Celebrating of the life and work of Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Moog on the tenth anniversary of his death the Moog Concordance event at London’s Barbican will celebrate his life and synths on this week (8-10 July). One half of Goldfrapp and leader of his own Moog Ensemble, Will Gregory will take to the stage with ten musicians (including Portishead‘s Adrian Utley) on Wednesday for a special performance. Here he discusses how the Moog synthesiser changed modern music.
What is so special about Robert Moog? Why does he hold such an important place in the development of electronic music – and music in general – from the 1960s onwards?
The idea that electrical circuitry could be involved in music making follows from the development of microphones, recording devices and loudspeakers. It was a further leap to realise that this equipment, or elements of it, could be used for creating musical sounds per se.
Leo Theremin anecdotally discovered this when, in the First World War trenches, he recognised that his field radio would emit whistling sounds that changed in pitch depending on how near or far to it he positioned his body. This gave birth to what is still the purest performance device for making electronic music – pure because it has no mechanical interface between the performer and the sound source other than the air, and it is only the distance of hand from the theramin’s aerials controlling volume and pitch.
This purity is, however, the part that makes the Theremin almost impossible to use for the performance of music in a traditional sense. It is like asking a violinist to play their instrument without a bow – or a violin. However, it did capture the imagination of anyone who wanted to make music in a ‘non-traditional’ sense. And it led to a belief in the possibility of creating new instruments that could catapult us into a futuristic era of music making.
Could mathematics and music somehow unite to express each other through the medium of electronically created sound? Perhaps circuits could be used pragmatically, for example to sound like church organs, without the need for a church to house them in – a sort of multi-Theremin attached to a keyboard.
This was roughly the situation that faced Moog as he came on to the scene in the 60s. He was staring at extremes. On the one hand there was a bewildering array of esoteric studio devices built largely from telephone test equipment such as one might find in Stockhausen’s Koln studio; on the other, there were electro-mechanical Hammond organs that let you play with the overtone series through a Leslie Cabinet that wobbled the sound about with a spinning loudspeaker.
Moog’s genius was to see the merit in both approaches. He was also on the side of the musicians who wanted to be able to shape and mould electronic sounds in what they felt was a ‘musical’ way. So ‘yes’ to a keyboard, but also ‘yes’ to filters and envelopes and an array of modulation sources that let you colour sound in complex and infinitely variable ways. Let’s take the basic sounds common to a Hammond organ but then plug them into a telephone exchange where one element of the sound can be used to control another.
This is what became the Moog Modular. Way ahead of its time, with beautifully elegant circuit designs, it was still esoteric in that none but a few rich individuals and university music departments could afford one. However, two things happened that changed everything: Wendy (originally released under the name Walter) Carlos’s Switched-On Bach, and the Minimoog.
Switched-On Bach was a runaway success. The combination of Bach’s polyphony with a machine that could colour every line with a unique sound brought the composer’s music to life in hitherto unimagined ways. It gave mainstream validity to electronic instruments, and following the album’s release in1968 the link between the words ‘Moog’ and ‘synthesiser’ was forged in popular imagination in much the same way as those of ‘Hoover’ and ‘vacuum cleaner’.
Then, of course, came the Minimoog, which crucially put a synthesiser into the hands of ordinary musicians. It boiled the modular down to its basic ingredients and presented it in a simplified form and within the budget of most working keyboardists. Between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, 12,000 of them were built and sold. Incredibly, many of the features that first appeared on the Minimoog – for example, the pitch and modulation wheels – are still present in nearly all subsequent synth designs.
And of course, the Mini itself is still very much present, essentially because it was fantastically well built and still sounds so good. Nothing has come along since that quite does what the Minimoog can do.
For the full line-up of Moog Concordance head to Barbican.org.uk.