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An interview with Diamond Star author Catherine Asaro and Hayim Ani of Point Valid

conducted by Charles E. Gannon

© Catherine Asaro
Catherine Asaro
© Point Valid, Catherine Asaro
Point Valid with Catherine Asaro
© Miriam Ani
Hayim Ani
Catherine Asaro
Catherine Asaro earned her PhD in chemical physics from Harvard, and a BS from UCLA. She also writes science fiction, a blend of hard SF with space adventure. Her debut novel was Primary Inversion, Catch the Lightning won the 1997 Sapphire Award, The Last Hawk was a Nebula nominee along with her novella, "Aurora In Four Voices" (Analog, Dec 98). She won a Nebula Award for her novel, The Quantum Rose. The books are stand-alone novels, but take place in the same universe. Her husband, John Cannizzo, is the proverbial NASA rocket scientist, and an excellent resource for a writer of romantic space adventure!

Catherine Asaro Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Skyfall
SF Site Review: The Last Hawk
SF Site Review: The Veiled Web
SF Site Review: The Quantum Rose
SF Site Review: The Radiant Seas

CD and Book Information:
Point Valid with Catherine Asaro
Conceived and based on the novel Diamond Star, by Catherine Asaro
Baen Books (Simon & Schuster), May 2009

Recorded, mixed, and mastered at Invisible Sound Studios
Executive producer: Catherine Asaro
Produced by Dave Nachodsky, Catherine Asaro and Hayim Ani
Photography: Stephen Baranovics, Miriam Ani, and Paul Cory
Point Valid:
Hayim Ani, vocals and guitar
Adam Leve, drums
Max Vidaver, guitar

Facebook: Catherine Asaro's Photos - Diamond Star
Facebook: Catherine Asaro's Photos
Flickr: Catherine Asaro's Photostream
Point Valid Bios
(Click on Discography and then on Band Bios)

Diamond Star
The Last Hawk
The Veiled Web
Diamond Star the CD might well have been given the subtitle: "Musical Energy Erupting from a Fusion of Two Creative Minds." Energy, creativity, imagination, and drive are the obvious keynotes when interviewing award-winning author Catherine Asaro (who also happens to be a physicist and dancer) and Hayim Ani (whose promise at age 17 had already resulted in the production of a prior CD with the band Point Valid). Their differences in background and experiences emerge not as a collision of styles, but as a harmony of complimentary visions that allowed them to bring a unique blend of diversity and common-mindedness to their project.

That project is also part of a trailblazing trend in SF/F genre publishing. While new media have certainly changed the face (or rather, 'sensuscape') of the book market, I cannot find a prior example of so seminal and purposive a marriage of printed word with popular music. Alan Parsons may have celebrated Isaac Asimov's work with the album I, Robot (and other artists have crafted similar homages since), but these were fundamentally afterwords: musical responses to an earlier book, with little or no input from the author. The reverse is true in the case of the Diamond Star CD. Not only does the CD feature songs that appear within the novel (which recounts the terrestrial experiences of an interstellar empire's scion-turned-rockstar), but the lyrics, many of the vocal performances, and executive production of the project came straight from the author, Catherine Asaro. Point Valid's frontman, Hayim Ani, read the book and used it as a direct inspiration for the music and arrangement of various tracks, creating what seems (at the moments of closest collaboration) to be a "soundtrack" for the often cinematic story of Diamond Star.

With increasing numbers of books promoted by video-trailers, audiobooks enjoying ever-increased distribution, and other multi-media fusions, the Diamond Star CD not only marks a new zenith of synergy between manuscripts and music, but may be another major step toward a truly multimedia sensuscape.

Catherine, tell us a little bit about when and how you decided that Diamond Star should have an accompanying CD. Was that part of the plan from the beginning, or did it grow with the story? What was the inspiration for blazing this inter-media trail, and how did you go about finding Point Valid?

Catherine: I was in the throes of writing the book when it hit me: "Duh. It's about a rock singer; you need rock songs." So I wrote lyrics. They came easily -- or so I thought. Then I listened to songs to hear how their lyrics fit the music. And I thought: "Okay, it's not easy." I needed to consider the music, too.

Music has saturated my life. I played classical piano, I'm trained as a dancer in ballet and jazz, and I've listened to rock constantly all my life. That doesn't make me particularly knowledgeable about composition, but it did help me write a few bits of music to help redo the lyrics.

I knew Hayim, the front man of Point Valid, because he and my daughter were both home-schooled, and she introduced us. We "met" via email and then at Starbucks. Right away, he understood what I was trying to do. He brought his guitar and played me a piece he was working on. I liked his sound, the "classic" rock singer's tenor. We started with one song, "Carnelians," and it grew from there into a full CD with his band, Point Valid.

Hayim, Catherine Asaro's SF novel Diamond Star -- and therefore, the song lyrics that appear in it -- came before the CD. How did you approach the music and the "concept?" Is it a case of each song being a separate interpretation that takes "some inspiration" from the book, or was it more a total "concept album?" Was it an attempt to create "faithful approximations" of the musical moments depicted in the book? If it was a mix of these -- and more -- approaches, break that down for us.
Hayim: Well, the creation of each song on Diamond Star (the CD) is a story in and of itself. We approached the project through the perspective of a concept album but each track was inspired, composed, and recorded differently. There was no single formula used for every piece. Although the primary goal and purpose of this album was to be a "soundtrack" for the book, it also reflects a collaboration between Point Valid and Catherine Asaro. There are tracks on the CD that are 100 percent Asaro, and there are tracks on the CD that are 100 percent Point Valid. However, the bulk of the CD is collaboration. These tracks usually would initiate from the lyrics as well as descriptions or excerpts from the book itself. Using the material given to us, we would throw around ideas and bounce them off Catherine. When we got to a place where both parties were relatively satisfied, we would hit the studio and build the song up from there. Realistically, neither the band nor Catherine could be in each other's heads, so ultimately the pieces are interpretations.

There are so many potential influences upon this project that I won't even try to guess at them. So please share them with us: which artists/composers/producers did you have in mind when you were crafting Diamond Star? Where should we listen for their influence?
Catherine: It's hard to pinpoint any person or style. Hundreds of artists have shaped my inner landscape. My influences are rock music, both classic and current; jazz and blues; and classical music, particularly works for ballet and piano.

Hayim: The CD was written and recorded over the course of at least a year. Over this time, there was much growth and maturation on the part of the band and the relationship between us and Catherine. Select musical pieces on this album were originally composed by the band as far back as early 2007. It's impossible to figure out exactly where the influence for any single work emanated from. Music happens and it's sometimes hard to say why. Over the course of that year I had much change in my musical tastes. As I grow up, my musical likings become more and more pluralistic, which I think goes hand in hand with my growing understanding of the creation of a song and a CD. Therefore, the best answer I can give is the musicians that dominated my playlists over the course of that year. Those would be for the most part: Ani Difranco, Breaking Benjamin, The Shins, Angels and Airwaves, Pearl Jam, The Used, Iorn And Wine, A Perfect Circle, Weezer and anything by Bach.

Everybody has a favorite track on a CD: which is yours, and why?
Catherine: That's hard to answer! I like them all. "Carnelians" was the first. Hayim and I sent demos back and forth while we figured out where to go with the song. He and Adam, the Point Valid drummer, worked on it, and Hayim brought in Victoria McDaniel, another singer. I was new to the studio then, and watching them put it together, piece by piece, was fascinating. The day when Dave Nachodsky, our recording engineer, played the finished song, I was stunned. It was a gift they had given me, creating this gorgeous song that brought my lyrics to life.

"Diamond Star" is another of my favorites. The music I initially wrote for it wasn't right for a rock song, so I asked Hayim if he had ideas for a style. He would email me with suggestions, saying, "Go listen to this one on YouTube." It was fun. We settled on a style, and he wrote original music with that in mind. The opening guitar riff startled me, and I said, "Wait a minute! That opening sounds country & western." But it worked.

Hayim: I have a very close -- and very different -- relationship with each song. So I have a few "favorites." My favorite track to make was "Sapphire Clouds" which was a lot of experimental instrumentation and collaboration. We tried out a lot of fun, crazy things and it was a blast to record.

Catherine: It was! I think some of our strongest, most innovative work came from our collaborations, especially "Sapphire Clouds," "Carnelians," "Emerald," and "No Answers/In Paradisum." They're interesting, not songs I play over and over in the background, but music I concentrate on while I'm listening.

Hayim's originals are a pleasure. We were sitting in my house one afternoon, talking, and he was playing his acoustic guitar. He started to sing "Boxcar Madness," one of his pieces. I said, "That would be perfect for the book!" He agreed to let me use it and two of his other songs, "Etch-A-Sketch" and "Breathing Underwater." We recorded "Boxcar" first. I remember listening to Yellie, the keyboardist, play that piano riff and thinking, "Something is happening here. Something good."

Hayim: The track I feel the most emotionally connected to is "Breathing Underwater," which comes straight from raw emotion and personal experiences.

Catherine: It's a powerful song, and the one we chose for a video, which is up on YouTube now and at the Starflight Music website.

"Starlight Child" is special to me. It's actually the music I initially composed for "Diamond Star," but it ended up fitting "Starlight Child" better. In the book, the main character writes the song for his nephews; in real life, it's dedicated to my daughter. The vocal line for "Starlight Child" is part of the music, so I decided to leave it as an instrumental, but the lyrics appear in the book and also on the Starflight website. And I love to listen to the "Carnelians Finale." That's one I can just let play over and over.

Hayim: My favorite track to listen to is "Etch-a-Sketch," which just makes me want to dance!

Which tracks came together most quickly, and why? Which took the most work, or went through the most revisions, and why?
Hayim: Once we agreed on what we were going to do for our cover of "Sound of Silence" it came together the quickest I think. Musically, it's fairly basic and apart from all the percussion and the "spanish" guitar solo it was just a matter of me and my acoustic guitar.

Catherine: "Starlight Child" also went fast because it had no vocals. We recorded it after Hayim left for Israel, where he's studying in a yeshiva.

Hayim: The song that took the longest was -- without a doubt -- the band's version of "Carnelians." It was the first song that I wrote for Catherine and the first one we recorded. There was a lot of back and forth before we even set foot in a studio. It was hard to find the right balance of energy and beauty, of emotion and intensity, so we went through many different arrangement ideas. The song also took the longest to record. "Carnelians" is so layered that we almost ran out of room on the mixing board for all the tracks. Also, much of the "layering" was written in the studio and was "made up" as we went along.

Catherine: We have two versions of "Carnelians" on the CD. In the studio, the "Carnelians Finale" took about twice as long as "Carnelians" itself. I gave the chord progression to David Dalrymple, a grad student at MIT. He worked up an orchestration and sent us the tracks via the web. Adam put drums on after the other music was done. By the time we were ready for vocals, Hayim was in Israel, so Michael Belinkie did them. They have a different quality, more classical, which we needed to fit the scene in the book. He has a magnificent, four-octave range; I get chills when he screams that last high note.

One thing I learned from Hayim and Adam was to think of the melody as separate but complimentary to the music. On Adam's suggestion, I rewrote the "Carnelians Finale" so the music plays a counter melody to the vocals. And then I redid some of the keyboard tracks in the studio. With so many changes, it took Dave Nachodsky and I several days to mix the song.

In the book, the character does both instrumental and vocal versions, so we included both on the CD. It would be cool to do a third version, a video with a full orchestra, Hayim singing the part, and Max and Adam playing. Realistically, the logistics of arranging an orchestra for such a video make the idea prohibitive. Then again, if I've learned anything over the years, it's never to say "never."

Hayim, "Etch-a-Sketch" seems to differentiate itself -- in style, lyrics, and instrumentation -- from most of the other tracks on the CD. What is the origin of that track, and was it your vision to create it as a piece that "stood apart" from the others? If so, why?
Hayim: "Etch-a-Sketch" was written over a very long period of time. It's one of the "all Point Valid" works on the album, so it wasn't taken from or completely inspired by the book. I began writing "Etch-a-Sketch" in 2007 after our first CD, Of Dreams and Memories, was completed and before I had met Catherine. It was written to be an upbeat, fun song and came to life when we thought that the band had already had its run and had reached the end of the road.

Although the music and arrangement of "Etch-a-Sketch" came together fairly quickly, the lyrics/title were never decided upon and kept changing over the course of the next year. I wrote the final lyrics the day I recorded the vocals and the last changes were made right behind the microphone. It wasn't my intention to have it "stand apart" from the rest of the CD, yet I think the contrast between the feel of the music and the harshness of the words makes people do a double-take. Lyrically, I meant it to be brutal. I wanted to attack a lot of emotions and philosophies that I felt me and some of my friends had growing up. Once I had done that I decided I would give a "response" and the end of the song was an attempt at that.

Catherine, your vocal in the "In Paradisum" prelude to "No Answers" has a decidedly different sound from the rest of the tracks: it is almost ethereal. Tell us what inspired you to include this piece, and how you see it fitting in with the themes and overall mood of Diamond Star the CD, and Diamond Star the novel?
Catherine: The song "No Answers" is about death and rebirth. In a sense, the main character (Del) wrote it about his own death. "In Paradisum" is a Gregorian chant used in Latin Requiems, a song about angels leading the dead into paradise. It also refers to a scene in the book where Del is talking to his lover about what the Latin Requiems mean to him. More than that I can't say without giving away too much of the plot.

The decision to use "In Paradisum" came in part from a conversation Hayim and I had while we were waiting outside the studio. He was studying Gregorian chants, and we discovered we had both independently had the idea of using one in a rock song. I recorded the vocals while he was Israel, so on the day we mixed the song, we were emailing him MP3s of the mixes, and he was sending me comments on Facebook chat. CD production via online social networks; it's a new world!

I think of "No Answers/In Paradisum" and "Sapphire Clouds" as companion pieces. "Sapphire Clouds" is about childhood innocence and its loss, in contrast to "No Answers," which is a story of death and rebirth. "Sapphire Clouds" has a similar structure to "No Answers" in that both are more complex songs, both have a mix of hard rock with a softer, more haunting sound, and both open with female a cappella vocal. In "Sapphire Clouds," a mother sings to her young son; the child laughs; the grown man sings. The abrupt break in the middle of the song matches an abrupt break in his life; then he's older, remembering his childhood.

I really appreciated how Point Valid's music evoked my book. Although I had written a lot of it before we did the CD, I was revising while the band was doing the songs. So they didn't have a complete book to read. Hayim based his interpretations on some partial scenes and on my usually too-short descriptions. I'd never realized how difficult it is to describe my motivations in writing a story. And yet he nailed it every time. It was amazing to see my book come alive through their music.

Concept or "homage" projects (more than half of Alan Parsons' work comes to mind) often display a great deal of stylistic unity across their many tracks, with motifs being reprised throughout. This does not seem to be the way you approached this CD: what informed the choice to make each track more sui generis?
Catherine: For me, the tracks have unity because they fit the book so well. However, their eclectic nature is partly deliberate. My readership ranges from thirteen-year-old teens to eighty-plus retired engineers, with just about every demographic in between, both male and female. So I told Hayim, "And all we have to do is write songs that appeal to all those groups!" I was joking, but we did keep that in mind as we worked.

Most everyone has a favorite song. It varies a lot, but a few seem to be emerging slightly ahead of the pack: "Carnelians," "Etch-A-Sketch," "Diamond Star," and "No Answers/In Paradisum." Maybe also "Sapphire Clouds" and "Breathing Underwater"; those weren't finished when we did the demographic surveys. A cover I did of "Because the Night" was also a favorite. In the end, though, I dropped it from the album. An executive producer has to make those decisions -- even if it's her own song. Although it's a reasonably good cover, it's of a great rock classic, and I felt it needed more work. Point Valid and Evan Margolis, one of their guest keyboardists, did a great instrumental for me, so someday I may redo the cover.

I do sing "Because the Night" live. I'm working with a jazz pianist, Donald Wolcott, on a show we'll be doing locally and at cons. He's arranging some of the Diamond Star material, and I'm doing covers of artists such as Nora Jones and Sade. Those performances have more stylistic unity in that the versions we do all have a jazz-influenced style.

All of you have a background in performance -- but both collectively and individually, you had comparatively little experience working as producers and arrangers in a studio environment. Who played which roles in the creation and completion of the project? If you had it to do over again, how would you do it differently? What would you keep the same?
Catherine: Actually, Point Valid came in with experience, because this is their second CD. They self-produced their first, Of Dreams and Memory. At the start I just sat in the studio, watching, listening, and enjoying. And learning. I loved the process. I hadn't intended to take part in production, but that gradually happened. Even after Hayim left for Israel, though, he stayed involved as a producer. Dave Nachodsky was also a producer. I learned a great deal from him; he's a wizard.

Hayim: We did have studio experience but obviously not to as great a scale. Over the course of this project I think the roles changed a lot. In the beginning, we sort of jumped in and didn't spend so much time worrying about who would do what. Over time, as we got used to the relationship and more comfortable in the studio and with how the project was coming together, there was change. Initially, Catherine was less involved in the technical aspects of the recording and mixing, but over time this changed until the end when she was at the helm tying up all the loose ends while I was in Israel. If had to do it over again I wouldn't change much. I think that ultimately it was a growing experience.

What about you, Catherine?
Catherine: What would I change? Mostly, nothing. However, I wouldn't advise anyone to learn to sing by cutting a professional level CD. Usually you start privately, working out the rough edges. I jumped right in -- which meant I made all my mistakes in front of people. But it does force you to learn fast. I mostly did light soprano parts on the CD, but in the past few months I've been exploring my lower range.

When bands and artists recall cutting their first few albums, they often report that this was the time they learned the most, fought the most, grew the most. Could you talk a little bit about your individual and collective experience of moving from being a "band" to more seasoned "recording artists?"
Hayim: Hahaha! It was intense. There was a lot of stress and quite a bit of fighting and arguing. Much of the project was done under time pressure and with the help of many amateur musicians. But I can't forget the gift that this project has given me. I've matured and grown so much because of it and am that much a better musician. I have honed skills that will help me for the rest of my life in more than just music. I'm truly grateful to Catherine for this opportunity and hope that this is only the beginning.

Catherine: What amazes me is how well it came together, given that Hayim and I didn't know each other at all when we started. All we had in common was a love of music. But he got it. That's the only way I know how to describe it. He understood my vision, and I could see his.

Sure, there were tensions; that's inevitable. We worked them out. Sometimes our artistic debates were rather exhilarating. Some of our most creative work was on the songs we debated the most.

I only wish we had had the time and financing to do justice to our vision. We had to rush, both because of cost and because Hayim was moving to Israel. I hope he continues with his music; he's wonderfully gifted. Adam and Max also have so much talent, and they were all fun to work with, as were the many musicians they brought in to help us out. In the end, doing this CD was an incredible experience.

Copyright © 2009 by Charles E. Gannon

Distinguished Professor of English & Fulbright Sr. Specialist, Dr. Charles E. Gannon is published in many venues, including Baen anthologies and Analog. His Rumors of War and Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding (non-fiction) Book.

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