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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Documentary about Bob Moog

Got Moog?

This is my 200th post since starting this blog in July, and the final one for the month of May 2009. I plan to keep it up for as long as I have memories to recall, and something to say. I like to type.


The subject today relates to the history of electronic music. I remember a time when it didn't exist at all in the public consciousness - except perhaps for special effects in SciFi movies from the 1950s. Then one day the analog synthesizer came along. It was a big deal at the time, but those piercing sounds, which at first were alien and strange, have since become the norm. Those mostly harsh and penetrating timbres are fully integrated into the vocabulary of today's commercial music business. One can safely venture to say that the majority of pop music distributed today is produced by electronic means of one kind or another.

Currently, "digital" technology has replaced classic "analog" sound synthesis methods, but I think that for most listeners, analog and digitally produced sounds are cut from the same cloth. I worked a little in both mediums, but never had the patience, opportunity, or persistence to master the technique well enough to realize a significant electronic composition to my satisfaction. For example in 1980, I studied the MUSIC 11 language at MIT with professor Barry Vercoe, but found the chore of producing a complex piece while sitting at a VT100 dumb terminal even more laborious than the difficult process of music composition itself. Before that, I studied analog electronic music with Robert Ceely at NEC and Jim Michmerhuizen BSEM. That was way back in the Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder and razor blade tape-splicing days.

Perhaps as personal computer technology continues to evolve, music software improves, and the cost of entry decreases, I will someday be able to think, formulate, create, and produce musical compositions entirely in this abstract medium with fluency and control. But for now, I'm happy to write notes in traditional notation for cellos and flutes (although I utilize Sibelius software from Avid). Acoustic instruments are an age-old technology that is is more or less stable, and (at least for now) does not require any extensive retraining on my part to write the simple and direct pieces that I am presently interested in composing.

Robert Moog (1934-2005) was a new music icon. He embodied the spirit of the late 60s and 70s by inventing and promoting new electronic instruments that would fundamentally transform what music is made of and how it can sound.

His synthesizers were utilized by a wide spectrum of musicians - from die-hard experimentalists in the avant garde, to rock musicians like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (sounds like a Law Firm). One of the first synthesizer-only ensembles was Mother Mallad's Portable Masterpiece Company (now, that's a cool name for a group!). They were comprised of musicians David Borden (their founder), Steve Drews, and Linda Fisher and formed in Ithaca NY in 1969. I heard the ensemble perform for a live radio broadcast at the alternative WBAI in New York, and I still own their first album on Earthquack Records (released in 1973). But it was really Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos) who put Moog on the map with an album titled Switched on Bach.

I was fortunate to have crossed paths with Dr. Moog a few times in the early 70s. I remember meeting him at Jim Michmerhuizen's Boston School of Electronic Music at an open house around 1973. Bob Moog was a very relaxed and congenial guy, and not prone to rapid-fire speech or self-promotion. He was very accessible, and generally interested in what other people were doing to apply his technology in the quest to make interesting works of music. He was equally interested in pop and avant garde forms of musical expression.

On another occasion, he was introduced to me by electronic music composer Robert Ceely (who still owns a large Moog modular synthesizer, and has some of the first modules the inventor sold). I think that was at a Boston chapter of an Audio Engineering Society meeting at MIT. In those days composers aspired to be audio engineers, and recording studio engineers aspired to be composers.

I've always had the impression that Moog would have preferred to be a musician himself, rather than the hard working Bronx-born electronics engineer he was destined to be. Yet inside of that brain, everyone could sense that the man was a quiet genius, and excited by life and the possibilities that electronic music could bring to it.

It was fun to bring back all of these memories by viewing the 2004 Hans Fjellestad's documentary MOOG. The film falls a little short in capturing all of the controversy and energy in the music business of that era, since it was filmed recently. It's a little pensive and retrospective, ending with Dr. Moog, at the age of 71 (a year before his death from a brain tumor) performing "Old Man River" on this Theremin outdoors along a scenic river. He looked a bit like a Zen monk/Mad scientist. I assume that his impromptu performance was filmed in Asheville, North Carolina, where he moved to start Big Briar (his Theremin company) after selling the rights and interest in Moog Music to failed musical instrument manufacturer, Nolin Music.

Hans Fjellestad, a musician and filmmaker from Los Angeles, is no stranger to the electronic music scene. He studied music composition with IRCAM-trained hi-tech improviser/composer George Lewis at University of California at San Diego. Fjellestad acquired his keyboard chops from classical pianist Krzysztof Brzuza. It is not surprising that there is a healthy respect for his subject in the documentary. He follows Moog around the world, to conventions, concerts, and captures him in candid conversation with his old engineering buddies, old hippies, Rock artists, and co-conspirators such as Herb Deutsch.

This is the part of the film that interested me the most. For example, I had no idea the composer Vladimir Ussachevski (1911-1990) suggested to Moog and Deutsch that their synthesizer not be burdened with the cultural bias and technical limitations of a piano-like keyboard. In his view it should break with the past and avoid all of the the prior musical associations that a keyboard brings by implication. Of course, market forces prevailed, and the Moog Synthesizer was soon adopted by NY advertising executives as a way to promote the sale of beer - and I mean literally. Here is a famous high-energy 60 second TV ad where the Moog synthesizer was used to promote heavy drinking by the soon-to-be-history Schaefer beer company.

Here is a clip about the Hans Fjellestad documentary..