John Serrie interview

Featured interview in Dreams Word #9
dw9-masthead
An Interview With
JOHN SERRIE
john-serrie

DREAMS WORD: What first inspired you to involve yourself in music?

JONN SERRIE: It really did not start like that. My mother was a concert pianist. She started me on piano lessons when I was around four years old. It was good… I was a typical piano student. I didn’t want to play baseball. l just wanted to be alone with my music.

DW: The idea of flight seems to be a major running thread in your life. Where does that originate?

JS: I was interested in aviation at an early age because I had lots of relatives around me who were in the aviation field. Many were pilots. My father was in the Navy. As a kid I was really fascinated by the idea of going to flight school and becoming a fighter pilot.

After awhile though, the family went through some difficulties just as I was starting to go through those rebellious teenage years. I decided almost unconsciously then to go into music fully. This was in the fifties when “like father like son” was the accepted thinking.

DW: It seems like you had two completely opposite forces pulling at you.

JS: Yes. One was a very disciplined lifestyle and the other was a very undisciplined lifestyle. I eventually under the surface of my mind, wanted to fuse the two.

Anyway…I got into rock and roll bands and the typical musician lifestyle all through the teenage years. I stopped playing piano, and started playing guitar when the Beatles started getting popular. I always kept my hand in whatever was happening in the current music scene. Whenever I heard a song with creative use of studio techniques such as echo and delay, it would spark my interest. The Supremes’ song “Reflections” was a good example. I was not sure what I wanted then. All I knew was the rock and roll world. Later on as the psychedelic era was happening, I would hear even more of these studio techniques there. I would then think “What is this leading to?” I knew nothing about space music. That was still to happen in the future. I was being led somehow…

DW: Please tell us how you started working with synthesizers.

JS: In 1971 I went to college to study industrial design. Later I switched my major to philosophy with a minor in music because I was starting to wonder about things. Anyway, the college had an old EML 200 synthesizer. This thing was all patchcords and no keyboard. I would sit for hours making sounds with it. Eventually out of curiosity I went to the factory which was in Connecticut. The people there were very friendly and open to others who wanted to come in and learn to use their synthesizers. I saw that they were a viable synthesizer manufacturer. They weren’t really out there like Moog and Arp was. They were selling to the local educational systems. It was a very small market, but they were selling a product that was virtually indestructible. I realized here was an opportunity to learn about synthesizers from the ground up.

DW: Did you get a job there?

JS: It wasn’t a job so much as a loose partnership. From them I got a synthesizer recording studio for almost free. In turn, I would demo their synthesizers in a knowledgeable way to the public. That arrangement worked out for about three or four years. In the end, it was more beneficial then I had thought. I was getting a free education in synthesizers from the inside. I had the entire manufacturing staff available right there with whom I could ask questions.

DW: Was this happening during college?

JS: No, I had gotten out of college at that point.

DW: How did you support yourself besides this factory situation?

JS: I was playing in bands at bars singing Jackson Browne songs, James Taylor…that sort of stuff. It was synthesizers during the day and smoky bars during the night. I wasn’t making much money, but it was a completely musical lifestyle. By that time, I had almost forgotten the space element. However the more I worked at EML, the more I was able to explore these spacey elements and sounds and try developing a style. In 1974, Tangerine Dream became an influence when “Phaedra” came out. When I heard that, I knew I wasn’t alone.

There was a camaraderie of people out there who were already doing the music though I had no way of contacting them. The next year, 1975, Larry Fast came out with “Electronic Realizations For Rock Orchestra”. That helped me a lot! Here was someone who was intelligently making music with a classical aspect as well as incorporating spacey elements. It was very encouraging because that’s when I knew there was a real industry out there beginning to happen.

DW: How did all this lead to your work in planetarium music?

JS: There was a time around 1976 or ’77 when I realized I could not stay at the factory forever earning that little amount of money. I had friends at the planetarium in Hartford, Connecticut. Many planetariums were still using classical music then. Luckily for me, the people working there were progressive. I brought some of my music to them to evaluate. They told me, “This is incredible! You really ought to be marketing this.” They paid me a small sum of money and incorporated the music into one of their star shows. The first time I saw my music set against the starfield, I thought, yes! This is the kind of setting where my music belongs! Later, these people invited me to a planetarium convention. There I got to meet a lot of people who were involved with other planetariums in the New England area. When THEY saw the show, they told me “This is the best stuff we’ve heard. We have had other people come in with synthesizer tapes before, but this is so complete! You really should start marketing it.”

I went for it and also started going to more conventions.

In 1978 I met some people from the Hayden Planetarium in Boston. They commissioned me to do my very first soundtrack.

DW: How was that different from your earlier work?

JS: I was working from a script. I could not work from the visual effects because the effects weren’t manufactured yet. I had to work from my imagination. If there was a sunset shown for three minutes, I would create three minutes of very gentle sunset music. Perhaps after then, the stars would appear, so I came out with a piece of music that was wondrous and awe-inspiring. After that, we’d deal with the different planets. For each planet we would have a different environment. For example the producer would say, “Now we are going to Mercury which is very hot…no life there at all…”I would think, “OK, what would a hot planet sound like?” I’d then bring out that scorching, scorching hot sound; very highly EQ’d. Here the synthesizer became an instrument for the imagination. Lucky for me I had all that training at the electronic music lab before which showed me exactly how each component worked. Later seeing that first completed show on the planetarium done was a highly inspiring experience.

DW: Your career was very different than most others because you were not doing record albums.

JS: Yes. It’s not like having to stand in front of the world trying to do an album because if you fall, you’re dead. People who go to see planetarium shows are a very select group. It’s not like going to see “Rocky IV”. There is a very forgiving aspect to it. You can make mistakes but you are not going to blow your career out of the water if you blow it once. Doing planetarium work was, in all aspects, like heaven for me.

DW: What ever happened to that original tape? A lot of people would want to know if it will be ever released as an album.

JS: I still have the original tape, but it’s around thirteen years old. Compared to what I’m doing now, it’s extremely elementary. In those days, however, it was very effective with the narration and the music. All I had to work with then was a small string machine and an EML 101 which is like a fancy Mini-Moog. It was not very sophisticated, but it worked. Anyway, as it ended up, when you stripped away the narration from the master tape, you were left with music and effect that told a story on their own. Every time I did planetarium shows, I just kept working at this approach. That became the foundation for my style of electronic music.

DW: I can understand how the music could feel the same as creating a painting at that point.

JS: It really did. It had a lot of visual elements like a painting. Certain sounds would suggest certain colors or environments. As I went on, I refined that process more and more. All along there were other composers who were coming out with great albums. I was influenced by Michael Hoenig and also the whole German school of e-music.

DW: We know now that you did custom soundtracks. Was there a way for you to create a generic stock of various music pieces to sell to planetariums?

JS: In 1983 I came out with my first production library. I took a backlog of music and created some new music. There were three to five minute-long music pieces on a one-hour reel to reel. Some of the pieces were sunset-type music, others were for deep space… There were black hole sound effects, exploding galaxy sound effects… There were segs that they could use between perhaps a gentle piece and a scary piece. The planetariums could take these separate pieces and create their own show. By that year I knew everybody in the planetarium field so it was very easy to market. A lot of planetariums around the world bought this production library. It was interesting to stop into a planetarium someplace and find them using the music in ways that would never have occurred to me.

In the next few years I was also doing a lot of custom soundtracks. That‘s where the bigger money was.

DW: As I understand, you were creating a LOT of music but none of it was being released commercially. Weren’t you selling ANY tapes that a major fan could eventually track down?

JS: Around 1985 at the New York planetarium the director suggested we turn the entire soundtrack of the show into a cassette album to sell in the gift shop. That was called “Starquest”. The reason I did not market a lot of my music is because I had friends who were trying to market electronic music to big record labels. It was going nowhere. I told them to avoid the entire issue of making albums. Sell it to planetariums! There’s where you find the audience who really want to hear electronic music.

DW: You also spent some years doing music for companies and their training films…not just planetarium work?

JS: Yes. It was corporate music which is a totally different style of music. It is similar in that you have to work with deadlines, producers, and scripts. I got into a recording studio in Atlanta, Georgia and became their staff composer. One day we’d get Coca-Cola walking in there wanting music for a training film. The next day someone would want music for a car commercial. The next day we would be doing music for GP toilet paper dispensers. It taught me a lot about working under pressure. After three years though, I was getting very burnt out. Then one time I got to do a music project with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. (The Air Force/Navy project. -ed) That reawakened my love of flight. That was a really fun project for me. You could see the jets zooming and cut the music right to the scene and vice versa. I was drawing from early roots so it was just a joy. That project was what eventually led to the album “Fllghtpath”.

DW: Let’s talk about your first album. How did “And The Stars Go With You” happen‘?

JS: I was still doing heavy planetarium work at the same time I was doing corporate work. I was heavily involved with the whole Teacher In Space project a year before it happened. We were producing shows and planning presentations to be set up in planetarium theaters for the Teacher In Space shot. Everyone was all excited. When the shuttle Challenger exploded, it just killed me to watch that happen because I felt close to Christa McAuliffe even though I never met her. I saw the effect it was having on everybody especially on the children. Psychologically it was so very damaging. For myself the whole space thing just came crumbling down. I could not touch my instruments for a month. I realized I had to find a way to deal with this. I had to get my creativity and my love of space back. The way to do that was an album project…to at least make a statement even if it goes nowhere. “And The Stars Go With You” became a therapy project for me.

Sonically I wanted to take people to where Christa was and let them know that she was OK. I drew on every planetarium experience I’ve ever had about taking people out there. I was trying to tell people and tell myself at the same time that Christa is looking down upon us and saying “There is a path that has been blazed here. Follow me.” That’s where I took the music.

DW: How did you get the album released on Miramar’?

JS: Kipp Kilpatrick of Miramar had somehow obtained one of the tapes that I had sold through the planetariums. Around May or June of 1986 he pitched my stuff to the president of Miramar. They went for it and told me “What if we just take one project and really push it?” I said, “Well I just happen to have a project that is ready to be pushed.” It was a coincidence that was almost too weird.

I was Miramar’s first artist. As it turned out, people just loved that CD. The best moment for me came when they built a fantastic memorial planetarium in Christa’s home town. During the dedication ceremony of that place, I got the chance to give Christa’s mother and her husband a copy of the “Stars” album. There may be some great moments that happen in my career from this point on, but this was probably the finest of my life.

DW: The best composers seem to be the ones who compose from the heart as opposed to “Hey, man! Check out this great synth effect!” Do you have any comments on this?

JS: You said it. That’s exactly right. The human heart is elemental to our very existence. We are all different people but our spirits are the same. When somebody is expressing something from the deepest part of themselves, other people can automatically feel it. Maybe they won’t be able to recognize it consciously, but there is a connection that says “Oh, that just feels so right!” That was the challenge of “Flightpath”…to pull from the heart once again. However once the second album was done, I knew it was time to create something from a very new direction. That is where “Tingri” comes in.

DW: What inspired “Tingri”?

JS: Back in college while studying philosophy, my biggest interest was Tibetan religions. From that time I remember a story about a certain master in a little Tibetan town called Tingri. He was lying on his deathbed and his devotees were crying because this great master was leaving. They asked him, “What can you give us to help us carry on your traditions?” The master came out with these beautiful scriptures that read like the Psalms. These were so heartfelt and so true because they were coming from real spiritual experience. You can find them on the very last pages of “The Tibetan Book Of The Great Liberation” published by Oxford Press. It‘s part of the same series that ‘The Tibetan Book Of The Dead‘ is based on. Within the very last pages of “The Tibetan Book Of The Great Liberation” you can find a whole section on the village of Tingri and this particular master.

DW: Does this village still exist?

JS: Yes, but it’s just an outpost. The Chinese revolution went in and virtually wiped out the whole culture. The people that still live in that place still maintain their Tingri folk attitude. They’ve kept their religion. I decided to create my third album from the viewpoint of a thousand years ago when Tingri still existed as a spiritual crossroads. There is a huge flat plain that leads to the Himalayas that they call Tingri Maiden. I imagined what it would be like to watch these villagers walking on this huge plain. I went for musical pictures of them carrying whatever they’re carrying with the beads and the jangles on their toes…the wonderful Shangri-La situation that was happening there. This is how the album “Tingri” came across. It’s a magical tribute to this long-lost village as it used to be. The album still has that spacey element that I’ve developed over the years. It’s not just dealing with the black holes anymore. It’s now about something very gentle, very loving and very spiritual.

It wasn’t meant to jump on the Tibetan fashion bandwagon that seems to be happening now. There is a lot of interest in Tibet these days. However, to find the REAL Tibet, you have to go back and study the way it really was. A lot of the production techniques that I used in “Stars” I also used in “Tingri”.

DW: So what do you see for your future?

JS: The next album which is the one I am working on now, is called “Mid-Summer Century”. It’s based on a time twisting concept. Imagine living in a civilization existing ten thousand years into the future and looking back to a time and place existing four thousand years before. To you, it is all crumbling ancient ruins and covered with dirt and ivy. To us now, it would look incredibly futuristic. Think of what civilization would be like then, looking back. l want to take that element and play with it. With synthesizers these days, you can really twist people’s minds around.

I think there will eventually come a time when I will return to the type of inspiration from which my first album came to be. However it would be difficult to capture that particular spiritual moment again.

For now I want to explore different points of interest. What is truly wonderful is what with all my planetarium experience, I have received what amounts to a free education in cosmology. We can talk about the tachyon universe – does it exist? Other universes using quantum tunneling – can you get there? There are so many different ideas that can be turned into music because in the past I have turned them into music anyway. I’ve had to. Someone was paying me to do it! (laughs) The way I see it going is that it’s really unlimited. I want to just take a concept, portray it musically, and put all my heart into it.


Update by Christopher bringing this issue online in 2015: John Serrie’s official web site is www.thousandstar.com. I don’t have much to add beyond the interview and the site, but for consistency I do have a brief reference page for him here and hope to add to it soon.