Music Interviews
1:22 pm
Fri October 26, 2012

'Moogfest' Celebrates The Synthesis Of New Sounds

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 9:53 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 28, 2000.

Follow NPR's All Songs Considered (@allsongs) this weekend for reports and photos from the 2012 Moogfest. Check NPR Music next week for concert recordings from the festival and explore our 2011 archive here.

Moogfest, the festival of electronic and visionary music, takes place on Saturday and Sunday in Asheville, N.C. — the city music pioneer Bob Moog called home. Moog was the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. He died in August 2005 at age 71.

Electronic music has become so pervasive that we now take it for granted. But it was a new concept in the mid-1960s, when Moog created his first synthesizer. Invented in 1965, the product went on to usher in a new era of rock and electronic music. The Beatles used a Moog synthesizer on their 1969 Abbey Road album.

The synthesizer became more accessible to musicians and composers after Moog made his first portable, the Minimoog, in the early '70s. Moog also had a lifelong interest in the theremin, an electronic instrument that produces ethereal otherworldy sounds and has been used on many science-fiction soundtracks.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Robert Moog, creator of the first music synthesizer, died in 2005, but he's still remembered and celebrated as one of the key pioneers of electronic music. A two-day music festival called Moogfest begins today in Asheville, North Carolina, showcasing dozens of Moog enthusiasts, including Thomas Dolby, Nas, Morton Subotnick and The Magnetic Fields.

Moog lived and worked in Asheville, where his company still manufactures synthesizers and another eerie-sounding instrument, the Theremin. Electronic music was still a new concept in the mid-'60s, when Moog created his synthesizer. It didn't take long for other people to manufacture their own versions of the instrument.

The synthesizer caught on in all forms of music, from the avant-garde to rock, pop and novelty. This medley includes just a few examples.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: That was Sun Ra, Wendy Carlos from "Switched-On Bach," Todd Rundgren from a compilation of Thelonius Monk tunes and Kraftwerk, Heart, The Who, The Beastie Boys, Parliament and Stevie Wonder. Terry Gross spoke with Robert Moog in 2000. For their interview, he brought a mini-Moog to the studio and gave a demonstration.

ROBERT MOOG: OK, so here's a plain sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: This is a pure electronic pitch. Now I'll - I will frequency modulate it. By that I mean that I will vary the pitch of its tone periodically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: So most people would say that was a different sound than just this. Now I can speed up and slow down the modulation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Or make it a different shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Here's what we call a square wave. It makes the tone sound like a trill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: So that's just one example of how we can use one electronic circuit to periodically or even aperiodically change the operation of another one and make musically interesting sounds in the process.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Now, you know, regular instruments, acoustic instruments operate through physically doing something to the instrument: You pound it, you press it, strum it, bow it, blow air into it. Compare that with the principles of an electric music instrument like the Moog.

MOOG: The energy to make the sound is there. It comes out of the wall. So the...

GROSS: Electricity.

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: And so your knobs allow you to just change the shape of the sound wave, the amplitude, the shape of it.

MOOG: Yeah. And we can increase the complexity of the sound, for instance...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: There's one tone. Now we can add a second tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Here's one, the other, together...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: They form a richer, third tone. So we can add sounds and waveforms together. We can use one waveform to shape what we hear from another circuit. We can also filter out the overtones, the harmonics that are made by these waveforms.

GROSS: Do you want to give me an example of that?

MOOG: Here's...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Let's get a brighter sound. There.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: This is called a low-pass filter. Originally, it was a technical term, but musicians these days - at least the ones who plug in - understand what that means. So I'll close the filter, and we'll cut out first the higher overtones, and then all of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Now when I vary the filter slowly like that, you can hear what's happening, that the sound is getting more mellow and less bright as I turn down the knob here labeled cut-off frequency. But, if instead of my turning the knob, I use a waveform that goes up and then down every time I hit a key, we'll get a sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Now that opening and closing of the filter was done not by me, but by the envelope generator. Now I'll make it faster, and you'll see what effect that has on the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: And still faster...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Now that happens so fast, that we - if I had to do that with my hand, I couldn't possibly, because my hand can't move that fast. But electronics can move that fast. So now I have a different sort of sound. I have a plucked-string-like sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Because I've set up a sound here that's bright and with lots of harmonics at the beginning, and then within, say, I don't know, 30 or 40-thousandths of a second, it dies down, and our ear identifies that as a string-like sound.

GROSS: Now your Moog synthesizer was designed to do things that a piano could never do, yet you gave it a piano keyboard.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you ever consider alternate design, since you were creating a new system altogether?

MOOG: We considered a lot of alternate designs, and, in fact, the first synthesizer systems that we built in the mid-'60s had a wide variety of control devices. Besides a keyboard, we had a device called a ribbon controller that you run your finger along, as if it were a violin string. We had drum controllers. We even had doorbells. We experimented with everything, joysticks, and we arrived at a keyboard because: A, musicians were familiar with it. B, at that time, they were readily and cheaply available so that we didn't have to spend a lot of money on tooling. And B, it did serve a musical purpose at least some of our customers wanted served - not all, but some of our customers were interested in playing convention melodies and harmonic content from a keyboard.

GROSS: Right, exactly. I mean, you know, on the one hand, you had, like Walter Carlos, later Wendy Carlos, performing "Switched-On Bach," using the Moog to play a kind of new-fangled-sounding version of Bach. And at the same time, you had a lot of avant-garde composers and musicians using the Moog synthesizer to create a kind of avant-garde music that hadn't been possible before.

MOOG: That's right. One of our first customers was Vladimir Ussachevsky, who at that time was the head of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was - he's sort of the grandfather of taped music in this country, and he was interested in getting away from the keyboard. He bought quite a few electronic modules from us, but he never bought a keyboard from us.

GROSS: Are there records from the '60s, when you were first - and the early '70s, when the Moog was first catching on, that you think sound almost embarrassingly dated today?

(LAUGHTER)

MOOG: Well, you know, the first use of Moog synthesizer on the West Coast sounds embarrassingly dated. It's a record called "Zodiac Cosmic Sound."

GROSS: How can that not sound dated?

(LAUGHTER)

MOOG: What happened is - this was in 1967, and we were wondering whether we could stay in business because, you know, we weren't making any money, and nobody understood our products. We were invited to exhibit our new synthesizers at the Audio Engineering Society on the West Coast. So at that exhibit, we were then invited to bring this one instrument that nobody had ever seen out there to a recording session of "Zodiac Cosmic Sounds."

And a synthesizer was used to make some distinctly novel electronic - it begins the album. What the album is, it starts off with very conventional-sounding Hollywood movie music.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOCALIZING)

MOOG: And then with a low organ tone, the narrator comes on. He had a voice as deep as crude oil, and he said: Nine times, the color red explodes like heated blood. The battle's on. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF VOCALIZING)

MOOG: Like that. The producers at the time were very impressed with themselves about how in this was and how hip and how many they were going to sell. Now, when you play it, people just break out laughing.

GROSS: So is it the bum-ba-bums that you were doing on the synthesizer?

MOOG: No. They were done more or less conventionally.

GROSS: Where did the synthesizer come in?

MOOG: Just drop-in sounds. Let's see if I can set one up. The mini-Moog is really not big enough to do all the sounds that we did, but for instance, let's start with one sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Play another sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: OK, that's about a whole tone apart. We'll add a third sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: OK. Now, that's the general sort of sound that they liked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: Then we just glide up a little bit here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: That sort of sound.

BIANCULLI: Robert Moog, speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer and a pioneer in the field of electronic music. His legacy is being celebrated today and tomorrow at the Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina.

GROSS: What are the early records - the first records that you think really helped the Moog synthesizer catch on?

MOOG: The biggie was "Switched-On Bach." In light of that, everything else pales. "Switched-On Bach" came out at the end of 1968. I can remember playing a cut from it at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City about a month in advance of its release, and I can remember all those cynical, experienced recording engineers listening to this and being so overjoyed that a piece of work so innovative and of such high quality was being done that they give Carlos a standing ovation.

GROSS: Did you like "Switched-On Bach"?

MOOG: Oh, yes. Yes. In fact, I visited Carlos several times while Carlos and his associates were working on the piece, and I was just bowled over every time I came. Something new was there to be heard.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear some music from "Switched-On Bach," and it was Walter Carlos back then, wasn't it?

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is Walter Carlos at the Moog synthesizer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "TWO-PART INVENTION NO. 8 IN F MAJOR")

GROSS: That's Walter Carlos playing "Switched-On Bach," the record that helped really establish, commercially, the Moog synthesizer. My guest is Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer and the related synthesizers that he's since created. He's a pioneer of electronic instruments.

When you created the first Moog synthesizer, was it out of an interest in electronics or music, or both?

MOOG: I had been building electronic musical instruments since I was a kid. It was always a hobby of mine, and I always approached it as an electronics person, you know, somebody who liked to work with a soldering iron and a pair of pliers, who also had some musical training.

By the time I got to building synthesizers, I had perhaps 20 years' experience building electronic musical instruments.

GROSS: Well, I know you built Theremins, and we'll get to that in a couple of minutes. What else did you build?

MOOG: Back in the '40s and early '50s, building simple electronic projects was a popular hobby of many people. Back then, you could buy, you know, a few parts and - with tubes and build something on your kitchen table, and it would actually work.

So there were magazines describing all sorts of hobby projects, and I can remember building one-note organs, two-note organs, radios, a phonograph, you know, amplifiers. And that was my life. That's what I did back then. Other kids went out and beat each other up or played baseball, and I built electronics.

GROSS: I think your father was an amateur radio operator?

MOOG: Yes, he was. He was a professional engineer. He worked for Consolidated Edison in New York City.

GROSS: That's the electric company.

MOOG: Yes, it is. And he worked for them all his life, and he was also an amateur radio operator.

GROSS: So this was HAM radio?

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: So do you think your father's HAM radio stuff had an impact on you?

MOOG: Why, sure. He was the one who taught me how to do electronics. He taught me how to use a soldering iron. My father had a very complete hobby basement with machine tools and all sorts of electronic stuff. I used to love to go down and just be with him and work with him.

GROSS: It was a real guy thing for you?

(LAUGHTER)

MOOG: I think so, yeah, yeah. It was a dad-and-son thing, especially.

GROSS: Did mom ever go down to the basement?

MOOG: No. Mom had the rest of the house.

GROSS: Now, before you started inventing your own instruments, you built Theremins. So let's start with what a Theremin is. You've brought one with you. I imagine this is one that you've built.

MOOG: Yes, it is. Well, it's one that my company built.

GROSS: Right. That's good enough.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOG: Close enough.

GROSS: Give us a taste of the basic sound of the Theremin. Our listeners will recognize it from lots of science-fiction movies.

MOOG: OK, let me describe what I'm doing. I'm not touching the instrument when I'm playing it now. I'm moving my hands around it to control the volume and the pitch of the sound. I'll just make a very quick sound, and then maybe later I can actually try and play a melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOOG: So when you wave your hands around a Theremin, that's the sort of sound you get. It's not particular musical, but it certainly sounds different from a piano or even a synthesizer. A Theremin is an electron musical instrument with two metal antennas. One is a vertical rod on the right-hand side of the instrument. The closer you get your right hand to that rod, the higher the pitch goes.

So if you imagine a violin string in the air between your shoulder and the pitch antenna, and by moving my hand along that string, you can imagine the sort of gestures I make.

GROSS: But it's an imaginary string.

MOOG: It's an imaginary string. I'm not touching anything when I play. On the left-hand of the instrument, there is a loop, a metal loop which controls the volume. The closer I get my hand to that loop, the softer the sound gets. So my gestures consist of moving my right hand back and forth from my right shoulder to the pitch antenna to make the notes, and moving my left hand up and down as if I'm conducting an imaginary orchestra out there to control the volume, articulate the sound.

GROSS: Would you play us a science-fiction effect on the Theremin? You could even play something from one of the movies that the Theremin, one of the movies - scores that the Theremin was used in.

MOOG: A science-fiction effect. I'll try.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: And do you get that little vibrato by wiggling your hand back and forth?

MOOG: Yes. I move my right hand from my wrist rapidly back and forth, just as a violinist does.

GROSS: Would you like to leave us with some music on the Moog synthesizer?

MOOG: Let's see...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

MOOG: Well, that's some music. I don't know how much, but it's some.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Robert Moog, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MOOG: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to have the opportunity.

BIANCULLI: Robert Moog, speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. He died five years later. Today and tomorrow, a music festival called Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina celebrates the spirit and legacy of Robert Moog. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.