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Patrick Gleeson

Synth Pioneer By Tony Bacon
Published April 2021

Patrick Gleeson and Herbie Hancock at the E‑mu modular.Patrick Gleeson and Herbie Hancock at the E‑mu modular.

Alongside the people who make them, Patrick Gleeson has probably done more than anyone else to introduce synthesizers to popular music.

Around the start of 1972, Herbie Hancock came to see Patrick Gleeson at Different Fur, the studio Patrick was running in San Francisco. Herbie Hancock, already a star pianist with a curiosity beyond the apparent boundaries of jazz, brought with him some multitracks for Crossings, his 10th album, due for release a little later that year.

Patrick’s studio partner, John Vieira, laced up one of Herbie’s tapes, a Bennie Maupin piece called ‘Quasar’. Different Fur’s Moog III modular synthesizer was set up in the studio room, and Patrick stood ready as the tape rolled. About 20 seconds in, Herbie called out that maybe something could work right there.

“I had an idea about something I wanted to hear,” Patrick recalls today, nearly 50 years later. “It would be like a flock of birds rising out of the music,” he says. He patched up the sound as quickly as possible — “I was thinking the guy’s gonna be so impatient watching this procedure and I really have to rush”‑ and conjured the flickering birds as the tape played. A happy Herbie said it sounded great, and then asked if it had been recorded. Patrick said, “Oh, I thought you’re going to play it. I’m just setting it up.” Herbie replied that Patrick seemed to be doing just fine and should go ahead.

“So we worked like that for about 45 minutes,” Patrick remembers, “and then Herbie said, ‘You know what, I have some things I’ve got to do today, why don’t you just keep going, and I’ll come back later?’ He didn’t specify what ‘later’ was. I worked all night, I worked all the next morning, and around 1 o’clock the next afternoon, about 24 hours later, Herbie comes into the studio. I had overdubbed one half of the whole album. Herbie has told people that what he heard just blew him away, that he’d never heard anything like it. And then a little later, he asked me to go on the road with the band.”

It was the start of a relatively brief but important episode that changed Patrick’s musical life, and at the same time steered Herbie the jazz pianist to a synthesized course for many years.

Passing The Buchla

Patrick had first seen a synthesizer around five years earlier, probably early in 1967. He was teaching 18th Century English Literature at San Francisco State University when a couple of dancers from Anna Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop, aware of his interest in musique concrète, asked if he might make some music for one of their performances.

He had taken piano lessons from the age of six, and by the third grade had fallen in love with jazz, which led him to further adventurous forms. Now, he set to work making tape loops on an array of Wollensak recorders borrowed from the uni’s AV department, and the performance went ahead at the Halprin studios. “And when I was there,” Patrick says, “I noticed this strange machine in a little room, all by itself.”

The strange machine turned out to be a Buchla synthesizer. Donald Buchla was an analogue synth pioneer, famously working with Morton Subotnick, whose ‘Silver Apples Of The Moon’ was an early sign of the potential for electronic music composition. Patrick followed the so‑called Buchla Box from Halprin’s to its new home at the Mills Tape Music Center, aka the San Francisco Tape Music Center, another early hotbed of electronic experimentation.

“They told me there was nobody to teach me and no instruction manual, that I’d have to figure it out myself,” he recalls. “And Don’s machines were eccentric, anyway. I basically bribed the studio manager there to give me one night a week, and I learned it. By 1967 or so — can you believe this? — I was giving Buchla performances to 500 people or more in the Mills College outdoor auditorium.”

The model he used was a 100 modular, and while Don Buchla and Robert Moog were developing similar groundbreaking ideas about analogue synthesis on opposite coasts, their approaches were, naturally, rather different. “Don was very much against conventional keyboards,” Patrick says, “and he didn’t want to have tonal music played on his synthesizer. He was a cranky guy, and Bob Moog was so affable.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons most people know the name Moog today but fewer know the name Buchla? “Exactly so. Bob was not the most meticulous audio engineer in the world. For example, several of the little machines he built for me had a noticeable hum. But he was a charming guy, so interested in other people, and all his synths had that ineffable something I’ll call ‘soul’. I think you’ll never hear a negative experience that anyone ever had with Bob.”

Furry Road

It occurred to Patrick that he couldn’t make the music he wanted on the Buchla, so he talked to John Vieira, who he knew had a Moog III modular. “We decided we would start a little studio together, so I quit teaching, and with some money my father gave me we put together Different Fur.” The name came about when Patrick’s friend, the Beat poet Michael McClure, took Patrick’s idea to call it Really Different and expanded it to Really Different Fur Trading Company, which gradually was reduced back down to Different Fur. “And most people just call it Fur,” he clarifies.

The studio was launched because nobody seemed much interested in hiring Patrick and John to play their synthesizers, so the idea was that if they had their own place, they could invite people to join them. The building, on 19th Street at Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission district (now an extremely fashionable location, Patrick reports, but certainly not so back in the day) quickly became a musical commune, with around a dozen fellow travellers on board.

Gleeson’s Different Fur studios, under construction.Gleeson’s Different Fur studios, under construction.

By 1969, Patrick and John were successful enough to be able to upgrade Fur to 16‑track, with the prime attraction their knowledge and application of synthesizers, which were still considered by many musicians as inhabiting something of a mysterious area. “I recorded with all the major San Francisco groups,” Patrick says, “and they didn’t know much more about music than I did, so we were all fine together. Let’s see… the Jefferson Airplane invited me to come in and do some overdubs on Sunflower, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s duo album. Then the Airplane were going back out on the road, and as they’re leaving, Paul says to me, ‘So why don’t you just stay here and keep working?’ I said well, what am I going to work on? He said he wasn’t sure but suggested I make up a tune, and then they would play on it.”

Patrick agreed. This was the ’60s, after all. “As Paul’s going out the door, he says, ‘Ah, we usually record our tunes in A minor.’ And if you’re a piano player, you’ll know that A minor or C major is just the white keys, you don’t have to fuck with those darned wiggly black keys that get in your way all the time. The piece of music I recorded was absolutely deplorable. And of course it came out, and until about three or four years ago I was still receiving royalties. It was just terrible, utter nonsense. The title? It’s ‘Universal Copernican Mumble’, but please don’t check it out. They asked me for the name of the tune and, being a smartass, I just made that up.”

Jazz Note

Different Fur was a success: everyone from Stevie Wonder to Dinah Shore has recorded there. And it continues to be so today, under the current owner, Patrick Brown. And back in 1972, there was that auspicious visit from Herbie Hancock, already a jazz star through his work with Miles Davis, notably the album In A Silent Way, and through his own records, such as Maiden Voyage.

The connection to Patrick happened through David Rubinson, who had produced Herbie’s previous album, Mwandishi, released in 1971. Synthesizers had only just begun to creep into the edges of some rock music, and as for jazz, the few voltage‑controlled pioneers included the wildly individual Sun Ra with his early Minimoog, and Joe Zawinul, who had played with Miles for a while alongside Herbie, and who had now founded his own exploratory band, Weather Report.

Patrick played David Rubinson some of the experiments he’d recorded improvising on the studio Moog along to Miles’s Bitches Brew album, and David mentioned these to Herbie. “Herbie told me later that David said to him ‘Look, this guy is not really a musician, but he does know the synthesizer very well,’” Patrick remembers. “A little harsh, maybe, because I could play Tchaikovsky and so on, and I did think I was a musician. Of course, relatively speaking, if we’re talking about Herbie as a musician and me as a musician, well... no, I’m nowhere near, and nor will I be.”

Patrick passed Herbie’s audition at Different Fur and played his parts on what became the Crossings album. “I saw what I was doing as a kind of improvised electronic orchestration,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to solo, and I wasn’t trying to imitate conventional instruments. I was trying to work with the timbres that I could create and the melodic structures that I could improvise to provide something that would be the electronic equivalent of an orchestra.”

Herbie Rides Again

Then, nothing from Herbie for months. Patrick figured it had been an interesting one‑off project. Then he got a call. “It’s Herbie, and he says we’re going to go out on the road and we’re going to play this music that you’ve recorded on. He says I’d like you to join me. Would you be interested?” Patrick laughs heartily at the memory. “Oh no, not at all, I’m busy that day. Really, though — of course! And I was there until that band ended.”

This was the sextet known as the Mwandishi band, expanded to a septet with Patrick on board, and it lasted about a year, during which time Patrick recorded a second album with Herbie, 1973’s Sextant. But it was obvious that the Moog modular was not a road instrument, so he tried a call to Don Buchla.

“I explained who I was. He was not entirely impressed with Herbie Hancock or me, but I pressed on and asked if he could design a portable semi‑modular synthesizer for me. He said, ‘What kind of keyboard do you want to use? Like, a piano keyboard?’ I said well yeah, I suppose so, and he said, ‘I’m not interested,’ and the phone went dead. That was the end of my association with Don Buchla. I ended up with an ARP 2600, which had come out just about that time. And thank God, because it was perfect. So I went on the road with that.”

Patrick says he got to know the 2600 probably better than any instrument he’s ever owned, considering it an ideal combination that was easily managed live, in real time on stage, and yet provided many of the possibilities of a full modular. He reckons he was able to do almost everything he could do on a Moog modular, with the exception of some refinements, and for live performance he encountered few shortcomings. The live band was recorded at least twice, in Detroit in February 1973 and notably for radio broadcast the following month, released in 2015 as Live At The Boston Jazz Workshop.

Patrick Gleeson: The music was changing every microsecond and you were just chasing after it... In a matter of four or five minutes I would probably have 10 or 20 different patches.

Surely it was quite a brave move to sit there driving an ARP 2600 in the midst of this demanding music? Patrick laughs at the idea of bravery. “Well, I guess. The ARP played one note at a time, it wasn’t touch sensitive, there was no volume control other than what you created with a footpedal, and... it was really pretty amazing! When I anticipated going out there with Herbie, I’d made a little stand with all the patch cords sorted by length and colour‑coded, thinking I’d be able to keep track of things — you know, the filters are blue, and so forth. No! Ridiculous. The music was changing every microsecond and you were just chasing after it. You certainly didn’t have time to look to see what colour a patch cord might be. During a single tune, much less a set, I would probably change the setting of the synthesizer with a half‑dozen patch cords, sometimes even more. In a matter of four or five minutes I would probably have 10 or 20 different patches. You couldn’t keep playing the same thing, obviously. The whole thing about what I was doing was to provide this variegated orchestral background.”

Patrick also had a little ARP Pro Soloist alongside the 2600 but barely used it. One such occasion was when Fundi the roadie dropped the 2600 off the back of the van and broke it. As it was the last date of a tour, Herbie told Patrick he might as well sit this one out. The audience had clearly listened to the band’s recent albums, however, and were evidently disturbed by the lack of synthesizer. When some of them walked out at the intermission, Herbie changed his mind, telling Patrick he had to get out there for the second set and that he could use the Pro Soloist.

“When we finished,” Patrick remembers, “Herbie looked at me and said, ‘So, what did you think?’ I said, ‘Well, pretty awful.’ He said, ‘I didn’t hear anything different, sounded pretty much the same.’ I realised then that it’s not really about the instrument, it’s what you’re thinking and how you approach the music.”

Paying that many musicians plus a roadie from the proceeds of mostly jazz‑club gigs did not make for a financially successful operation, and inevitably it came to an end, in the summer of 1973. Patrick knew it had been a remarkable experience. He figured it couldn’t get any better, and that Herbie’s music would now become more commercial — which it did, with Head Hunters and some of Herbie’s subsequent work.

“Also, he was becoming interested in the synthesizer himself, and I knew he ought to learn the synthesizer and do it himself,” Patrick says. “As for me, I needed to move on and figure out what to do. And I don’t think my decisions were the best, because I went into film and television music for many years. It was a great way to make a good living, but for me it wasn’t that interesting musically.”

The Horror

Among those projects was Patrick’s involvement with the music for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie about the Vietnam war, released in 1979. The production was infamously plagued by problems (one of the leading actors had a heart attack during shooting, for example), and from what Patrick recalls, making the movie’s music was hardly straightforward. Much of it was created with synthesizers, and the music producer was David Rubinson, who had produced the Herbie Hancock albums that Patrick played on.

Francis invited 12 or so synthesists to an audition at his striking green‑and‑white Sentinel Building in San Francisco, where in the basement he ran a rough‑cut of the movie for the assembled musicians, Patrick among them. “We didn’t realise that when we were watching and listening to that, Francis was upstairs in his penthouse — and this is the guy who made The Conversation, a definitive movie about electronic eavesdropping. He’s up there listening to everything that was said. I remember one programmer making some caustic remarks about the rough cut, and next day he was gone. It was kind of like getting a job at the Trump administration, in that you had to express your loyalty in order to be hired. And then there were five of us.”

Patrick remembers being named Master Synthesist (“Francis really took to me personally,”) and that the other four were Bernie Krause, from Beaver & Krause; Don Preston, from Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention; Nyle Steiner, inventor of the EVI wind synthesizer; and Shirley Walker, a pianist with the Oakland Symphony. And he identifies the problem with the musical production in the shape of Carmine Coppola. “Francis wanted his dad to write the music,” Patrick says. “Carmine was a wonderful flute player. He was Toscanini’s flute player, he was in the NBC Radio Orchestra. But he just was not the right composer for an electronic score. He was classically trained, but he knew nothing about synths.”

Like most movies, there were plenty of other people involved, one of whom was the renowned Walter Murch, credited on Apocalypse Now as the re‑recordist and the sound‑montage and sound designer. “I sent to Walter my ‘Do Lung Bridge’ music cue, which I’d made on my E‑mu modular, and he came back and said to send him the multitrack.” Patrick replied that, no, he was sending mixes, but Walter said if that was the case, this piece would not go in the film.

“I asked him what the problem was, and he said ‘It’s that flute.’ I explained to him that when I’d completed the cue, Carmine came in and listened to it, and loved it — and wanted to replace the synthesized instrument with his own flute. Walter said, ‘Well, it just sounds awful.’” Patrick’s solution was to double the flute with a synthesized version, in the process lowering Carmine’s real flute in the mix.

Patrick did not enjoy these compromises along the way. Ideally, he says, if he and Don Preston and Nyle Steiner had been able to work with some of the musicians Francis decided not to use, it might have been better. “I think we could have done something amazing that would have been one for the history books. We had the equipment, we had the knowledge, we had the attitude toward it. It would have been a matter of translating what I had done with Herbie to a film. And I do think Francis was up for it, because he’d wanted to start an electronic recording studio with me. But when I saw what it was like to be part of Francis’s coterie, I realised I needed to be my own boss, that I didn’t want to be working for somebody else. So I turned him down. He was really into it, and it could have been good — but I’m glad I didn’t do it.”

The Classical Mode

Patrick’s own solo recording career had begun a few years earlier with an album for Mercury, Beyond The Sun: An Electronic Portrait Of Holst’s The Planets, credited to Patrick Gleeson, E‑mu Polyphonic Synthesizer and released in 1976. He says the E‑mu was technically a better synthesizer than a Moog. “David Rossum, the brains behind E‑mu, was very bright, very familiar with the Moog, and knew what the shortcomings were. So his starting point was to solve all these problems, to solve certain anomalies with how things are patched together.”

Patrick Gleeson recording his take on Holst’s Planets.Patrick Gleeson recording his take on Holst’s Planets.Patrick points as an example to the fact that, at the time, Moog still had two different sets of patch cords, one for voltages, another for switches. “That was an unnecessary complication. David, though, would say, ‘Well, can’t we just agree on one kind of patch cord? It was a line of progression. The Buchla was very unstable, the Moog was quite a bit unstable in certain circumstances — in a warm room, say — and the E‑mu was very stable. And the sequencer was bigger. By the time I got mine, David had developed a digital keyboard that had a little Z80, a very small computer with maybe a 20th of the power of your iPhone, but a huge advance because it allowed you to store sequences and play them back.”

Looking back on the trend to synthesize classical music, Patrick says there was only one person who mattered, and that was Wendy Carlos, who set the benchmark with her widely popular Switched On Bach album of 1968. Wendy wrote a sleevenote for Patrick’s Planets record: “Our eight‑year wait for someone else to explore electronic music realisation with what we judge to be appropriate technical standards and musical taste has ended,” she wrote, adding: “In short, one hears the ears of a gifted musician at work, in a field where one must exercise unprecedented discipline and self‑control.”

Patrick had two cracks at synthesizing the classics with his largely analogue Planets and then, in 1982, with a Synclavier for The Four Seasons. “I listen to this music occasionally and I’m not terribly impressed,” he says. “It was competent and people liked it, and I was Grammy nominated for best engineered classical recording the year the Planets came out. I got a little plaque. But that was not what I was best at. What I was really best at was what I did with Herbie, and that carries forward to today. The music I’m making today I like better than any music I’ve ever made.” Which is as it should be.

Chasing Ghosts

Some of his more recent work reflects Patrick’s twin passions for jazz and for minimalism, typified by two albums released in 2007: Jazz Criminal (with Jim Lang, Benny Maupin, and Wallace Roney) and Slide. He’s worked in the studio with a lot of other artists, too, mostly at the Different Fur location, and estimates that he must have played on 80 or 90 albums, all told.

Brian Eno and David Byrne during the production of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts at Different Fur, 1980.Brian Eno and David Byrne during the production of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts at Different Fur, 1980.

One notable set of sessions among the many at Fur were those made in 1980 for Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Patrick was a fascinated observer and says he learned a lot from watching them at work. “Their production technique was absolutely original,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like that before. I would sit down in the studio and just absorb what was going on. It was the victory of process over structure. Which is sort of what Brian’s Oblique Strategies cards were like.”

He remembers that the duo would try something and then put it aside. “And they’d tell Howard [Johnston, engineer] to run off a 2‑track of that for them. So they would have this whole stack of 2‑tracks of works in progress at various stages. Then, when they went back and put together the final product, they would select what they liked: this verse here is really great, this verse over there, this chorus here; the whole thing was put together that way. Really, Bush Of Ghosts was a sampled album before there was widespread sampling. For me, their process offered a sense of freedom, and in fact that’s my primary way of arriving at a composition today.”

Virtual Reality

Patrick is sitting on his studio couch in Los Angeles lockdown, and he gazes across at his machine room. Behind him is his performance rig. “All virtual these days,” he says with a nod. “I’m using Ableton Live and some special software so that I can perform and improvise live with Ableton. Rather than just being a DJ, I can actually improvise as I’m performing. I do think the idea of performing just using a laptop is very dubious, and to me the way a lot of people do it is laughable — raising their fists, pretending to move knobs, and really there’s nothing happening, they’re just playing a WAV file.”

Patrick GleesonPhoto: Mark ‘Frosty’ McNeill / dublab

Most musicians at 86 years old have wound down or are at the very least seriously considering it. Not Patrick. “Not yet,” he says with a smile, “though I can hear the wind whistling in the trees.” The work keeps him going.He has a record in process with his trio that includes drummer Michael Shrieve and reeds man Sam Morrison. He has a surround project with KamranV and the Quadraphonic Universally Accessible Resource Kit. “We’re almost finished,” Patrick says, “and I’m working on the last tune now. When I heard one of the quad mixes at his place down on the coast, I have to tell you I cried. It was so beautiful, man! For the first time in my life, I felt as if I really were right in the middle of this music. It was the whole world, and I was in it. Just so amazing. I hope you get a chance to hear it some day.”