HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: August 2016. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary composer: Ron Geesin. He is best known for his collaboration with Pink Floyd on the “Atom Heart Mother” suite, which he co-wrote, from the album of the same name. He also worked with Roger Waters on the film “The Body” soundtrack in 1970, followed by the album “Music from The Body”. As a solo artist, he has released many experimental albums since 1967. His latest solo album is “RonCycle1: The Journey of a Melody”, released in 2011. In 2013, he published the book “The Flaming Cow: The Making of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother”. Read below the very interesting things he told us:
What are your current live performance projects?
None. I don’t perform much now because of arthritis in the left hand. Playing the piano is fine but playing the banjo and other string instruments is not good.
What is the concept of your latest album “RonCycle1: The Journey of a Melody”?
(Laughs) The concept is the journey of a melody. That’s what it is. How a melody gets born. It grows out of a sort of primeval sludge or mud and then goes on its life and encounters very different situations like it gets involved in arguments and good situations like going together with other melodies. It’s really a story of life in a way.
How important was the role of Mark Ayres (known for his music on “Doctor Who” series) in “Roncycle1”?
It was quite important because I had made all these tracks on the computer and I could not see a way to mix it. It wasn’t easy to think of a way of mixing anything and I was quite tired, so I thought I’d better engage another pair of ears to understand the thing. So, he mixed it and he was very intuitive because for instance when we came to a particular section, I would say to him: “Can you lift that bass a little bit? I want to make it louder” and he turned round and said: “I have already done that” (laughs). So, he was actually ahead of me. He knew what was going on. That was very important.
Was it a difficult process to write the “The Flaming Cow” book?
No, it wasn’t difficult because it was always in my head. I just had to let it flow out. It was quite easy. The facts needed to be stated. Through these 40 years I had kept all these facts in my head and then it was easy just to let them fall out.
Are you satisfied with the feedback you got from fans and press for “The Flaming Cow”?
No. There wasn’t much feedback at all. I think sometimes the fans of groups do not like to be told the truth. Whatever fantasy there is in their head, they like to keep it there. So, to be told the truth of things is not so exciting for them. What I put there is right and that pleases me. Do you know I’ve written another book? Have you seen that?
No. A book about your life story?
No. “The Adjustable Spanner”! Nothing to do with music. It’s very important. What’s the adjustable spanner translated into Greek? Sometimes translated from English it is called the “English key” (ed: Greeks call it the “French key”). That’s an important book too. It’s all part of my interest in mechanical things. I made electronic music from 1965. I was obviously interested in manipulating tape recorders and manipulating different sound making things. They are all extensions of the hand. They are all extensions of the brain and so is the adjustable spanner. That’s why I’m interested in it.
Can you explain to us your aphorism “The easiest place to hide is in the avant-garde”?
Oh yes! Well, it’s my experience of the so-called “avant-garde” that there are a lot of what I would say, posers, in other words, pretenders, in that game and hiding under the guise of doing something new. But a lot of events, supposed to be new, weren’t good form. It was just against everything had been before. I was always described as being in the avant-garde but I don’t like it. I just like to be called an ordinary human being with some ideas. You know, doing happenings in the ‘60s, where I might have been doing the sounds for someone else -it wasn’t entirely my show- and I was thinking “What is this nonsense?” But I was doing it. But in the early days on my “careering” I just got into anything that was going, so, when someone asked me to do something, I just did it.
How exciting is to write library music for the Media?
How exciting? Sometimes it’s just frightening, not exciting (laughs). The advantage I took from doing a lot of TV programmes and films, was that a framework presented to me. The framework came already made and I had to fill in my part. I had an aptitude or facility to fit in with the pictures. So the advantage there; is that the composer does not have to make his own framework but the framework is provided. Now that I am not doing films, I actually prefer to make my own framework. That’s what I did for instance on “RonCycle1”. That’s my own framework. There can be a lot of advantages in working to an existing framework. I think that’s -to some extent- why “Atom Heart Mother” was successful. Because Floyd provided the framework and I filled in the colour.
Who are your influences as a composer?
All the great composers of the past. I should say “nearly all the great composers of the past”. I don’t like the English composer Benjamin Britten or the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich but there are other Russian composers that I love: Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin. And then in France all the great romantics and impressionists: Debussy, Ravel, Canteloube, Franck, Fauré. Oh, the great British composer Edward Elgar. The Frenchman who later went to New York, Edgard Varèse. Much more modern. In fact, he made an amazing electronic piece “Poème Electronique” for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, 1958.
Do you like Karlheinz Stockhausen? He’s very influential.
No (laughs). He’s alright. I think I have some recordings of his compositions but they are not my favourite. There is so much description and so-called philosophy to accompany the compositions, that I can’t actually listen to what is coming out. I don’t regard that much. The other main influence for me is Afro-American jazz music, right from the beginning in 1917. I don’t refer to it as an influence; it’s an inspiration. And all kinds of folk music: Indian, Greek, Romanian, African, all over the world. Is very good. I was particularly in love with Romanian gypsy music by the time I was 17 years old.
Why you don’t listen to electronic music or bands?
Bands, modern bands, I just don’t find them very interesting. Electronic music I think it’s just too near to what I do. I don’t need to listen to things that are close to what I do. I like to hear patterns from other places, which is why I like the folk music, the early jazz music and the Romantic composers. That’s the reason.
Was it flattering that John Peel was a big fan of your music?
I don’t know about flattering. It was good. He was a great supporter. I think it wasn’t so much flattering as helpful, encouraging. Maybe about “flattering” you mean the same thing. I think the encouragement is good, yes.
Do you wish your music was more popular?
(Laughs) That’s the big one, man! That’s the big one! Yes, of course. There is a lot of stuff that I have done, that has never been heard and I want to do something about that. I think I should get into the download world now, because CDs as you probably know don’t sell well anymore. Of course, I would like my stuff to be out there even more. But some of that, is my fault because I always made my musical art, but then I didn’t go and sell it. I don’t promote it, because I am not good at it. So, I don’t do it.
How did John Peel help you to get the job for “Music From the Body”?
That’s very simple: He was approached by the filmmakers. The producer was Tony Garnett and the director was Roy Battersby. They asked him who was hot on the scene at that time and John Peel said: “Ron Geesin. He is the fellow”. That was in the beginning of 1970 and then they listened to some of my stuff and obviously they wanted songs in the film. They said: “Can you do songs?” I said: “No. I don’t do songs but I know a man who does” and that was Roger Waters. That was how the two of us got to do the film and then the album after that.
What memories do you have from your performance at the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at the Alexandra Palace on 29 April 1967? Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Move, Tomorrow and The Pretty Things also performed that day.
Absolutely none (laughs). I ‘ve got no memories at all. Because, as a loner, as a one-man operation when I was due on the stage, I went on the stage and did what I did. I have no memory of what I did, because I was working completely from the subconscious -hopefully from the subconscious. I don’t think I stayed very long. I didn’t stay around to listen to other bands. I just did my thing and went home. That’s how I tended to do things. Obviously, if I was touring with these bands -as I did with Genesis and a few gigs with Pink Floyd- I would sit and listen to their set after mine. I‘ve got no memory at all of Alexandra Palace but I know I was there!
John Lennon also attended that concert. Did you meet him there?
No. For the reason I didn’t know he was there. Again, I just did my thing and went home.
You contributed two atmospheric sections on Amory Kane’s “Just to Be There” album (1970). Do you remember that recording?
Yeah, I have a copy in my archive. They wanted some links between tracks, I think. It was another little crafting job really. Again, it was a thing when someone provided a framework and I filled some sections. That’s how that was done. He, Amory, gave me a mix of the tracks, so I knew where I was going, so I had to put some atmosphere when he needed something and that’s what it was.
How emotional was it to play the “Atom Heart Mother” suite live with David Gilmour at the Cadogan Hall in Chelsea, London in 2008?
That was great fun and memorable because David came and did a fine performance. I can say it was very heartening to have that performance. There were some faults in the performance but not in David Gilmour’s parts. It was in the brass performance and I wanted the best. But these kinds of things can happen sometimes…
Was it a big challenge for you to work with the EMI Pops Orchestra on the “Atom Heart Mother” Suite at the Abbey Road Studios?
I describe this in the book, “The Flaming Cow”. The brass players were particularly hard session men and they could see that I was a young upstart without much experience. They were making it difficult for me, because I was not a conductor and a director, so I was saying to them: “Here is the brass melody. What do you think? How would you like to do it?” because I hadn’t put many markings in the music. I had left the dynamic marking out intentionally to allow the musicians to put their expression into it, but they were hard session men and they didn’t respond to that kind of request. They were answering back: “What do you want? What do you want?” they kept saying. Then, a French horn player was getting particularly mouthy and I was ready to hit him. You know, I’d have punched him. If I had hit him, there would have been no “Atom Heart Mother”. So, what happened then was that the people in the control room including the band–because the control room was on another level, up the staircase- said: “Ron, let’s have 5 minutes away from this” and then John Alldis, the choir leader -he happened to be in that day, just to see what the piece was all about- took over the conducting. That incident where I was about to hit the horn player, that was very close to a disaster.
What was your reaction when you saw Pink Floyd performing the “Atom Heart Mother” suite at Hyde Park on 18 July 1970?
The performance was disgraceful. It was awful. I was in tears. I left in tears, that’s it. It was just awful. I could go into why it was awful: there wasn’t enough planning; some of the brass players had never seen this group or the score before. They were not the same players who were at Abbey Road. They were just session people who didn’t know. That was just a disaster.
Syd Barrett was present at some of the “Atom Heart Mother” sessions. Is it true that you thought he was a nutter?
(Laughs) No. He came to the studio for about 5 minutes. He wasn’t present at the sessions. If you call being present to come in for 5 minutes and then go away from it, then yes he was present. There was little to judge. He was just standing there in a long coat. There was no indication of his mental condition. I didn’t know anything about him, anyway. I would never call him a “nutter”. There are many myths which have grown up. I said earlier about some fans who don’t like to hear the truth and they keep making new fantasies.
Were you frustrated when Roger Waters said in 1985: “Atom Heart Mother is a good case, I think, for being thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again”?
I thought that he just had gone a bit off: he just overreacted there. That fact is he had very little to do with “Atom Heart Mother”. Probably he had the least to do with it of all of the group. From his ego point of view, he didn’t want it to be a success. I think Roger has shot his mouth off on many things. That’s the way he does. We all get frustrated and we could say something that we regret later.
Did you have any other offers from bands after “Atom Heart Mother”?
No. “Atom Heart Mother” was very difficult to do. I don’t remember any other offers. I am glad in fact because I needed to get on my own path, not getting stopped by any pop or rock group. Probably, if I wanted to I could have done this again but I preferred to carry on my own solo rather lonely life.
What are you working on now?
The next big work is “RonCycle2: the journey of a rhythm”. Of course, being a perverse sort of chap, I’m working some strong melodies into it!
A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Ron Geesin for his time.
Official Ron Geesin website: www.rongeesin.com