Five Years To the Day: Reflections on Keith Emerson’s Music in my Life

Time is a funny thing. I still remember when realizing it had been a week two weeks since Keith Emerson’s sudden death felt long. Today, it’s been five years since March 11, 2016, the day the world got a little dimmer.

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Retrieved from here.

I didn’t know much about Emerson at the time, not yet. My journey to becoming a lifelong fan had been unorthodox, to say the least. As an elementary schooler, I watched a lot of films from the Godzilla series with my younger brother. One day when I was in the sixth grade, I came home from school after he’d spent a sick day watching one Godzilla: Final Wars. I managed to catch the ending and nothing else. I happened to catch the final song in the movie and then the closing credits.

It was nothing like I’d ever heard before, not in a Godzilla film, not in other movies, not anywhere in my auditory landscape. I fell in love at first listen. When I found it online, I saved the piece for special celebrations, the type which happened only once or twice a year: the successful end to a year at school or ringing in the New Year. It just sounded too joyous to me to be used on just anything.

The journey into music continued in my second year of high school when I took a ceramics class. As I and my classmates worked, we often listened to music curated by my teacher, a classical music aficionado who often pointed out what we were listening to. There were lessons there about classical music for anyone who wanted to learn more than how to make a pot, how to glaze it neatly, and how to make extra sure that it wouldn’t blow up in the kiln.

One day when I walked in, my teacher had something on that sounded like an orchestra accompanied by a guitar, a synthesizer, and a drum kit. I didn’t know at the time that musical groups could just do that, that someone had had the idea to meld together two disparate musical worlds. Beyond that, I hadn’t realized that it would work so well. My teacher took me aside, particularly animated today, to tell me about the composer.

“This music is by Keith Emerson,” he told me. “He’s amazing.”

Yes, I thought, listening. Yes, he is.

I kept thinking of the movie and the piece as I listened to this new work–something called the Three Fates Project. I don’t remember what I made on the pottery wheel that day. Knowing me, it was probably a flop. What I do remember is my sense of wonder growing, piece by piece. My musical world has not been the same since I first listened to Three Fates Project. It created a little ripple in my very soul that’s still spreading and reflecting, and probably will as long as I live.

My favorite days in my ceramics class became the days that I could hear the Three Fates Project playing as we worked. Two pieces in particular stuck out to me. One made me want to get up and dance, though if I’d done that in class I can only imagine the results. This, I learned soon, was an adaptation by a composer named Alberto Ginastera. On my own, I would later learn that it was called “Malambo”, and was from his ballet Estancia.

There was another piece, “Tarkus (Concertante)”, which commanded even more attention in my head. It sounded like a story, with forward motion and motifs. My favorite sort of music was music which told stories, even if I as the listener was the one making the story up rather than the composer. Eventually I found the original on YouTube, and, sitting on my bedroom floor one afternoon, I listened to Emerson, Lake & Palmer for the first time.

I hate to report that, on first listening, I didn’t like it. After the lush orchestral arrangement and full synthesizer sound from Three Fates Project, the music sounded tinny. It was only when Greg Lake began to sing, his voice equal parts rich and sweet, that things started to even out. By the end of the song, I thought it was alright. I listened again, and again…and again…and it grew on me each time. I bought the whole album in college and spun it constantly, each new song grabbing me. I talked about it to anyone who would listen. I played it for anyone I could. (To my friends who I got to listen to all of “Tarkus”, thank you for your patience, and I’m sorry for coming on so strong!)

And then, just as my interest in the music was peaking, Keith Emerson was gone.

The first thing I felt when I heard that he was dead–that he had taken his own life–was shock. How could someone who had written such joyful music that was so full of life been so sad? At the time, it made no sense. I hadn’t ever felt that sad for that long, not yet. I began studying the man in his life as found more music, piece by piece, perhaps to try to understand something I didn’t yet. “Trilogy” was the first new piece I heard after his death. It would be the second album I purchased later that year. The more I heard, the more fascinated I grew with the music.

Just about five months after, my own world suddenly and unexpectedly fell apart. Everything that had once worked, that had once made sense, became upended. Everything seemed to go wrong at once, both in my small world and the world at large. Things that once would have been able to comfort me were pulled out of my grasp. My mental health spiraled down to depths I didn’t even know I could stand. In lieu of that which I’d lost, I took refuge in the music of Keith Emerson and ELP, close enough to me to be familiar and far away enough not to cause more hurt. The world may have suddenly become a dark place, but in the music one light remained. It enabled me to get out of bed in the mornings and face each day. It gave me an answer when I’d lay awake at night and wonder what the point of it all was, in a world that had so suddenly gone wrong. And in the months ahead when things continued to go wrong, it sustained me.

Eventually, so slowly that I don’t even know when or how, the light came back in. I still have those dark nights of the soul that stretch on to dark mornings and afternoons, but they no longer make up every waking moment of my life. Life has gone on, slowly but surely. Just within these last couple of months, I finally feel some sense of positive forward motion again. I missed out on a lot more than I would like, but I’m still here.

The music of ELP is still here, too. Had it not been there for me in the fall of 2016, I would have missed out on every new twist and turn I’ve taken in my life, the bad and most especially the good. I am so sorry that there is no way that I can thank Maestro Keith Emerson myself for his role in my life, but I am grateful that he has played it, both helping me to survive and helping to bring me joy.

And thanks to both, I can dance to “Malambo” now.

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