SECONDS Magazine Issue #30 (1995)

Jonn Serrie
interviewed by George Petros

JonnIf you could hear sound in Outer Space — if your ears worked despite the lack of vibration-transmitting media and temperatures near Absolute Zero — you would hear the sun sizzling and the planets creaking and the sub-atomic particles bursting forth from nothingness and the unrelenting radio static. Outer Space is very loud; if you could hear what's out there it’d blow your mind.

Jonn Serrie can hear it. Encapsulated within his embryonic bubble, he floats through the cosmos. Galaxies lash out at him with spiraling splendor while black holes suck him near to nihilistic inevitability. Unimpressed, he drifts on and on, listening to it all, processing it, repackaging it for human consumption — and with a synth-wise wave of his hand he hurls beautiful music back to Earth.

Serrie creates "Space Music," animating the elusive vibe of the universe. Ideally, Space Music evokes the wonder, and the danger, that the universe generates as it endlessly recreates itself. Space Music reflects the physical reality of creation and destruction from the heart of the Sun to the craggy plains of Pluto.

Serrie's music represents mostly unseen forces such as the interaction of particles, wave dynamics, stellar evolution, the creation of a cosmic psyche, time, etc. For example, he draws the tachyon universe in music. Or he graphs the velocity of light using musical notes as plotting points.

Jonn Serrie, please report to the transporter room …

SECONDS: What musical scene does your work come out of?

SERRIE: Mine would come out of a Classical vein. I took piano lessons for about eight years and then I got into organ in the church. That's been the main influence. I think more than anything it's the church organ because I used to sit there for hours after mass and just play. From that moment I just started to stretch out textures.

SECONDS: What Classical repertoire were you playing?

SERRIE: Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven — the more colorful ones. I am a big fan of Bach.

SECONDS: At what point did that blend into Electronic Music?

SERRIE: From there, around twelve or thirteen, I went into Rock & Roll bands, and played a little guitar as well as keyboards. Right around my second year of college, I felt a rebirth of the Classical thing, but at the same time, the college had a small Electronic Music studio. I started to experiment and all of that texture stuff from the church organ came back. I said, "Gosh, talk about texture — look what's available here."

SECONDS: What Electronic musicians were you interested in?

SERRIE: Milton Babbit, John Cage, Luciano Berio — a few people like that. There were other students who were interested in the more intellectual way of looking at Electronic Music. I didn't really appreciate that deeply because I was still really rooted in the melodic traditions of Mozart and the twelve-tone scale. What I was really interested in was seeing how the textures were used. I said, "You could take some of these textures and apply them the same way you did when you used to play the church organ."

SECONDS: So what you did was take the sensibilities of a Classical organist and applied that to the possibilities of Electronic music —

SERRIE: You got it.

SECONDS: What kind of equipment were you using in those days?

SERRIE: It was Electronic Music Labs equipment, the old 101 synthesizer series, the 200 modular series —

SECONDS: These were at your school?

SERRIE: They were at my school. I went to Central Connecticut State College, and Electronic Music Labs was located in Rockville, which was thirty miles away from the school. So I started to hang around Electronic Music Labs and kind of made a pest out of myself until there was an opening. The guy who used to demonstrate the synthesizers there left and then I took his spot. From there on, it was a real education. It was just around the time when the modular idea was being imprinted with a digital memory. The Prophet 5 was being worked on. I had a really good look at the nuts-and-bolts side of how these machines operate. I could ask anybody any question, anytime. Then at the same time, when you had people coming in, from Rock Stars to school teachers who didn't know anything and who wanted to get into Synthesizer Music, you had to be able to talk to them on their level. That further enriched my appreciation of it.

SECONDS: Was this while you were doing commercial demonstrations for EML?

SERRIE: Correct. I got a real thorough understanding of the performing end and manufacturing end of it.

SECONDS: What took you to making music for planetariums?

SERRIE: The transition was, one of my customers said, "What are you working on?" I played him some stuff I was working on and he said, "I've got friends down at a planetarium in Hartford who would absolutely die for this." Lights went off in my head and I said, "Why didn't I think of that?"

SECONDS: Were planetariums one of your loves?

SERRIE: It was around when Star Wars came out. I had always been interested in space and aviation. I come from a Navy family.

SECONDS: Do you fly yourself?

SERRIE: Yes, I have a pilot's license.

SECONDS: What do you fly?

SERRIE: Right now, just Cessna 152s and a couple of high-performance retractables in the Cessna line.

SECONDS: Back to your music —

SERRIE: It was very much influenced by the space program as well. In between all of this, there was always that vision of space and astronauts. I was growing up at the time of the Mercury program. My father took me out and showed me Sputnik crossing the sky. That was a heavy influence on my music. Instead of a lot of notes, it slowed down into textures and the textures triggered off the imaginary process. I think it was an ongoing thing — music and space.

SECONDS: You were directly influenced by the public optimism of the space program of that era.

SERRIE: Absolutely. It was everywhere.

SECONDS: Are you disappointed, in retrospect, with what we've got to show for the space program?

SERRIE: No, I'm not disappointed in the technology and everything we've gained. I'm a little disappointed in the politics.

SECONDS: What comment do you have on that?

SERRIE: I just think we lost our way for a few years but I think the technology has been an ongoing development of space-related things. We are going to have a space station eventually; we are going to go to the moon eventually. What's happening here is we just have to take our time and straighten out a few problems and I don't see anything wrong with that. I think the public's focus has been skewed a little bit on things because of politics.

SECONDS: Did you imagine in 1977, when you were offered that first planetarium gig, that by the end of the century you would go to the Hilton on the Moon and live that 2001 promise?

SERRIE: Oh yeah, I was like, "The next thirty years are going to be incredible." Let's put it this way: if the Vietnam War had not happened, we would be having this conversation on the Moon.

SECONDS: So the Vietnam war drained off the resources.

SERRIE: Vietnam drained off the national treasury, drained off the national will, put a bad taste in people's mouth about the power of government.

SECONDS: Were you re-excited during the Strategic Defense Initiative — SDI — program?

SERRIE: I was. I always knew that somewhere along the line it really wouldn't be used for strategic defense. What they were working on was precision ways of focusing energy in space. So I said, "Now this would work if you want to work with the microwave idea of beaming energy in from Outer Space. This is what this research could be used for." There's all kind of offshoots here. You just got the feeling along the way that the Soviet Union really wasn't up to it. Everybody knew that if you wanted to cause damage to another country, you ain't gonna bomb them. All you gotta do is get some smart little computer virus to screw up the national banking system. Everybody knew that the SDI program was far-reaching visionary program that was looking at things way beyond just knocking missiles out of the sky.

SECONDS: Weren't you irritated or disappointed with the barrage of criticism those programs came under?

SERRIE: Yeah, but I took it for what it was worth. There's a lot of things said by people who didn't have the true facts and were trying to make their own agenda and of course you could see right through it. My focus always remained on, "What they're working on now is going to help humanity down the road whether they like it or not." They can call it SDI, they can call it whatever they want, but because of the ICBM program, we were able to put men on the moon. Because of the SDI program, we're going to be able to harness the energy of the sun. Because of the SDI program, we're going to make that space station do some really useful things. It's a stepping stone to the stars.

SECONDS: Have you applied for a seat on the shuttle?

SERRIE: Not yet. Several astronauts have taken CDs of mine on the Shuttle.

SECONDS: How did you become a New Age Star?

SERRIE: What I did was, I got into the planetarium industry and I said, "This is a great way to express how I've felt for years." I threw myself at the industry. I went to conventions — regional, national, and international conventions; got to know everybody, and just kept cranking out show soundtrack after show soundtrack, not paying any attention to what was going on with the New Age movement. My whole focus was with space industry music — making the music fit the narration and making it say something beyond itself.

SECONDS: This is the narration of a sky show?

SERRIE: Of a sky show, or some kind of corporate show, something that had to do with space.

SECONDS: A lot of time the narration is geared for an audience that might not have the level of astronomical sophistication that you have. Is that frustrating?

SERRIE: It's frustrating, but it's challenging. They're getting off of that high-minded educational tone and they're getting a little more entertaining. That shift happened at the same time I got involved in the industry. Technology has hit the planetarium industry as much as it's hit any other industry. There's digital star fields; there's ways of manipulating images that are faster, cleaner, and better; the sound systems are obviously much better. There's multi-channel sound systems able to pinpoint sounds by throwing signals out of phase. They'll have a comet go from west to east and have the sound follow that comet.

SECONDS: Will they eventually dispense with the mechanical apparatus of the planetarium device itself and project these things through a cathode system?

SERRIE: That's already happening. It's called the Digistar.

SECONDS: So the Zeiss planetariums that everyone's come to know and love and pretend to understand will become obsolete.

SERRIE: Now you've hit upon the fundamental question. The fundamental question going on Electronic Music is the same question going on in the planetarium field: between analog and digital. In Electronic Music, you must have both, in my opinion. The analog generates the harmonic distortion. It's very subtle, it's very necessary for bringing a warm and meaty sound out. The digital stuff is very capable of emulating any acoustic instrument with super cleanliness, but it's too clean, too thin. You've got to have both. In the planetarium industry it's the same way. That Zeiss star machine will never be duplicated. It's too perfect. Those are analog stars. It's done with analog machinery — it's done with lenses, it's done with little lights, and it's done with precision gears. The reason that a star field looks as good as it does is that the technology has been perfected over thirty, forty years. Along comes digital and now we can spray onto that dome any image you can put on a computer screen. The problem is it's too thin and too clean. The stars, when you project them through a cathode ray tube, come out fuzzy, because you don't have that pinpoint accuracy that you do with a Zeiss. Unless they can incorporate some of that pinpoint accuracy and combine the two technologies into one star machine — which is being worked on — that whole question is not going to be resolved for some time. If you want my opinion, the better planetariums are going to have both.

SECONDS: And the music?

SERRIE: I've really gone through some changes in the past couple of years that have brought home ways of combining Space Music and the Romantic, which means taking the whole vision of space and instead of being cold and technical — exploding stars and black holes — trying to soften that image of space, feminize that image of space. Make it soft, make it romantic, a pleasing cozy place in which to rest and repose. I'm really mixing romantic elements into the music in a conscious way. That sense of wonder and infinite anticipation that you get when you fall in love is the same sense of wonder that you get when you look at a beautiful starlit sky. It's a giddy sense of anticipation of infinite possibilities — the mothership feeling, letting your soul out to the stars. Those two experiences come from the same place, which of course is the human heart.

SECONDS: Maybe you could explain to us what New Age is and how it's different from Easy Listening or Muzak.

SERRIE: People ask me, "What do you think of New Age?" The term "New Age" is a marketing tool, I guess — It's all right with me.

SECONDS: Do you consider yourself to be a New Age musician?

SERRIE: I would say that there are elements of New Age in my stuff but — There's a little scientist in me.

SECONDS: So you're really like a Classical composer.

SERRIE: I do meditate, but I take my meditation very privately. My life is a very private life. My whole thing is call-it-what-you-want. At the bottom of everything, it's music.

SECONDS: Why don't you tell our readers what Space Music is?

SERRIE: I think that Space Music attempts to stimulate two areas. The imagination — the thought process — and what I call the mothership process. Space Music stimulates the mind — "What would it be like to be out there floating among the stars?" —-and it stimulates the heart area — "What would this feel like?” To me, when you combine both those ideas in a musical image, you have Space Music. It could be Outer Space Music, it could be Inner Space, it could be what it would be like to float among your dreams, to spin your dreams into love, to spin your love into music.

SECONDS: So it's an attempt to replicate the feeling of actually being in Outer Space.


SECONDS: At what point did such music become enough of a vernacular that you would actually imagine seeing Saturn?

SERRIE: I think in the mid-Twenties. Right around the point where radio was being played with, when new media was coming across. Later there were a few visionaries that made movies like Forbidden Planet and First Man On the Moon.

SECONDS: What about more modern folks like Constance Demby or Michael Stearns? Are they influential upon you?

SERRIE: No, I didn't hear any of Michael or Constance's music until the mid-Eighties. I was locked in my own world of planetarium production. I wasn't listening to anybody except Classical music and maybe Larry Fast with a tad of Tangerine Dream thrown in there. I was really busy composing music and paying no attention to anything New Age. I think the key is to make your own statement — and to make your own statement, you must know those machines. You must be able to control the beast. The beast takes on your personality and I think that's what happened with my music. These machines have taken on my personality, but only because I fed them. I program my own sounds.

SECONDS: So there's no sampling in your stuff?

SERRIE: The stuff that I sample would be vocal phrases, stuff from analog keyboards. If I wanted a great oboe sound, I'd buy one. There are programmers out there making excellent sounds. But if I'm doing serious Space Music, I design my own sounds.

SECONDS: When you make your music, are there any particular objects or phenomena you are influenced by?

SERRIE: I would say tachyons and the model of the tachyon universe being a parallel. Tachyons are the only known objects that have no mass and they're able to be in two places simultaneously. They are little objects that pour out of the sun, and they're highly influenced by consciousness. You can only see the results of them. Depending on how you ask the question or how you go about investigating them, they're so subtle that they'll respond to consciousness. They're the wildest things in the universe. Through theoretical physics, they say it is possible to use the Tachyon model to try and find out if there is a parallel universe.

SECONDS: When did their existence become known?

SERRIE: Probably in the Forties. I think that Einstein knew about tachyons. Planck knew about them.

SECONDS: With what device was their existence verified?

SERRIE: Cloud chambers, atom smashers, cyclotrons — things like that — and theoretical mathematics. I find it really fascinating. If you think about it, when two people are in love and they're miles apart, if they're truly in love they're feeling the same thing. I've been in that situation where I know exactly what my lady is thinking and she knows what I'm thinking. So I feel a really unique parallel between the force of love and the force of the tachyon. Once again, that cements what I'm trying to do with the music, the space and the romantic end of it.

SECONDS: Perhaps the tachyon plays some role in romantic love?

SERRIE: I think that it does, because it's the only thing that can be in two places simultaneously and have no mass.

SECONDS: How can it be in two places at once?

SERRIE: Because it has no mass.

SECONDS: So it has no absolute boundary.

SERRIE: Yes. No boundaries, no parameters, no laws of physics apply to tachyons. That says to me that they do exist already in a holographic universe that parallels our own and is able to move within it and at the same time is not governed by the powers of the physical, which is the story of love — not bound by the physical world, able to be in two places at the same time, works holographically, works parallel; it never followed the rules of the universe.

SECONDS: How does it exist in time?

SERRIE: It's timeless. It's able to enter time and leave time. It exists in a timeless state.

SECONDS: Is this what the Great Attractor is?

SERRIE: It could be. This is a whole new field. I've attended a few lectures on it. It's real fascinating stuff. Plus the fact that all the atoms in our bodies were formed in the furnace of a dying star. When a supernova explodes, it sprays the entire periodic table throughout the universe. Our thought processes, everything that we are, comes from those elements. If you want to talk about human beings as stardust, it's an accurate statement. it's not dreamland here; this is really true, this is where we come from. I find that is an incredibly inspiring idea for me, that maybe there are parts of me that exist way beyond my body and the tachyons that course through me are being affected by other forces. I would love to go through an infrared nebula cloud or something like that and see how it would look coming up toward it or what it would be like to stand on the event horizon, if you could get anywhere near it, but I just find that even in the subtler forms of theoretical physics, I always come back to the tachyon.

SECONDS: What effect do you want your albums to have on the audience?

SERRIE: What I'm trying to do there is I'm trying to tell stories of adventures in space and adventures in romance. Using the synthesizer to create space-y images within the mind — and also affect the heart.

SECONDS: Is it erotic music?

SERRIE: I would say there's times definitely when I'm doing things in there that are meant to trigger erotic ideas and images. It's part of the romantic tradition to be able to do that. The trick is to get the machines to do that without being obvious about it and without having any hard edges. If people want to strip off their clothes and go for it, by all means go —

SECONDS: Do you imagine that happening to your stuff?

SERRIE: Of course. I've gotten stories from people, letters from people. A couple of pieces on Midsummer Century are aimed directly into bedrooms.

SECONDS: What other kind of consciousness expansion do you see your music being responsible for?

SERRIE: Meditation, healing, putting babies to sleep, it's been used in hospice programs, prenatal care, substance abuse programs —

SECONDS: So it's to get people off drugs as well as on them.

SERRIE: Pretty much. I'm not on any mission, I'm just a musician.

SECONDS: Is there a psychedelic component to your music?

SERRIE: There's a visual stimulus for sure. There's certain ways to use sound that can absolutely trigger images in the mind.

SECONDS: You use that very consciously?

SERRIE: Very consciously. If you start a piece that sounds like you're on the bridge of the Enterprise, there's a direct image that comes to mind. You take that sound and melt it into something and you spin this whole space adventure just using sounds and sound effects, without being so obvious that it sounds elementary. There's a sophistication to how it's done, a suggestion rather than a demand.

SECONDS: Would the ideal listening situation be people gettin' it on in space?

SERRIE: IF they want to. I like when I hear stories about a guy and a girl just parking all night listening to And the Stars Go With You or just sitting by a fireplace somewhere and expressing how they feel about each other. The thing that really gets me is when two people have fallen madly in love with each other and they break up and go their separate ways. Years down the line they get together and they go, "Do you remember when we used to just sit for hours and listen to And The Stars Go With You and how that made us feel?" I remember times in my life when pieces of music had that effect on me in the relationships I was in.

SECONDS: So you're like a sonic matchmaker.

SERRIE: Yeah, you could say that. I just find it dynamic that maybe someone would think of my music in that way, that I have had an effect on somebody's life and caused a beautiful moment to live forever. Especially when it comes to romance, because romance is such a delicate thing and space is such a delicate thing. I'm constantly trying to spin the two together and let everybody that hears the music create their own virtual world. I get letters, and phone calls every once in a while —

SECONDS: From potential lovers?

SERRIE: Yeah, I get a few of those —

SECONDS: Do you also get letters from theoretical physicists that say they solved the Unified Theory problem while listening to your music?

SERRIE: Yeah, I got a couple letters from physics professors in California that said, "We put your stuff on in the classroom." I've gotten letters from therapists, teachers, lawyers, math professors that have said, "your music has a certain lawyer-ly quality" or “your music has a mathematical quality."

SECONDS: So your music is a template for people's minds to wander within.

SERRIE: Yeah, that's the idea. You're creating textures and suggestions without banging them over the head with it. You're creating a pathway for them to walk on.

SECONDS: In regards to your albums, I feel the Planetary Chronicles series really embodies the finest examples of what you're doing.

SERRIE: That is a chance for me to put forth my deepest ideas about space and to experiment with new textures, going further and further into that virtual dreamland without any commercial expectations or considerations. On some of the other albums, what I'm trying to do is incorporate melody and rhythm into the Space Music I'm doing. Actually, they're even more experimental.

SECONDS: This is your attempt to take an Ambient form of music and put some melody to it —

SERRIE: Yeah, put some melody, some rhythm — Sade in space.

SECONDS: How are you finding the equation works out for those dissimilar views?

SERRIE: I think what you can do is soften up the rhythmic element through equalization techniques and delay techniques and then make the melodic elements dreamy. You're just taking that melody and dressing it up with ambient texture. I'm getting closer to where I want to be with it. I am never going to stop making pure Space Music because that's what I am. At the same time, I really love being able to make a nice song using ambient techniques. There's still a part of me that loves a good melody.

SECONDS: How is the Planetary Chronicles series unique among Space Music?

SERRIE: I think it comes directly from the space environment, as close to space as you can get.

SECONDS: So there's an academic side to it whereas other composers may strictly be impressionistic?

SERRIE: Right. You want to put some nuts and bolts in there, some real astronomy. I think that's what separates Planetary Chronicles from other things.

SECONDS: How will your stuff fare as we discover more about Outer Space?

SERRIE: What I'm trying to do is make the music transparent and not be so upfront about the way the music is mixed and composed. There's a lot of composers out there that put all the elements right out front and it sounds like a wall of sound. The music that lasts always has that transcendent element to it where the audience is able to just fall into the music. By falling into the music you're offering little clues about where they could go to explore further.

SECONDS: So it's very functional in that it directs people to the next level.

SERRIE: The reason I think it's going to work is that And The Stars Go With You has been out for nearly ten years and is selling just as strong as it was the first year.

SECONDS: What's your best seller?

SERRIE: I think the best seller is And The Stars Go With You, followed by Midsummer Century.

SECONDS: If you don't mind me throwing in my two cents worth, I think your finest piece is Planetary Chronicles Volume Two. It's just got that Deep Space resonance.

SERRIE: My album Ixlandia has Chronicles elements that are more refined than they were on Midsummer Century, not quite a dichotomy between what I'm trying to do rhythmically and spatially. I'm going to bring those two elements closer together and see what happens.

SECONDS: Some of your stuff is interplanetary and some's interstellar.

SERRIE: There you go, that's a great analogy. •