The Influence

Listening to Wendy Carlos’s revolutionary Moog versions of J. S. Bach as a child sparked Will Gregory’s enduring love for the synthesiser. By Kate Holden.

Will Gregory

An electronic musician leans over their equipment.
Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos in her New York recording studio in 1979, and Will Gregory (below).
Credit: Leonard M. DeLession / Corbis via Getty Images (above), Australian Chamber Orchestra (below)

Will Gregory is a renowned British musician and music producer. With Alison Goldfrapp, he’s half of the band Goldfrapp, for which he composes, produces and plays keyboards. As a producer he worked on seminal albums with artists such as Tori Amos, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel and Portishead, and he has composed music for television soundtracks and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has played, mostly saxophone, with The Cure, Tori Amos, the London Sinfonietta, Michael Nyman, Spiritualized, Moondog and Portishead. But he is probably best known as a devotee of the synthesiser. He composes for the Moog and established the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, which is touring nationally with the Australian Chamber Orchestra this month.

He chose to speak about a work he will be performing in Australia, the album Switched-On Bach (1969) by legendary synthesiser pioneer and composer Wendy Carlos. 

Did you think of your influence easily?

You know, there are definitely light-bulb moments. The album came out in 1969, so I probably didn’t hear it until maybe a year later, when I was 10 or 11. I was playing the piano and gravitating towards Bach. When this came along it was very exciting. There’d been the moon landing and now it was, “We can use electronics to make music!” It was all part of that moonshot era. Then, of course, the record sounded incredible. [Canadian classical pianist] Glenn Gould, I later found out, said he thought that one of the Wendy Carlos pieces was his favourite interpretation of Bach, across all genres. Here was something quite remarkable.

I used to play it a lot at home. I particularly like the movement in the slow movement of the Brandenburg, where it feels like Wendy really lets her hair down. There’s only a little cadence in the original, so it’s obviously where Bach would have extemporised, and Wendy obviously felt completely empowered to just tear one off and go. So it’s a feast of plucks and plinks and electronics – it starts to move in the Stockhausen direction a little bit. [German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen] was, of course, another influence – I remember hearing him when I was quite young, too. The reaction to that was much more one of fear! But with Switched-On Bach...

As the years went by, Stockhausen was stepping into a world where he says “the electronics are the thing, they’re what’s in charge of the whole zeitgeist”. Whereas Wendy’s saying “the electronics are the means by which I can get more out of Bach”, and I think that was the difference. It’s very hard to voice a four-part Bach fugue on a piano and get all the voices to separate: it always feels a bit forced. People have to hammer out the lead fugue line. But with Switched-On Bach, that lovely “Prelude in E Flat” or the Brandenburg, all the sounds are so distinct you have no trouble disentangling the complexity into single lines that are all equally present and able to be followed. And that’s what Bach is all about: nothing is vertical, it’s all horizontal melody and everybody is playing a melody. So I think for that reason too, it exposed Bach to a wider audience. It was easier to hear him. Bach is always being accused of being mathematical and cold but when you start to hear all these beautiful voices singing together, all playing their own melody, then you get invited into that world of Bach which is about celebrating everybody, together, its inclusiveness and all those lovely things.

Did purists disapprove?

I think amongst the elite there was a certain protectionism that came in – “this is all very well, but of course it’s not how we play Bach” – but they had to shut up, because it became the best-selling classical album of the year. Then it carried on, one of the best-selling of all time. Then Wendy Carlos was taken up by [Stanley] Kubrick – the great director and taste-maker, always breaking new ground – and taken under his wing.

Though there was a period where electronic music was regarded as a demo version of the real music. I remember doing a little bit of music for the BBC in the ’80s, and I was down as the “electronic realisation composer”, because I wasn’t really “making music”. I was doing the kind of cheap version: I got paid less, because that was all I was doing. But here we are: 50 years later and electronic music hasn’t gone away. It’s been absorbed and Wendy Carlos was totally vindicated.

The thought process that went on behind, to make that music come alive, was on a Kubrick-like scale in terms of attention to detail. From what I understand, she had a multitrack. She put down a click and then she would play each part separately to the click and layer it up. But obviously you can speed the tape up, so you can play at half-speed, and I think some of those pieces were done like that. There was studio technique involved in that way. Didn’t she do the album twice, because she wasn’t happy the first time? She might have had a sequencer but, again, that wasn’t going to help play that music. So, yeah, early days, and in fact I think so much the better for it. If it’d all been played by machines, I think some people would have been switched off Bach.

So how did this feed into your development as a musician? You learnt piano as a child...

Yes. It became a tool to help me write music. I was never going to be a performer. I was much happier on the saxophone and those were instruments where you could only make one mistake at a time. It was more like singing, a more direct way of being expressive. Which led to the idea of a monosynth, which is a single-voice instrument that is fun to play. We used them a lot with Goldfrapp, synthesisers: Alison [Goldfrapp] could sing into one of them so it could follow what she sang, and she loved playing synths too. It felt great, to be arriving as a youngster to a world where this instrument was part of our generation. Previous generations had to learn conventional instruments: now we had a new one as part of our Carl Sagan-like, forward-looking development. All very exciting.

About 20 years ago they played Switched-On Bach on BBC Radio 3 – they had it on the classical station – and I thought, Has anybody tried to actually play this live? Not in a studio with multitracks, but getting nine synths, which is what the Brandenburg is written for with voices, and playing it in a room. To my shame, I had nine synthesisers – I’m a terrible collector – so I got eight other friends to come and try it out. We booked a room, everyone brought an amp and a music stand, and we just bashed our way through and had a great time. We all loved that music anyway. It just seemed like, yeah, it is possible to do it like that. Why hasn’t anybody done it before?

And we’re still doing it. We do it more as a kind of hobby – we’re not very organised – and only do concerts if people ring us up and ask us. Hopefully we’ll get an album out at the end of this year. But so, yes, that record has definitely been a big chunk of the pathway I’ve taken.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Will Gregory".

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