Society of Sound: The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble

Will Gregory is a composer, producer, keyboardist and woodwind player. He studied music at York University, going on to tour as saxophonist with Tears for Fears. He worked with artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, London Sinfonietta and Portishead before teaming up with Alison Goldfrapp at the end of the 1990’s to form the duo Goldfrapp. He has written a number of works for silent film, including The Passion of Joan of Arc, and He Who Gets Slapped as well as BBC Radio 3 commissions for its Baroque Remixed series. His opera, Piccard in Space, premiered at QEH London in 2011. Here, Will gives an insight into the making of 'Undercurrents'.

I was listening again to Switched On Bach a few years ago and was struck anew by the amazing clarity and detail the synthesiser brought to Bach’s composition. I wondered why no one had attempted to assemble a group of keyboardists to reproduce this effect but in a live performance rather than as a studio multitrack. All the character and individual sonority of the separate voices but performed in real time as a living breathing ensemble, each musician sculpting and evolving their part as a reflection of their personality and musicianship.

Which led on to the question – who would be in such an ensemble? All the folk in the Moog Ensemble line-up are long term friends and colleagues with whom I have enjoyed making music from all walks of musical life. Although fantastic instrumentalists, many do not usually play keyboards, let alone esoteric 70s instruments festooned with bizarre arrays of switches, sliders and knobs. The first rehearsal of Brandenburg 3 was a leap of faith to say the least, but quite quickly the unfamiliar fell away and the pleasure of exploring the music and sound possibilities took over. Because everyone is also a composer experimenting with sound is second nature. This is a very important part of our raison d’être. A vision for how this group might evolve comes crucially from how we see new music being written for it. We believe there are endless uncharted places these instruments have yet to take us. The new pieces included here are only the first steps.

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Why synthesisers, and more particularly, why old monophonic ones (i.e. able to only play one note at a time, like the human voice)? The 60s, 70s and 80s saw a proliferation of new instruments on a vast scale. In fact very few new instruments have appeared on the scene at all in the last 150 years, apart from these pioneering electronic keyboards. They came in all shapes and sizes boasting ever more exotic features attempting to entice and enthral. Across the globe every country, it seemed, had an answer to what was the perfect instrument.

Very early on Moog had put down a huge marker with the release of the Minimoog. Born from the elegant circuits Robert Moog created in collaboration with musicians, especially Walter Carlos, the Mini exploded on to the scene as a portable, simple but very flexible design. Many of its features e.g. the pitch and modulation wheels were so perfectly conceived that they appear on virtually every synth that followed. This international challenge to be better than a Minimoog has produced a mind-bending array of the fantastical, idiotic, impossible and visionary. To which category they each fall into is only now beginning to become clear. Certain common features shared by the most enduring and loved instruments are emerging:

Analogue: Real wave forms created electronically behave just like acoustic sound waves. However much you zoom into an analogue wave it continues to be a wave, unlike it’s digital counterpart, which always collapses into 1s and 0s.

 Knobs: Direct access to the sound without menus and incremental buttons.

 Sounds: Not ashamed to be electronic i.e. not trying too hard to sound like other instruments – the best synths just sound like themselves.

 Monophonic: Although always seen at the time as the holy grail of synth development, being polyphonic did not bring liberation to the performer that perhaps everyone expected. Large and cumbersome, with much of their functionality given over to encompassing vast expensive circuitry, the brief period of analogue polysynths is littered with bankrupt companies, unfinished behemoths and thin sounding compromises. Trying to be the whole orchestra, rather than a simply a characterful part, often made them less interesting to play. 

Going back to this golden age of invention and picking over some the very best sounding and most versatile instruments is the delight of this project. As with the synths themselves, whether this leads to somewhere with an enduring future only time will tell. We are trying to make music by combining instruments that come from our own generation and our own culture and perhaps redefine what an ensemble can be.

The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble – Undercurrents (BW82), released on Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound in March 2015.

More information about the Ensemble

Credits

Line up:
Simon Clark – Minimoog
Graham Fitkin – Micromoog
Will Gregory – Minimoog, Yamaha WX7, Polivoks
Simon Haram – Moog Sub Phatty, Akai EWI
Vyvian Hope-Scott – Minimoog
Ross Hughes – Roland Promars Compuphonic MRS-2, Yamaha WX11
Hazel Mills – Roland SH09
Dan Moore – Roland SH101
Eddie Parker – Korg Delta, Synergie ll
Adrian Utley – Minimoog. Swarmatron, Moog Modular
Ruth Wall – Korg 700s

 

 

By Online Editor

Published on Thu, 19 March 15

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