Musician, Engineer, Producer, Professor of 18th Century English Literature?!
You may not be familiar with the name Patrick Gleeson, but he has quite a résumé. He ditched a career as a college instructor to become an electronic music pioneer in the late 1960s and 1970s. He created a synthesized version of Gustav Holst’s The Planets that was nominated for a Grammy, composed soundtrack music for television and independent films, ran a recording studio in San Francisco (Different Fur Trading Company), and was a member of Herbie Hancock’s band. Gleeson also recorded synthesizer performances of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the music from Star Wars, along with collaborations with other jazz and electronic music artists.
Rich Isaacs: You didn’t start out as a professional musician, so where and in what field did you get your degree?
Patrick Gleeson: I got my PhD in 18th Century English Literature. I did my course work at UC Berkeley and my dissertation under a man at the University of Washington who I wanted to work with. Unfortunately, the 18th century guy at that time at UC Berkeley was everything I hated: a conservative, so forth and so on. And the guy at Washington was really brilliant, and also he had a wonderful attitude toward higher learning, which got me my PhD in a hurry. He became my thesis advisor. He asked, “so how long are you planning to spend writing this dissertation?” I thought he probably wanted to hear something like two years, but I wanted to be out of there in a year if I could. So I said, “maybe a year?” He just shook his head. I said, “longer?” And he said, “no, shorter. Much shorter.” And I said, “well, what are you thinking about?” He said, “why don’t you aim for 30 days?” So I wrote my thesis in 33 days, and I got an offer to publish the damn thing.
After a year at the University of Victoria, I began teaching at San Francisco State University. Then there was a huge turning point: I got very involved politically at San Francisco State. I was on the losing side of things – that was when S.I. Hayakawa became our president, there was a lot of turmoil and demonstrations, and I was sitting in with the students and committing numerous other transgressions. This prompted a tenure hearing on me.
It wasn’t really until probably 1966 that I just became so interested in electronic music that I wanted to make my own. And I was listening to Bartok’s first violin concerto, released posthumously. One night, I’d smoked some grass or maybe had a little acid, I can’t remember which – it was the ‘60s – and I listened to this and it just tore through me like a tornado. I thought, “my god, what am I doing with my life? This is not right. I’m not doing what I want to do. I want to make music like this” – a grandiose ambition. But I think the only way you succeed in the arts is by having grandiose ambitions. So with that, I was on my way out. By that time, the tenure hearing had started, and it was so political. I went home for Christmas vacation in 1967 and didn’t even return to clear my desk out.
RI: What was your musical background? (answer from www.patrickgleesonmusic.com by permission)
PG: I began piano lessons at six. By the third grade, jazz had hit me hard. I started playing out of Mary Lou Williams’ jazz piano books. After school, my best friend Jeff and I would listen to jazz records in his parents’ den – Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and the rest.
When I was practicing, I’d change the music to make it sound more like jazz. Mom caught on and she’d yell from the kitchen, “Doesn’t sound like your lesson, Pat!” We didn’t know this was called improvising.
A hip cousin, Mary Gleeson, was dating Norm Bobrow, a jazz musician and DJ for Seattle’s “race music” station. When I was thirteen, they set up this meeting between me and Ernestine Anderson’s accompanist, a local piano player whose playing I adored. Mary asked him if he ever accepted students. The guy looked at me and said, “why don’t you fall by the pad and let’s see what happens.” Fall by the pad? My god!
I ran home to tell my mother, who wasn’t exactly thrilled. For this Irish immigrant couple that had planned on me being a doctor, this seemed…umm, risky. Mom told me that if my regular piano teacher approved, I could take jazz piano lessons in addition to my regular lessons. Unfortunately, that teacher, whom I disliked anyway, decided this wouldn’t do. My parents agreed. I was devastated and quit music for 15 years.
RI: Getting back to electronic music, you’ve progressed through synthesizers from the early Buchla and Moogs to the Emu and Synclavier and beyond. What are you currently using?
PG: From the time that MIDI became available, I really transitioned out of big keyboards. So at this point, I’m entirely in the box [computer]. I’ve got a laptop and software (Ableton Live). And I don’t have any hardware at all.
RI: I assume there’s a keyboard hooked up to the laptop?
RI: But the sounds are all in the software now?
PG: Yes. My experience has been so different from the young guys. For them, I can see the romance of these early synthesizers and why they love them so much. Younger guys call me up all the time and say, “guess what, man? I just copped a Moog! Wanna come over and see it?” “Well, um, not so much.” Really, when I think back on it, what I was doing when I was with Herbie was just terrifying. To go out there with six incredible jazz musicians – arguably some of the best in the world – with an instrument that played one note at a time, was not touch-sensitive, had no patch memory, and the entire set was improvised… I’ll tell you a funny story about that. When Herbie called me up after I’d done work on his album and said he wanted me to join the group, I thought, “how am I going to work this?” Thank god for the ARP 2600, which had just been released. So I thought, I know I’m going to have to change patches quickly, so I’ll color-code the patches. I’ll have this little rack right alongside my keyboard that all the patch cords will be hanging from by color. Then I’ll just keep track of that and plug them in. Well, forget that! I never even had the time to look over at this collection of patch chords. I just grabbed the nearest one. I think after about the third week, I got rid of everything but one color that was the longest, and just went with that.
RI: I can see how that would be terrifying.
PG: It really was! And the first night I played live with them – just to emphasize the jeopardy of it – the other guys in the band (Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson, Bennie Maupin, Julian Priester, and Buster Williams) were not enthusiastic about having me in the band at all. It was racial, cultural, professional, and regarding synthesizers, “this isn’t even music.” Despite the initial wariness, they have since become lifelong friends.
RI: But it probably seemed like a bit of elitism, too, didn’t it?
PG: That is a part (of it). You figure these guys - after I was out on the road with them for a year, I wondered how were they as nice to me when I first joined as they were when I thought of all the sh*t they would take every goddamn week from white guys. And I was brought to the band – in their view -- by the white record producers.
RI: Tell me how you came to join the band. (answer from www.patrickgleesonmusic.com by permission)
PG: At Different Fur, after the last recording session of the day, I’d go into the studio and work late into the night on a synthesizer orchestration I was improvising over Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. It sounded incredible, I told David Rubinson, San Francisco’s one big-time producer. When he signed Herbie Hancock I began badgering David about letting me play on Herbie’s then-new record.
David told Herbie, “look the guy’s not a musician of your caliber, but he’s good with synths – maybe he can set up some patches for you.”
Herbie and I met at Different Fur. He’d brought one side of what would become Crossings, the breakout recording for Herbie’s Mwandishi band. We put on the tape and began listening to “Water Torture.” About 30 seconds in, Herbie said, “maybe add something here.” I began patching the Moog as fast as I could, afraid Herbie wouldn’t be impressed and would walk out. Soon, I had a sound like a flock of birds ascending into the music. I said, “you could try that.” “You didn’t record it?” Herbie said. “Well, no, I thought you’d play it.” He added: “You’re fine: record it.”
We continued this process, working our way through the tune. After an hour or so, Herbie said, “Look, I’ll come back tomorrow. Keep going.”
I stayed up all night and by the time Herbie returned I’d overdubbed one side of the album. Later, he told several music magazines that the experience had blown his mind – he’d never heard anything like it. A few months later, I’d joined Herbie’s band and was on the road.
RI: How did it happen, and how exciting was it to have Wendy Carlos contribute liner notes for Beyond the Sun?
PG: That was such a wonderful surprise. I’m not sure who asked whom first. She, at the time, was sharing a brownstone in New York with her producer, Rachel Elkind, so Rachel began corresponding with me. She was very tentative at first, and said, “I need to ask you, are you aware of Wendy’s fairly radical medical change?” or something like that. Wendy had addressed me up to that point as “W. Carlos.” I said, “Sure. I think that’s great.” She had just wanted to make sure that was no issue. When we went back to New York, we had lunch with Wendy and Rachel and then went over to Wendy’s studio, and she showed us what she was doing, which was just fascinating.
In retrospect, I really think that the only person who ever really nailed the arrangement of classical music on a synthesizer was Wendy. I don’t think I nailed it, and I don’t think anybody else did. I never heard anybody do it. It seems like, in a way, that it’s a very simple thing to do. But it isn’t just the technology, that’s almost the least of it. Wendy was peculiarly well-suited for doing that. When you would meet her, you were aware that she was very, very different, obsessive in a certain way. She would travel all around the world to see eclipses – that was a big passion of hers. And, of course, doing synthesizer music, the way she did it at that time, you had to be fairly obsessive. She brought this peculiar obsessiveness to it, but also maybe because she was kind of outside the mainstream sociologically, once she had gone through her surgery. She had a very independent streak and take on almost everything, and I think that extended to the Bach music she was doing.
I think, in a way, she just took it with the right degree of seriousness. I think I was too serious. And also, I was influenced by German prog stuff and liked “metronomic” stuff (I still do), but that approach is not particularly well suited for synthesized classical music – you really need to have ritardandos and accelerandos, etc. And my performance doesn’t really have those. So at the time, I thought [her stuff] was just wonderful. Wendy commented that that was the only area where she wasn’t totally in agreement with what I was doing. She said we’d have an interesting discussion of that at some point. If we were to have that discussion now, I would say, no, you were completely right, I was wrong. I think she was the only one who respected the music enough to really explore its essential nature, and at the same time didn’t take it so seriously that she didn’t realize that what she was doing was essentially a popular performance and the first thing it needed to do was to please. I think Tomita obviously pleased people – sold a lot of records – but didn’t particularly respect the music. And Wendy’s recordings did both. And I think my performance respected the music, and just was not enough fun. I just wish, if I were going back to do that now, I would do The Planets so differently.
RI: Interesting. In my opinion, yours is by far a more serious work than Tomita’s. I’ve always thought it was a shame that the timing of its release put you in direct competition with Tomita, who was coming off a hit with his synthesized Debussy album, Snowflakes are Dancing. Whenever I’ve told people about your album versus Tomita’s, I’ve said, “Patrick is an artist; Tomita is a cartoonist.”
PG: It’s too bad he died relatively early in life. When I did Beyond the Sun, I did so on spec. There was nobody saying “we’re going to release this album.” Most everything significant I’ve done, I’ve done that way. I sent it first to RCA and I got this strange letter back. After some very complimentary language about the album, the guy said, “Unfortunately, we have already committed to a synthesizer rendition of the same music by Tomita,” which was the first time I’d heard the name Tomita. That was the first complication. So RCA was off the table, and I went with Mercury Classics, which was a division of Polygram at the time. I would’ve preferred to have been on RCA. Mercury was well-meaning but sort of lead-footed, and they, in general, really didn’t get it. They were nice people, but as I say, not the most adroit. The second interesting thing that happened was they needed to get permission to release the album from the Holst estate, and the heiress to the estate, Imogen Holst, was a well-known British conductor. And she abhorred the idea in the extreme and turned it down totally and immediately.
RI: Just the concept in general?
PG: Yeah, just period. Maybe she hated my version, undoubtedly she did, but she also hated just the very idea of it all. So at that point, Mercury or Polygram’s lawyers – whoever the lawyers were -- wrote and reminded her that the Canadian branch of her publishing company had already extended that permission to Tomita, and that it would be construed as prejudicial and discriminatory if they then refused the same thing to me. So her lawyers advised her to let it go. But she didn’t want either one released, which I think is a classic instance of taking life too seriously. Because it’s popular music to begin with, in a way.
RI: Back to keyboards. If you had to go back to playing a self-contained synthesizer keyboard, what would you choose?
PG: I’m so out of that loop, I don’t think I’m competent to say.
RI: How about of the ones you’ve used? Do you think you could go back to self-contained synthesizers/keyboards?
PG: I wouldn’t want to use any of them. I think there are some big expensive combo keyboards like the new $10K Moog, for example – the Moog Matrix One. Something like that would probably be what I’d use, but I wouldn’t be very happy with it. The very problem with having a synthesizer that’s not virtual and configured so that it’s programmable in this modern way means it’s not very versatile. You can’t jump into any patch point and initiate something that’s never been done before. The designers of the instruments have to have preplanned that. And often they do, to a considerable degree, but then what you have is a very complicated instrument that is not immediately accessible. And with Ableton, I probably have a shameful number of apps – probably 200 or 300 different synth programs of one kind or another. In a given piece of music, I might use 40 or 50 of them.
End of Part One.
(In part two we’ll learn how Different Fur got its name, along with more stories of performing with Herbie Hancock and others.)
Header image of ARP 2600 synthesizer courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Spils.