(Ghost in the machine? Will Gregory)
WILL GREGORY IS SITTING in a room full of synthesisers, old, even older and occasionally new, arranged in a manner you would hardly call display shop neat.
“I’ve got a lot of them here,” admits the composer, non-singing half of the electro-folk/dance-pop band, Goldfrapp, and leader of the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. “But they are all switched off. On hot days if you turn them all on, it gets really hot because there are so many valves going.”
Which may explain why he keeps the bulk of his collection, and it is substantial, off-site. Even if it doesn’t explain why he has so many. (Someone some day must use the headline: Will Gregory Finds The Wages Of Synth Is Heft.)
Not that I am in a position to criticise, as he pointedly though politely enquires about the record and CD collection he can see behind me. Every one of them played, I defend myself; they are not here just to be looked at or valued for future boasting at collectors’ conventions.
“That’s the same with synths. Some people want them in their original box, in their original mint condition; I’m like, no, if it doesn’t do something I want it to do, let’s just drill a hole in the it and put another plug-in it. It’s there to be played, isn’t it?”
Put together such an array of tools/toys and his interests crossing musical genres, and it does raise the possibility, the temptation even, of a series of albums called Switched On Gregory, in the mould of composer and keyboardist Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach, the ground-breaking 1968 work of classical music and its interface with electronic equipment.
That album, built on explorations of the then-new, barely understood Moog synthesiser, a creator and shaper of sounds that looked like a giant old style telephone exchange panel and made noises that sounded like a future no one had imagined yet, remains pivotal in Gregory’s multifaceted life. As it was for early adopters such as prog rock groups Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, pop artists such as The Beatles and The Monkees, and jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra.
“Well,” Gregory chuckles. “I wouldn’t like to tread too heavily on those coattails. I think standing on the shoulders of giants, we need to be a little respectful there. But I think a lot of people are like you. I think lots of people love music and just have a lot of records, and when I have done interviews with the pop press they always imagine that you only like one kind of music, or that their audience only likes one kind of music. I think we are a lot more catholic in our tastes.”
And more catholic in choice of collaborators, as this month sees Gregory’s Moog Ensemble, their Moogs and other synths in-hand, joining the Australian Chamber Orchestra for a series of concerts focusing on the shared territory of electronic innovation, film score and the classical repertoire.
Among the pieces will be Carlos’ bold electronic arrangements of Bach and her adventurous scores for Tron and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme, and works pitched back and forward from them, including Olivier Messiaen and Franz Waxman (who scored Sunset Boulevard and Rear Window among many others), Vangelis (from the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots Of Fire), Hans Zimmer (Interstellar) and John Williams (Images).
“There are a lot of subterranean fans for this kind of stuff … I’m hoping,” says the ACO’s artistic director, Richard Tognetti who conceived of the program during lockdown while watching an early Robert Altman film, Images, a psychological thriller/horror which blended Japanese avant-garde percussionist Stomu Yamashta and John Williams, shortly before Williams’ second and third Oscars for Jaws and Star Wars.
“Looking at the London Symphony Orchestra who are here at the moment and they have this nice section on their players explaining why they joined the LSO and a number of string players say because of Star Wars. It sounds like a cue for laughter, but wow, okay.”
For Tognetti, the concept’s shift from lesser known Williams to scores that changed film history (“of course we looked no further than Wendy Carlos”) to a full electronic/orchestra blend (“in the Vangelis Bladerunner, there’s one of the great synth sounds”, which he has as a pre-set on his own electronic keyboard, to use at any time) was sealed when he was introduced to the Moog Ensemble.
“I found out he was also Mr Goldfrapp, and I thought this is too good an opportunity to pass up,” Tognetti says. “The way Will talks about his instrument, with the imperfections, is just wonderful.”
The imperfections and possibilities of the early synthesisers, almost literally plug in and play, plug in and discover, was of course part of what inspired Carlos to explore.
“Exactly. And I think that’s what it’s all about: it’s the [Japanese philosophy on acceptance of transience and imperfection] wabi sabi,” Tognetti says, pointing too at the Ondes Martenot, the keyboard-operated oscillating waves instrument which Messiaen first used in 1937’s Fete des Belles Eaux. “It was the imperfection, what you got in between the notes, that attracted [Messiaen]. The imperfection, these almost deliberate blemishes, within the perfect realm, that’s what Will talks about.”
Gregory himself can rave about the “brilliant marrying of force” that is Blade Runner – “these huge, epic long spaces that you could throw a sound into and it blooms and expands and becomes like panoramic 3D things, just one sound” – and thrill to the boldness to risk failure of Tron which he sees as “Wendy Carlos really enjoying the freedom to be a composer and putting on all these different hats”
Gregory himself can rave about the “brilliant marrying of force” that is Blade Runner – “these huge, epic long spaces that you could throw a sound into and it blooms and expands and becomes like panoramic 3D things, just one sound” – and find the boldness to risk failure of Tron which he sees as “Wendy Carlos really enjoying the freedom to be a composer and putting on all these different hats”
“So you get mediaeval-y things, you get quite hyper arrange, bombastic orchestral things, with synths involved. That feels to me like the wonder that Wendy Carlos was given that job to be a film composer and take on all those resources, and go a bit insane with that actually,” he says. “With Wendy I think the genius lies in the instrumentation. The pinnacle of Wendy is the Switched On Bach records, they are just sublime.”
Which brings us back to where we started, the Carlos-inspired collection of electronic musical equipment Gregory has accumulated. As polite as possible, he has a problem. Is it too late to intervene?
“Yes, I think it is,” he says, not sounding terribly contrite at all. “Well I’ve slowed down, let’s put it that way. It’s harder now anyway, because they are too expensive. [But] I’m sort of torn because on the one hand I love the sepia-tined character that the old ones give you; on the other hand I know that the people who used those at the time thought of them as the newest thing, the shiniest new invention.
“You’ve also got to pay lip service to that idea, that it’s good to try and get the latest to be a real pioneer. Otherwise you will feel like you are a saxophone player who is trying to play like John Coltrane; and that’s not what you want. You want to be playing in your own style, using your contemporary influences. I guess I’m trying to do both really.”
The Australian Chamber Orchestra with The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble will play.
Sydney City Recital Hall: May 13, 7pm; May 16, 8pm; May 17, 7pm.
Sydney Opera House: May 14, 4pm
Wollongong Town Hall: May 18, 7.30pm
Melbourne Recital Centre: May 20, 7.30pm; May 22, 7.30pm
Melbourne Arts Centre: May 21, 2.30pm
Canberra Llewellyn Hall: May 23, 8pm
A version of this story was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald.