carl Palmer was quite good at.

We released it in 1977 and it became a hit in England and went right to the top of the charts. I think number two in 1977 was “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. The conservative BBC wouldn’t play that so it got banned and our single got to the top.

I only did “Fanfare for the Common Man” after getting the approval of the piece. I corresponded with Aaron Copland during that time. I have some lovely interviews and recordings of the great man talking about how he enjoys that version and how he gave his approval. When I have done interpretations of another composer’s music then I have always sought out the composer, himself.

Jeb: Last one: I talked to Lemmy from Motorhead the other day. This is off the subject but he told me that he gave you the knives that you used to stick through the keys of your keyboard. I just can’t imagine Lemmy and you hanging out.

Keith: Lemmy and I do hang out when he is down at The Rainbow. I don’t know if you know the story but he used to be a road manager for me. It was not for very long but he carried our equipment around when I was with The Nice. He gave me my first Hitler Youth daggers that I used to stick into the keyboard. You’ve got him to blame for that.


The Terje Mikkelsen Interview

Jeb: Tell me how you came to do this album.

Terje: Keith told you about Beijing and once that was done, I moved to Shanghai, where I was the principal conductor at the time. Gradually, we recorded the orchestra in Shanghai.

While I was recording this inShanghai, I wanted Keith to put his fingerprints on it. He told me he wanted to, but he said for me to call Marc Bonilla, as he is the person who does the arrangements for him. I called Marc and it took about twenty seconds for him to get on the same page.

It ended up with me jumping on a plane with my technician and coming over to Los Angeles. We made recordings with Keith and Marc.

I had to finish everything with the orchestra, so we did exactly the opposite of the way it should be done. We put drums, bass, guitar and synth on top of an already recorded orchestra with no click tracks, or anything and it worked out. That was what made us want to go on and do more of this.

In August of last year, we recorded in Munich with everyone in the same room. Everybody was on stage at the same time. Marc and Keith were playing, but we had the amplifiers in other rooms to separate the sound. The drums were in another room as well. Nobody used headsets or click tracks. It was all done on my direction.

Jeb: Keith’s music lends itself to classical music but it is not written for a seventy-piece orchestra. How hard was it for you to make sure everything went smoothly?

Terje: Both Marc and Keith were there, so I could talk to them and ask them if they liked it, or ask them if I could do something else.

My advantages are that I work with an orchestra that will trust me with anything that I throw at them. The orchestra is not going to change their attitude, as they will always act professionally. With this, I asked them to think differently and to do things differently, which is only possible if you work with an orchestra that trusts you and will follow you.

Jeb: Classical musicians are not open to rock music. But with Keith, I would imagine it was very different.

Terje: The orchestra knew about Keith very well and they were awestruck when he came in. We’re not talking rock music, or symphonic music; we’re talking music. I don’t see the boundaries or limitations between rock and symphonic music. If it is really good music, and you have really good players, then it is going to be really good.

Jeb: How much pride do you have in these songs?

Terje: Right now, I am very proud of this. The music on the album breaths. There is phrasing, enormous dynamics and there is coloring.

I feel exactly the same way I feel when I do a concerto for piano and violin, or if I have a singer. Keith and Marc are soloists but they are also interactive within the orchestra when they are not soling. In this one, we had a transparency that gives room for the music to live. It is a concept that the band members are supporting the orchestra and adding to the orchestra.

Jeb: Some of these songs are classics but Marc has some competitions on this as well.

Terje: Before we went to Munich, we had a concert in Mongolia to perform this music. I wanted to work with Troy [Luccketta], the drummer, because it is very hard for rock musicians to work with orchestras, as they are attacking it differently. We are producing sounds a little slower and a little later than they are used to. I needed them to play a little slower and come in a little after they are used too. I needed them to change their approach, so they would not come in too early.

I was giving advice and pressing Marc to go a little further. I asked him to write music for the album. He wanted to, but he didn’t want to force his way into it, but, of course, he wanted to do it.

Jeb: Will this album be played live?

Terje: We are going to perform this in concerts. Next year we go to Spain and we will go many places. I think this could be integrated into classical concerts.

I think that good music played really good is good music, always. This is really good music and we can play it live really good, and we are going to do just that.

Jeb: I have always thought this is music that should, in a hundred years from now, still be performed. ELP are timeless.

Terje: I think Keith was always looking for the orchestra sound and way back he needed to get a new synthesizer to expand his sound. He tried to make an orchestra all on his own. When I showed him what an orchestra could do to his music then he said this is what he was looking for. He was looking for what we do. We have a full range orchestra and he was very happy to say that he needed forty years to find this sound. He has come full circle.

Jeb: Were you a fan of ELP?

Terje: Sure, I was a fan of Keith. I bought an organ when I heard his “Pictures at an Exhibition.” My teachers were sort of pointing a finger at Keith and saying that they were destroying classical music. I was taught not to like it but I did anyway. I heard his music and I liked what I heard. Aaron Copland liked what Keith did to his music and he allowed them to do this. I am very proud because I think this is very wonderful. It is so shocking and so intense.

Jeb: Before I move on to Marc do you have anything else you would like to add?

Terje: I just want to say that when I listen to this I am very proud because I think we made the music talk. We made the music tell a story. I think this music is going to live many, many years from now.


The Marc Bonilla Interview

Jeb: Both Terje and Keith blame you for this.

Marc: I get a lot of blame from a lot of people. I don’t know what that is all about. I feel like the Charles Manson of rock!

Jeb: This is a true masterpiece.

Marc: I appreciate you thinking that, as a lot of heart and soul went into making it. I think this is a very honest album.

Jeb: Keith pointed Terje to you to do the arrangements. You were put on the spot. How long did it take you to decide to do this?

Marc: Once he called, it only took a few minutes to realize that he is the real deal and not some armature conductor. He is the real thing. He asked all of the right questions and I realized that we should do this. I thought if the music sounds as good as the talk then we were on to something. When he came over with the tracks for us to play on they sounded amazing. The first thing I heard was “Enigma” which is one of my top three ELP songs. It is a very beautiful piece but this arrangement was just amazing and it hooked me. I knew we had to work together.

Jeb: The more you listen to this the more you want to listen to this. That is why I shot you that email today because you’re playing is so classy.

Marc: Terje considers us soloists within the band but it is more than that. The rock band was not any greater than the orchestral members and they were not any greater than us. We really had a great fusion between our universes. No egos got involved at all. I only soloed where I thought it needed to have something and the rest of the time it was either Keith or the orchestral members. It had to be balanced to make sense.

I think the reason a lot of rock bands fall short at their attempts at symphonic music melding with rock is that the rock band is way up front with the orchestra so far back that it might as well just be a keyboard, or vice versa, where the orchestra is loud and the band is over in the corner.

We scored and arranged this so that we had an even presentation. We used the dynamics of the orchestra in rock band form where rock bands don’t do that as they are too damn loud. The guitar players have no sense of dynamics and they play run on sentences. The orchestral members were surprised as well. One of the members came up to me and said, “We don’t have as good a meter as we thought we did. “ We had a rock solid drummer like Troy but at the same time he had to do a lot of things that he is not used to doing in Tesla. I think you hear everybody pushing the envelope and exploring areas that are outside of their comfort zone.

My playing style changed immensely after playing with Terje because of his orchestral sensibilities that we imposed upon the band. Troy would say the same thing. He sees music from a whole new angle now and has improved as a drummer. We have a snapshot of 80 musicians coming together on this album. An album is a snapshot, emotionally, spiritually and musically, at any given point in a musician’s career. It is a time capsule for your progression. You’re lucky if you capture that, as it has to be honest and we were very honest on this album.

Jeb: This didn’t end up being a Keith Emerson composed album. You have some songs on it as well.

Marc: Terje and Keith were great. Keith has always been in my corner. His ego is so in check it is amazing. He told me that I should have some songs on the album. I think he feels that together we are more powerful than when we are apart.

Terje suggested we do “American Matador.” He said that it lends itself well to an orchestral arrangement. I heard the things that were possible in it. I had always wanted to hear it as a symphonic piece. My wife had even told me that I should do that. Terje suggested I write some new pieces which were “Walking Distance” and “Morning Sun.” I had to take advantage of it because you are not handed this class of orchestra many times in your life.

Those songs were the first time I had ever written for orchestra. I’ve done scoring before but it is a different type of style. This was different because it was pure music and it would have to stand or fall on its own. It was scary but at the same time it was liberating. It was my pure expression.

I got a very nice compliment from the producer. He looked at me one day and said, “You wrote this. How long have you been studying Moller and Sibelius?” I said, “To tell you the truth I don’t listen to either of those composers.” He said, “You realize that this sounds like something they would have written. How long have you been writing for orchestras?” I said, “I will take your word for that. This is my first attempt at writing for orchestras.” He said, “This makes no sense.” He just couldn’t figure out how this rock guitar player could do this. I had no idea I could do that either. The validation from this one man was great.

Terje also gave me validation. Up to that point you think you’re just fooling people. Every musician is always being chased by his own self-doubt. At some point you just hope no one discovers that you’re really just a wanker. It was nice that somebody validated me and that maybe a little bit of me is relevant.

Jeb: Last one: Terje said that this music breaths. Do you feel the same way?

Marc: What a lot of musicians don’t understand is that silence is as equally important as sound. Without silence you have no sound, so they are the same thing. The silences are often the more effective of the two. No one needs to hear something constantly. Back off and let somebody else do something.

You need to exploit all of the dynamic ranges. If you don’t do that you have a coloring book that is just line drawings. You need to know how to color and shade and that is often ignored in rock and roll but that is always at the forefront of orchestral music. I think we have tried to make symphonic fusion. We have incorporated the best of both worlds and the music truly exceeds the sum of its parts.

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