Bob Moog–the man, the synthesizer, the legend
By Sara Bir
Robert Moog is not a household name, at least not in most houses. But say his name in a recording studio, record shop or music store, and people’s ears prick up. Before Moog, electronic music was a novelty, an avant-garde curiosity. After Moog? Electronic sounds are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine when objects existed without them: cell phones chirp, video games bleep and grunt, laptops click and beep. All of these, plus most pop songs–and many jazz, New Age and even classical compositions–have a little bit of Bob Moog in them. The cult hero whose innovations immeasurably expanded the vocabulary of modern music passed away on Aug. 21 at age 71 from a brain tumor. His legacy will be heard for infinite lifetimes.
Bob Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) grew up in Queens, New York. His father was an electrical engineer as well as an amateur radio enthusiast, and Moog spent hours in the basement with his father, tinkering with hobbyist kits and radio equipment. As a young teenager, he became infatuated with theremins (one of the first electronic instruments, and possibly the most difficult to manipulate musically). In 1954, Moog and his father started a small business, R.A. Moog Co., selling mail-order theremin kits and eventually completed theremins.
Moog kept up the business while he obtained his Ph.D. in engineering physics at Cornell University. He and his wife moved to the tiny hamlet of Trumansburg, N.Y., where Moog and his friend, experimental composer Herbert Deutsch, began constructing what would become a prototype synthesizer in the summer of 1964. The rest, as they say, is history.
By the early 1970s, synthesizers were a staple of rock. Keith Emerson, Stevie Wonder, Rick Wakeman and Sun Ra all embraced the Moog. One of the synthesizer’s most fascinating attributes is that, while it can generate thousands of sounds from frantic squeals to whale-song-like rumbles, there’s an undeniable Moog-ness to all the notes it produces. That quality draws new generations of musicians to fiddle with knobs and ponder the possibilities.
An analog synthesizer has a language–verbal and musical–all its own, which makes it difficult for lay Moog enthusiasts to know a voltage-controlled oscillator or low-pass filter from a hole in the ground. Fortunately, there is a wealth of fascinating reference materials for those who wish to delve deeper into oceans of Moog.
Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s absorbing 2002 book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer follows the mid-1960s development of the synthesizer to the instrument’s prevalence by the late 1970s, with Bob Moog and his Trumansburg factory as the central figures. In Analog Days, the engineers and technicians are the stars; tales of George Harrison’s first encounter with a Moog or the composition of the Dr. Who theme song are peripheral. Readers vicariously experience the thrill of discovery Moog and his contemporaries felt in creating something totally new, seeing synthesizers not as profit-making machines, but as instruments with their own unpredictable quirks and qualities.
One towering but enigmatic presence in early electronic music is the composer Walter (now Wendy) Carlos, whose 1968 breakthrough album Switched-On Bach brought synthesizers to pop culture. Moog and Carlos collaborated often to refine the functionality of the synth, a process Carlos outlines on the 1987 recording Secrets of Synthesis. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes deconstruction of each of the many sounds Carlos layered to create Switched-On Bach and other recordings. Carlos guides listeners through synthesizer concepts of labyrinthine complexity in an almost offhand narration, as if manipulating the timbre and pitch of electronic waves is something we all do every day.
Hans Fjellestad’s whimsical 2004 documentary Moog opts not to establish a definitive portrait of the synthesizer’s origins, but rather to paint a character sketch of Moog as a person whose innate, bottomless curiosity about the world around him are reflected in the intuitive nature of the instruments he built. Fjellestad intercuts his interview footage with live performances by artists such as Stereolab, Money Mark and the Album Leaf playing Moog synthesizers and theremins. (One highlight is an aged, capeless Keith Emerson holding court with mesmerizing dexterity over his Monster Moog). “He loved to watch from the wings as a musician created something interesting and unexpected on one of his instruments,” writes Fjellestad. Every time a musician’s hands hover over a theremin or manipulate the pitch wheel of a Minimoog, Bob Moog lives on, watching in the wings.
From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.