By Steven Rosen, 2004
Usually, the term “back to roots” in music describes the renewed interest in acoustic music – bluegrass, folk, gospel and country blues, especially – sparked by the Grammy-winning “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack and its related tours.
So it will surprise many to know there’s also a roots movement going on in that seemingly most unrootsy of musical regions – electronic sounds. Musicians tired of the digital synthesizers that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, which encode sound as digital information that can then be decoded, are opting for the more “natural” analog instruments of the 1970s and even earlier. Analog, alternatively, produces direct musical sound. Many synthesizer buffs, like audiophile record collectors, believe it is warmer, livelier, and more responsive to the musician’s emotional state.
And that means electronics inventor Robert Moog, at age 70, and his namesake Moog and Minimoog analog keyboard synthesizers are back. (The part of the instrument that produces the sound is analog; other parts use digital technology.)
Since he re-acquired the rights to the name “Moog” in 2002 – almost 30 years after selling it and watching the purchaser eventually cease production – and subsequently introduced the Minimoog Voyager, business has been booming at his Asheville, N.C., company.
And his life and ideas now are the subject of a new documentary – fittingly titled “Moog,” in honor of his instant name recognition – that opens Friday at the Laemmle Fairfax.
Besides Moog, who speaks at length about his vision, the film also includes performances and/or interviews with such Moog-favoring musicians and DJs as Keith Emerson (and his incredible 10-foot-tall Monster Moog), Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, Stereolab, Money Mark, and DJ Logic.
In the sweet and thought-provoking movie, directed by Hans Fjellestad, the white-haired and grandfatherly Moog expresses a surprising kind of “I Sing the Body Electronic” cosmic consciousness about his creations. Looking a bit like Einstein and talking like Buckminster Fuller, he just may be the elusive ghost in the machine.
“I can feel what’s going on inside a piece of electronic equipment,” he explains in the film, as the camera pans over the thick, brightly colored wires of one of his instruments. “I have this sense that I know, and to some extent have control over, what’s going on inside the transistors and resistors.”
Director Fjellestad, an American of Danish descent, studied classical piano and previously made a film about Tijuana culture, “Frontier Life.” “I’ve been interested in looking at frontiers, and Bob was the archetypal frontiersman exploring the borders,” he explains.
On the phone from Portland, Ore., where he and his wife are visiting their daughter and her husband, an expansive Moog further explains the spiritual relationship he feels toward his work. “When I was a teenager, and a little bit before, I really loved electronics,” he says. “I have a talent and a gift for making contact with electronic circuitry. It’s a gift that enables stuff to come through you. I don’t think I’m so smart or creative that it starts off inside my head and then comes out.
“I think all us humans are capable of experiencing connections – engaging in spiritual things like that. Whether or not we take advantage of that depends on a lot of things. But I found it through electronics, particularly musical electronics. Our customers find it through the musical side of musical electronics. I find it through the electronics side.”
In a separate call, musician Worrell – also in Oregon on tour – also sees a spiritual edge to Moog. “Thank God for his innovations and inspiration, which I believe came from the Creator. It’s coupled with Bob Moog’s knowing how artists think and what kind of tool keyboardists would appreciate. It’s part of his ability to see.”
It should be noted that not every musician sees Moog and his synthesizers in such spiritual terms. In the movie, Wakeman – who first became famous with progressive-rock band Yes – talks about his motivations for turning to the Moog. “It changed the face of music. For the first time, the keyboard player could give the guitarists a run for the money on stage.”
Growing up in Flushing, Queens, Moog built his first theremin at age 14 from a do-it-yourself kit. The strange now-in-vogue-again instrument, invented by Russia’s Leon Theremin, uses high-frequency radio signals to create otherworldly, eerie electronic sounds. To play it, people move their hands and bodies near its antennae, thus varying pitch and volume.
“I was a card-carrying electronics nerd,” Moog says. “My father was a professional engineer so I used to love to go down in his basement and build things with him. We did that together; that was very nice. There was not too much I could do with the guys at school, other than get beat up. I was interested in the theremin because it was a do-it-yourself project and it looked like fun. To be able to make something that had a musical sound and could be played was an interesting thing to me.”
While a sophomore in college, Moog sold his first home-built theremin. Eventually, that led to a business, R.A. Moog, selling electronic musical instruments. “When we began making synthesizer components in 1964, we saw experimental musicians as our customers – people putting music together on tape,” Moog says.
“These people weren’t interested in traditional melody or harmony,” he continues. “What interested them the most was tone color. So our early electronic-music instruments were designed with the idea you could make a wide variety of sounds by connecting modules together and setting (the controls of) each one individually. There were a variety of ways to play that sound – a keyboard was just one device that could be used. There were joysticks, sequencers, and a whole bunch of things we built in small quantities and made available to our customers.”
But one early customer was Walter Carlos – now Wendy Carlos. She decided to use a Moog keyboard synthesizer to record Bach. “Switched-On Bach,” released in 1968, was as big a pop-cultural sensation as any classical album before or since. It was the first Platinum-selling classical record, won three Grammy Awards, and caused the mass acceptance of the Moog synthesizer as an instrument that made music rather than sound effects. (Carlos did want to appear in this film, Fjellestad says.)
Yet even still, there are people – including musicians – who feel this music is “plastic” because its sounds are not produced like a traditional instrument or human voice. As a result, you still don’t expect to see Moogs at folk or bluegrass festivals, or even in symphony orchestras or no-nonsense punk bands.
“But when you think about it, the piano is pretty unnatural, too,” Moog says. “You don’t find pianos growing on trees. The same is true for trumpets and violins; they’re highly artificial. You really have to work to put together a violin.
“Over the centuries, when musical instruments have been developed, they’ve been developed with the most recent technology of the time,” he explains. “In the 20th Century, the technology of our times was electronic. To me, it was only natural that new instruments would be made with that technology.”