Time Has Told Me: Emerald Web
Interview with Kat Epple, Emerald Web.
“My music comes from my connection with nature and spirit. In fact, all of the music of Emerald Web was created as a part of our spiritual journey. I continue to create music from that place of magic, wonder, and inspiration. After all, that is what makes it fun to make music.”
Words: Mark Carry, Photographs courtesy Kat Epple.
Emerald Web comprised the duo of Kat Epple and Bob Stohl who created a unique blend of “electronic space music”, fusing early electronic and organic musical hybrids with use of innovative synthesizer orchestration. The band recorded composed on keyboards, digital orchestrations, flutes and Lyricon. Their eleven studio albums include: “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales”, “Whispered Visions”, “Sound Trek”, “Valley Of The Birds”, “Aqua Regia”, “Nocturne”, “Lights Of The Ivory Plains”, “Traces Of Time”, “Catspaw”, “Dreamspun”, and “Manatee Dreams of Neptune”. In addition to self-published albums, the duo were also signed with record labels Fortuna Records, Celestial Harmonies, Passport Audion Records and Scarlett Records. The album “Catspaw” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1986. Other musicians who performed or recorded with Emerald Web include Barry Cleveland, Jon Serrie, Ben Carriel and Steve Weiner. Emerald Web also composed soundtracks for the legendary Carl Sagan.
Named after a laser show formation, and combining influences from science fiction films, fantasy novels and a broad musical spectrum, the husband and wife duo would balance day jobs as synth programmers as well as TV and film soundtrackers under the moniker of BobKat productions with evening synthesizer shows at galleries, spiritual centers and even punk clubs. The near-mythical composers were among the first to DIY blend synthesizers and acoustic instrumentation in a studio equipped with Arp 2600, Mini Moog, EML Synkey, Roland RS202 String Ensemble and Electro-Harmonix Vocoder (audio processor), plus a range of woodwind; both Kat and Bob were trained flautists, making colourful use of Bill Bernardi’s innovative Lyricon, a hybrid flute/synthesizer, with some guitar assists by friend and co-composer, Barry Cleveland.
Ever since their ’79 debut “Dragon Wings And Wizard Tales”, the other-worldly music unleashed by Emerald Web has ceaselessly illuminated the star-lit skies above with each passing note, in its stunning beauty and divine radiance. A band who constantly pushed the sonic envelope and created new age music borne from the ‘70’s prog scene (later to be dubbed “space music”), the band’s final studio recording would be “Manatee Dreams Of Neptune” after Bob’s untimely passing in 1989 at the age of 34.
“The Stargate Tapes” was recently released on Finders Keepers Records, a compilation comprising tracks from Emerald Web’s storied career. Later this year will see more special releases by this treasured group. Let the Lights Of The Ivory Plains accompany your path.
Interview with Kat Epple.
It’s a real pleasure and honour to ask you some questions about your ground-breaking and visionary music. Under the alias of Emerald Web, you and your late husband, Bob Stohl have been responsible for some of the most beautiful and innovative musical explorations to have graced the earth — shifting between ambient, electronic and new age. Firstly, please take me back to the inception of Emerald Web and the musical telepathy that exists between you and Bob. I imagine the creative process behind these works of art must have been a deeply fulfilling time?
Kat Epple: Thank you, Mark, for your appreciation of our music!
We collaborated and co-composed music very spontaneously together, but we each had very different approaches. Sometimes Bob and I would play music together and come up with a theme or texture that we both wanted to develop and further explore. At other times, one or the other of us would play a musical idea that would inspire the other to add his/her melody or timbre. We usually would record the rough idea to tape, to remind ourselves of what we were working on. We never used sheet music unless we were working with another musician who was more comfortable with notes on paper.
When I listen to Emerald Web music, I can tell which of us (Bob or I) created the original music idea. Each of us had a very different compositional approach. For instance, I created the original tracks on “Valley of the Birds” and Bob created the original tracks on “Stepper”. Our styles were a good combination for collaboration because we each added our own unique elements.
One of the many hallmarks of Emerald Web’s otherworldly sound is the innovative synthesizer orchestration utilized on the recordings. Furthermore, you were among the first to DIY blend synthesizers and acoustic instrumentation. Can you please talk me through the electronic elements of Emerald Web’s musical trajectory please?
KE: We both played silver flute, guitar, keyboards, other woodwinds and vocals when we met. Shortly after that, we began to study music synthesis, and our music became very synth based, but also incorporated acoustic instruments. We caught a lot of flak for “bringing a flute into a synthesizer studio” from some electronic music purists, but we always thought the wind instruments added a lot of dimension and air to the otherwise electronic sound.
The first synthesizers on which we composed music were the Moog 10 and a Buchla with a touch-plate keyboard. We also incorporated Musique Concréte, utilizing nature sounds. At the same time, we were experimenting with Flute Electronique which was a flute with a contact microphone patched through octave divider, ring modulators, guitar pedals, and tape manipulation. It certainly didn’t sound like a flute unless we mixed in the acoustic sound with the electronic sound. The Flute Electronique is featured on our first album, “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales”.
As technology advanced, synthesizers incorporated preset programs and additive synthesis. The introduction of digital samplers brought a huge array of new sounds to the mix. Multi-track tape recorders increased the number of tracks available. Our sound grew more complex, and incorporated orchestral elements. We continued to incorporate traditional acoustic instruments along with the high-tech synths. We were both recording engineers, and strived to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Outside of Emerald Web, you were instrumental in assisting synthesizer companies via feedback and consultancy in developing instruments such as the Lyricon wind synth. I would love to gain an insight into developing instruments and the process involved. For example, the enchanting sounds of the Lyricon has shades of guitar strings, oboe and french horn; a sound that is steeped in stunning beauty.
KE: Lyricon inventor Bill Bernardi, was a supporter of Emerald Web, and gave us a Lyricon 1 to experiment with, and to use on our albums. We often met with him at Computone to talk about ideas for improvements, changes and upgrades to the instrument. We were/are huge fans of the Lyricon. It is a unique and innovative instrument, and can be played very expressively.
We also worked extensively with Connecticut-based Electronic Music Laboratories (EML). They created some of the most innovative synths of the time. EML synthesizers are featured on our albums: “Whispered Visions”, and “Sound Trek”. Another interesting instrument that we worked with, was The VAKO Polyphonic Orchestron, which was the brainchild of David Van Koevering. The Orchestron was a keyboard instrument that played orchestral sounds (brass, strings, organ, vocal chorus) from spinning optical discs. It was similar to a Mellotron.
Recording studio of the electronic/acoustic band Emerald Web (Bob Stohl and Kat Epple) 1986. Photograph courtesy Kat Epple.
Your flute playing of course is central to this new age sound that you and Bob so masterfully created. Can you please talk me through your musical upbringing and your reasoning for choosing the flute instrument?
KE: Listening to classical music records as a young child, took me to distant lands and wonderful adventures in my imagination. That is where I first heard the sound of the flute. Although I didn’t know the name of the instrument, upon hearing it, I knew that I wanted to learn to play it. In fact, I wanted to learn to play the sound of the entire orchestra and to create my own musical stories (which is what I am doing now)
I started playing piano at 6 years old, and flute at the age of 7. Even at that time, I wrote my own songs and arrangements. I later played oboe, mandolin, guitar, and ethnic world flutes.
As a young child, I lived in Appalachia. The gospel, folk, Appalachian musicians who played out in the hollows and backroads, and in my Grandma’s country church, were exciting to hear and to watch. Although the style of music was not exactly what I wanted to do, the way they all improvised, and did not rely on sheet music, structure, or formal music training was something that I found inspiring.
I was interested to read how you both began as flute players in a south Florida jam session, which must have been one of the pre-cursors to Emerald Web’s formation. How soon would you begin your fascination with synthesizers and begin to think of combining the organic and synthetic? It must have been a very exciting time when you both began to experiment in this way.
KE: Bob Stohl and I met at the University of South Florida (1972) at a jam session, where we were both playing flutes. Shortly after that, we fell in love, and both studied electronic music and recording engineering at SYCOM (Systems Complex for the Recording and Performing Arts).
My favourite album at the moment is “Valley Of The Birds” and particularly the epic title-track. This piece of music takes you on a wholly uplifting voyage, led by the mesmerising flute-led melody. Can you please take me back to the recording of this record, Kat? Can you discuss the inspiration of Valley of the Birds in Berkley Hills where you resided?
KE: “Valley of the Birds” is still one of my favorite albums and tracks too. It was recorded in our 4 track reel-to-reel studio. The sequencers and synth tracks were recorded as the first 2 tracks, then we added flutes and Lyricon as the other 2 tracks. At the time we recorded this album, we were living in a beautiful ashram in the Berkeley, California hills. The view from our apartment looked over acres of trees, the Bay Bridge, and San Francisco. The trees were filled with birds, and their singing.
This is a quote from a review of “Valley of the Birds”:
“Emerald Web never presents a truly ambient music — behind each musical soundscape lies the intertwined melodies of Bob and Kat’s flutes caressing one’s ear and heart.”
(Ramana Das Yoga Journal)
Looking back over the immaculate songbook of Emerald Web’s vast recordings, is there a particular album that holds most resonance with you today? I would love to know if your techniques — be it writing, composing, studio recording, production, engineering — had changed or transformed in any way throughout the years?
KE: I guess “Valley of the Birds” and “Manatee Dreams of Neptune” are my favorite Emerald Web albums. All of those techniques you mentioned have changed immensely, partly because of the changes in technology, but also because I have grown as a musician and as a person.
I still enjoy most of our old music. A couple of years ago, I had the music restored and archived from the old reel-to-reel master tapes. Some of it I had not heard in decades, but as I listen to it now, I think it holds up well.
You combined influences from science fiction films, fantasy novels and a broad musical spectrum. These worlds are forever present in the music of Emerald Web as a vivid sense of mystery, fantasy, nature and sheer beauty is interwoven in the music’s rich tapestry. What were the films, books and music that you and Bob were obsessed with most that served inspiration for your own music?
KE: The first time I remember hearing electronic music was on the soundtrack of the movie “Forbidden Planet”, and I was enchanted by the sounds.
Our first album, “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales” was inspired by Usula LeGuin’s “Earthsea Trilogy”. In fact, when we sent her a copy of the album, she sent us a reply saying that she thought the music was beautiful and powerful.
I would say that JRR Tolkien was a definite influence too.
Bob and I were both studying Silat Kung Fu at that time, and that was an inspiration.
Science Fiction was very important to our sound too. We read Asimov, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Bradbury, etc. Sci Fi movies had a major impact on us and our music too. In fact, we enjoyed performing at Star Trek and Star Wars conventions as the featured “Space Music Band”.
Musically, some of our influences were King Crimson, Gustav Holst, Vangelis, Larry Fast, Walter Carlos, Pink Floyd, John Cage, and Claude Debussy.
The band Emerald Web (Bob Stohl and Kat Epple) in their recording studio in 1979. Photograph by Charles O’Connor; courtesy Kat Epple.
Please discuss for me the soundtracks you composed for Carl Sagan? This really does feel like a match made in heaven, where sight and sound becomes one giant mass of unknown beauty. Please take me back to these special collaborative projects you were involved with Carl, and indeed what the process entailed? Was it a case of being given some visuals/scenes and then composing music to identify a certain mood? I can imagine working on these soundtracks must have been hugely rewarding for you and Bob?
KE: We were huge fans of Carl Sagan and the “Cosmos” television series. It was honestly a thrill to work with him!
We worked with Carl Sagan on several films about the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The documentary, titled “Is There Anybody Out There?” on PBS, included Steven Spielberg, and featured Lily Tomlin as on-camera host and narrator.
Later, we worked with Carl Sagan and his production team, when the Voyager 2 Spacecraft reached Neptune. Emerald Web worked on films and television specials as Voyager 2 gave our planet its first glimpse of Neptune, as the extraordinary photos began to arrive back on Earth.
In recent years, you have been working closely with the Finders Keepers label as part of the Emerald Web archival project. This has already led to the incredible compilation, “The Stargate Tapes” from last year and Emerald Web’s ‘79 debut “Dragon Wings And Wizard Tales” to be released on CD for the very first time. It must be lovely for you to think there is such a special interest in these recordings that formed such a big part of your life, throughout the 80’s. What more hidden gems do you hope will see the light of day from the archives, Kat?
KE: It has been a great experience working with Andy Votel, and his archival record label, Finders Keepers. It is really good to have the early Emerald Web music restored and available for people to hear again. I appreciate the new fans that are hearing the music for the first time.
Finders Keepers plans to re-issue the album “Whispered Visions” in 2014, and to release other early Emerald Web albums in the future.
There will also be a collector’s limited edition of the album “Catspaw”, on the Anodize Record Label.
Other musicians you performed and recorded with include Barry Cleveland, Jon Serrie, and Steve Weiner. Barry Cleveland co-composed several Emerald Web compositions, as well as adding some gorgeous guitar parts. It must have been special to have friends to contribute to what the core duo of Emerald Web were creating?
KE: We always loved collaborating with other musicians. I recall many late night music sessions with a variety of artists and instrumentalists playing harp, guitar, cello, violin, synths, dance, video, and more. Unfortunately, we either didn’t record those magical experiences, or the tapes have long since been lost.
We played on albums with Barry Cleveland, Carlos Reyes, Michael Masley, Patrick Ball, Steven Halpern and more. Barry Cleveland is a long-time friend, and we are scheduled to play some music together in autumn of 2014.
In terms of live performance, Emerald Web played concerts at galleries, spiritual centres and even punk clubs. Did you tour much during this time? I can imagine it must have been difficult to replicate the Emerald Web sound in the live context? Do you have particular favourite shows from Emerald Web concerts?
KE: It took a lot of musical equipment on stage to re-create the music from our albums, but we did it. My very first synth was an Arp 2600 which consistently drifted out of tune. I developed the technique of manually tuning the oscillators “on the fly” as I performed on stage with it. Our sequencers had “volatile memory”, which meant that we had to program the sequences right before the concert, and as we were performed on stage. It took several hours to set up the equipment for our full show.
Among my favourite concerts were the ones at Morrison Planetarium at The California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. We would collaborate with the planetarium’s star show and laser show artists/technicians to create a powerful audio/visual experience. I remember standing on a stage under the planetarium dome, while over our heads, the stars would be moving, planets spinning, and laser beams flashing. Sometimes I had to hold onto the keyboard stand or mic stand to steady myself in this dizzying setting. Argon laser beams flashed just a few feet above our heads to create a criss-crossing matrix of green laser light…….an Emerald Web.
What are your thoughts on the contemporary music scene? Do you have personal favourite records from the past few years?
KE: There is an amazing variety of music that is easily accessible today, in contrast to the early days before digital downloads. Back then, it was more difficult to find new and unusual music. There is also so much more music available since a musician doesn’t have to be signed to a major record label in order to get his/her music heard. But of course, just because your music is on iTunes, etc., doesn’t mean that people will find it or buy it.
I listen to many types of music: World, Electronic, Americana, Jazz, Classical, Electronic Dance Music, Latin, Film Scores, to name a few.
Lastly, I would love to ask you what your philosophy on life is?
KE: My music comes from my connection with nature and spirit. In fact, all of the music of Emerald Web was created as a part of our spiritual journey. I continue to create music from that place of magic, wonder, and inspiration. After all, that is what makes it fun to make music.
Thank you for the truly beautiful music you have created and all the best for both the present and future.
KE: Thank you! Thanks to all of the people who have appreciated the music of Emerald Web over the years, and to those who are hearing it for the first time.