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An Interview with Bob Moog

This article, written by Maurizio "Erman" Mansueti and Luca “Luke” Cirillo (members of the italian lounge band The Transistors), was originally published on Il Giaguaro “In Lounge” Magazine n° 2 – year: 2000.

Bob Moog speech at robotspeak.com
Bob Moog speaking at Robotspeak (SF) on 10/29/2004.
(Copyright 2004 Nathan Laredo).

In the synthesizers field, analog synthesis, even before the advent of digital technology, owes much to the work of pioneers that strongly believed in their research efforts. Dr. Bob Moog, with degrees in Physics and Electronic Engineering, builds electronic instruments since the '50s. He's one of the fathers of the technological revolution happened in the musical instruments realm. His name is tied with the whole Moog, Minimoog and Micromoog synthesizers series that carachterized decades of music and styles: movie soundtracks, musical avant-gardes, rock, acid jazz, pop. Today, after significant working experiences with R. A. Moog Company (1954), Moog Music (1971) and Kurzweil Music Systems (1984), Bob Moog lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina. Here he runs Big Briar (now Moog Music), the company through which he's returned to his first love: the Theremin. Plenty of stories of composers and musicians have had connections with Bob Moog. This interview tells some of these stories and, most of all, gives prominence to the tenacious carachter and strong personality of Mr. Moog, with whom we've had the privilege to talk.

Moog in Italy: the forgotten experimenters

Federico Monti Arduini (Il Guardiano del Faro) - "Il Gabbiano Infelice"

Towards the end of the '60s, after a career in classic music (he gave his first concerts when he was 8 years old, a genuine infant prodigy) and commercial hits for other artists (Santo & Johnny, Gigliola Cinquetti, and others), he experimented with Moog synthesizer and its potentialities, and later managed to sell 700.000 copies of his record "Il Gabbiano Infelice", a delicate "moog-suite", making himself known for his originality and style.

Claudio Simonetti with the Goblin - "Suspiria" (original movie soundtrack)

After the success of "Profondo Rosso, the "Roman Fab Four", recorded, in 1977, their best soundtrack, for Dario Argento's best avant-garde movie. For the occasion, Simonetti used a special Moog synthesizer (tested by Keith Emerson) expressly sent to him from London, combined with ancient instruments such as celesta, spinet, pipe-organ and harpsichord.

Mauro Sabbione with Matia Bazar - "Berlino, Parigi, Londra"

In a perfect Kraftwerk style, the Matia Bazar amazed critics and public with an electronic music record ... a vojage towards a central european aesthetics. To realize such a project they turned to Mauro Sabbione, one of the best italian experimenters of post-modern sonorities applied to analog keyboards. Moog synthesizers and provocation also in the following work "Tango". Then the return to tradition and the consequent separation from Sabbione, who is currently auhoring the "Melodrama" project: an experimental synthesis of sampling and opera music.
The Transistors: When was the idea of "synthesizer" born?

Moog: There are many devices that have been called "synthesizers". The first device to be called a "synthesizer" (that I know about) was the Coupleux-Givilet Synthesizer, which was shown at the 1929 Paris Exposition.

In this country, there was the Hanert Synthesizer (1940) and the RCA Electronic Sound Synthesizer (1948), both of which occupied a whole room. I developed my first synthesizer in 1964, with the composer Herbert Deutsch.

The Transistors: We can define Vladimir Ussachevsky the first experimenter of electronic music. Ussachevsky founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at the end of the years 50...

Moog: ...Not really. Ussachevsky began in 1951. In that year, there were already studios in Paris, France (Pierre Schaffer), Cologne, Germany (Karlheinz Stockhausen), and I think in Milano (Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono).

The Transistors: Yes, we know that Ussachevsky was one of the experimenters, but we have cited the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and Ussachevsky because we imagine it was important to have a university school financed for carrying forth innovative musical projects. And we suppose that not all the researchers could afford a financed study...

Moog: ...Ussachevsky was one of the very first tape music experimenters in the United States. My point is that there were other experimenters in Europe. Ussachevsky travelled to Europe during the early '50's. At that time he met Stockhausen and Schaeffer.

The Transistors: Were you, Mr. Moog, a student of Ussachevsky?

Moog: I was never a student of Ussachevsky. From where are you getting your information???

The Transistors: We are sorry for this! It sometimes happens that the published news is not entirely correct. However, the interview is a great occasion to correct some wrong news previously published.

Moog: I attended the Columbia University Engineering School, Ussachevsky was a professor in the Columbia University Department of Music. When I was an engineering student, I had an electronics teacher who was Ussachevsky's technical advisor. He told me about Ussachevsky, but I never met Ussachevsky until 1965.

The Transistors: Can you describe to us those unbelievable years?

Moog: I built some equipment for Ussachevsky in 1965. I built two voltage controlled amplifiers, two envelope generators, and two envelope followers. Ussachevsky wrote the specifications for these modules. He wanted the envelope generators to have four parts: Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release. He was the first one to specify the ADSR envelope. Now it is standard on electronic synthesizers and keyboards.

The Transistors: Is it true that also great composers as Wendy Carlos and Edgar Varese attended those studies?

Moog: Wendy Carlos was a student of Ussachevsky in '60's. I don't know about Varese.

The Transistors: What was your relationship with the avant-garde? John Cage, for example.

Moog: I built some equipment for a John Cage piece called "Variations V". It was a big job, and it never worked right. But Mr. Cage liked what we did.

The Transistors: The Theremin and the Moog belong to the history of the music of science fiction movies, since Forbidden Planet. Raymond Scott built his own tools for the music of Warner Bros. and Louis & Bebe Barron were to become famous for the "beta-pulsation" used in Forbidden Planet. Is it a seeming coincidence or was there a link among so many experimenters in the same historical period?

Moog: Forbidden Planet did not use either a theremin or a synthesizer. The theremin appeared in The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Lost Weekend, Spellbound, and many other scary movies of the '50's. Synthesizers have appeared in all kinds of music, from The Trip, to Apocalypse Now.

Raymond Scott was very secretive. He didn't tell anybody what he was doing. But lots of other people were getting the same kinds of ideas. We say, "it was in the air".

The Transistors: When did you get in touch with experimenters as Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley or Dick Hyman? Can you tell us an anecdote?

Moog: Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley both bought modular synthesizers from my company. They worked together in midtown Manhattan. They were both good musicians, but Perrey liked to splice tape, and Kingsley liked to play the keyboard. I don't know if Dick Hyman actually owned one of our modular synthesizers. When he made the record "MOOG", he used a synthesizer belonging to Walter Sear in New York City. Sear helped Hyman set up the synthesizer, and Hyman then played the keyboard. That's what many musicians did, back then. Sear was also a good musician, a professional tuba player and composer. He made an album called "The Copper Plated Integrated Circuit".

The Transistors: Is it true that you built some personalized Moogs for the mythical group of Kingsley: The First Moog Quartet?

Moog: Yes, we built four modular synthesizers for the group. Each synthesizer had a programming box, which enabled the player to preset the timbre.

The Transistors: Wendy Carlos with "Switched on Bach" (1969) or "Popcorn" by Kingsley (1972) marked an era. In the years of the experimentation, would you have ever imagined such a commercial success?

Moog: I don't think so. But nobody else imagined it either.

The Transistors: Despite the commercial success, you have never stopped experimenting. Is it true that you built a Moog for Sun Ra?

Moog: Yes, Sun Ra came to our shop in the early '70's. We built two minimoogs for him. One of them was a very early prototype!

The Transistors: Your passion reminds us of the great Italian artisans of the mythical "Stradivari" violin. And whoever played a "Stradivari" was a musician. Nevertheless today someone still think that he who plays electronic tools is an experimenter, an engineer and not a "real" musician. Is it still true?

Moog: It depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I think that most of my customers are "real musicians".

The Transistors: The electronic composers have often been confined to the role of experimenters, useful for science fiction, horror and spy movies. Don't you believe that the success of many b-movies is due to the atmospheres created by the moog? And therefore, don't you believe that this phenomenon is itself a limit of the moog, or that the moog is identified as the musical instrument for thriller soundtracks?

Moog: Here is how I see it: It is very easy to make funny and strange sounds with a synthesizer. Anybody can do it. It is not easy to make real music with the synthesizer. But it is not easy to make real music with any musical instrument, even a piano or violin. You have to be a real musician and you have to practice, whether you play a piano or a synthesizer. Wendy Carlos understands this. She is a great musician who is a master of the synthesizer. That fact that it is easy for anybody to make funny or strange sounds on the synthesizer is NOT a limitation of the synthesizer. It's a limitation of the people who make the sounds!

The Transistors: After the race towards the pure and digital sound from the end of the years 70, there is today a revaluation of the analogical synthesis. Which are the advantages and the disadvantages of the analogical synthesis in comparison to the digital one?

Moog: Digital is very precise. It is always the same. It is always in tune. But Analog is warmer and fatter, and more human, I think.

The Transistors: Don't you find unbelievable that today "softwares" are built for dirtying the digital sound to make it more analogical?

Moog: No, I don't think that's unbelievable. I understand exactly why that is so. It is so because dirty, imprecise sound is more complex, and therefore more interesting to listen to. In technical terms, there is nothing dirtier than an electric guitar played through a distortion box, but everybody likes that sound because it's warm and expressive.

The Transistors: Today the revolution of Midi, Computer, Samplers and Home Recordings has contributed to a popular access to the music. Can the characteristics of user friendliness lead to a levelling of the creative ideas downwards?

Moog: I think you are right. I think that an expressive musical instrument should be hard to play. If it is easy to play, then you really can't be expressive with it.

The Transistors: The aesthetics of the Moog. Today it is fashionable to possess a "vintage" musical instrument. Minimoog and micromoog are two very looked for instruments. What do you think about this phenomenon?

Moog: I am flattered. Ten years ago, many people sold their old Moog synthesizers, because they weren't as "flashy" as the new digital instruments. But after a while, people began to realize what good musical instruments those old synthesizers were.

The Transistors: Apart from the commercial successes, which record or which author has valorized to the best your research work?

Moog: For me, Wendy Carlos is the greatest electronic musician of our time. I am especially fond of her albums Sonic Seasonings and Beauty in the Beast.

The Transistors: Your passion was born since when you were a teen-ager. When you were 14 years-old you built your first Theremin. For what reason you build Theremins still today?

Moog: For the same reason that a dog licks his balls. Do you know why a dog licks his balls? The answer is: because he can.

Please forgive me if you think that my answer is rude, but it is the truth. I know how to build theremins. I build very good theremins. That's why I still build theremins.

The Transistors: It's only a misunderstanding. The Theremin for people like us is a "magic" object that creates music. And I know that Big Briar also sells Theremins with construction kit. Therefore the buyer is surely an enthusiast! Isn't it?

Moog: Oh, yes!

The Transistors: After the Moog, will musical technology be able to surprise us with another original invention?

Moog: Of course. Technology has an unlimited supply of surprises for us.

The Transistors: Thank you Mr. Moog.

Moog: You're welcome.

Thanks to: Richard Metzger e Gary Baddeley, executive producers of "The Best of Moog" (1999 - Loud Records) and Byron Werner.

[Originally published on Il Giaguaro “In Lounge” Magazine n° 2 – year: 2000.]


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