Friday, June 03, 2005

Where Engineering and Art Met

Keith Emerson navigates a sea of patch cables

Celebrating 40 years of Moog synthesizers

The Birth of the Synthesizer

Somewhere along the path between Stradivarius and Pro Tools sits an unprepossessing and grandfatherly man named Robert Moog.

Moog (rhymes with vogue) sold his first synthesizer, the Moog, in 1965. In the 40 years since, these musical instruments -- and, Moog will tell you, they are musical instruments -- have changed contemporary music.

What started out as grindy-sounding oscillators that had problems creating a musical chord have evolved into recreators of acoustic sound, hip-hop mix devices, and the keyboard and drumpads have themselves disappeared in some cases. I've truly enjoyed growing up during the rise of electronic keyboards. It was a period of pure creativity and experimentation where the number cruncher and the artist came together as one. From Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Yes, and Rush to Jean-Michel Jarre, Brian Eno, and Tangerine Dream and so many others, many great and classic tunes were created during the 70s and 80s

For those in the New York area interested in celebrated the achievements of Robert Moog, you just missed the Moog Fest.


The Moody Minstrel said...

Cool post!

Just to add a bit of trivia, Mick Jagger once bought a Moog modular synth (like the one Keith Emerson is playing with in the pic). He couldn't make heads or tails of it, so he only used it a movie prop. After that, he sold it to a young experimental electronic musician from Berlin by the name of Chris Franke.

Recognize the name? He's the guy who made the soundtrack for Babylon 5. At the time, however, he was a member of Tangerine Dream.

Franke was actually something of a precocious youth; he joined Tangerine Dream at the age of 17 (leader Edgar Froese was 26 at the time), mainly to play drums and monkey with the studio effects. While TaDream were recording the (totally bizarre but cool) album Zeit, they brought in a guest musician who had a Moog. Franke fell totally in love with it, so he set off in search of one for himself, finally winding up with Jagger's. There was no user's manual for the thing at all; it was literally touch and go from the beginning. When he finally figured out how to use the sequencer, however, and put it to use on the album Phaedra for the first time ever as a "rhythm section", it not only transformed Tangerine Dream into the mainly synth-based band it still is today (though Franke is no longer a member), but set the stage for a lot of today's pop music.

Tangerine Dream pioneered many elements of modern synthesizers and electronic music in general, but they rarely get any recognition for it. Franke, meanwhile, is mainly working with orchestras now making movie soundtracks, but he still does his share of electronic music. (His solo albums Pacific Coast Highway, Klemania, and The Celestine Prophecy are excellent!)

You can find more info about him at his own personal record label and website.

Okay, carry on.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Uh...let me add another surprising bit of trivia. It would appear that the name "Moog" is also associated with things a bit less peaceful and enjoyable than music...

Check out this Moog website.

Don Snabulus said...

While we are talking about Tangerine Drean band members, here is the web site for Johannes Schmoelling:

A quick look reveals that a new CD (of old material) is in the works with Edgar Froese under, it appears, the Tangerine Dream name.

Pandabonium said...

Very interesting post.

I loved the album "Switched On Bach" featuring the early Moog synthesizer, which came out while I was a freshman in college. (Yes I'm THAT old). It was an awesome instrument which, while electronic, required an artist to play it.

Tangerine Dream was a different genre, but still artist controlled.

Recently I attended a synthesizer concert and was bored silly. The "artist" played a few keys with his right hand, while he waved his left hand dramatically in the air like a carnival side show magician and special effects filled the sky with laser light. It did not feel like live music to me. I felt cheated of my time, as if the performer was merely turning on a stereo system and playing a CD.

At what point does the automatic aspects of such machines eclipse the human, artisitic element? Anyone without an ounce of creativity can push a button and turn on a CD player. Can we call machine generated sound "music"? Obviously, musical instruments of any stripe - a guitar, a keyboard, a trombone, are all machines as well. What level of human involvement makes it art?

I don't have an answer that I am satisfied with, so I'm posing the question.

Perhaps someone would care to comment?

Pandabonium said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Moody Minstrel said...

One of the other groups/artists mentioned as significant, pioneering Moog users, but which nonetheless got left out of the movie, is Kraftwerk (another German group).

Among their various novel approaches to their music was actually a great deal of sarcasm. As with DEVO and Gary Numan, Kraftwerk's central theme seemed to be the progressive dehumanization of the human race as technology takes over. To underscore this, they once "played" a concert in Brussels in which they walked onto the stage, pushed the start button, and then jumped off the stage and danced as the entire performance went on in its programmed entirety.

A lot of people felt a lot like Pandabonium did at the synth concert he saw: cheated.

Not long after that, Kraftwerk made an even bigger impression. They "performed" a concert in which they weren't present on the stage at all. Instead, robots with heads molded in the band members' likeness were placed behind the keyboards. The concert was then carried out by the members by remote control from a hotel room in another country.

Sadly, ever since Tangerine Dream evaporated down into the father-son duo of Edgar and Jerome Froese, they've become more like a club DJ act. (Actually, Jerome IS a club DJ when he's not working with TD.) Most of the time, unless one of them is playing guitar, their fingers rarely seem to move. So much for artist control. (I might add that their music is also a lot duller than it used to be...which could explain why they're getting more music awards than ever before...)

The Moody Minstrel said...

Uh, I'm on a roll.

In answer to Pandabonium's question, let me give you something said during an interview by the drummer/sequencer programmer of the band New Order:

"Even if we use programming, it was still all made by a human being, so there's still a human element involved."

And from Dizzy Gillespie (at a jazz clinic I attended):

"Hey, if a synthesizer and a digital sequencer make music, then I say use 'em."

As for me, I have nothing against use of sequencers in a live performance as long as they are there to provide a "rhythm section" and/or ornamentation over which the musicians perform the principal ensemble and melody parts (which is what Tangerine Dream did from 1973 till 1992). I don't like it when the programming actually forms the bulk of the performance...unless that is the whole artistic point.