My Visit with Bob Moog, Tuesday May 9th, 2000

by Jonathan Richardson


I’m going through the local Bloomington, Indiana paper, and in the local/regional section (an area that I normally never look in), I notice that Bob Moog is lecturing and giving a demonstration at the Lyons, Indiana elementary/jr. high school.  At first I though it might be a different Bob Moog, because why would he be in Lyons, Indiana (pop. 400 or so)?  And at an elementary/jr. high school?  Lyons is a dot on the map, even by Indiana standards—the kind of place that you wouldn’t notice unless your grandma lived there.  Seeing Moog’s name and Lyons, Indiana in the same sentence was so unbelievable to me I was sure it was either a big joke to which I was the punchline, or a cruel hoax my wife concocted.  Or, more plausibly, a typo whereas the person is actually Bill Mooge or Moag, giving a lecture and demonstration on state-of-the art electronic paring knives.  But after much rubbing of the eyes and scratching of the head, I figured I would drive down to Lyons and see for myself.  So few things of interest happen to me here in southern Indiana.  So why am I here?  That’s another long and involved story that I don’t want to get into.  So I grabbed my Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music LP for Moog to autograph and headed one hour southwest with my wife Kelly to Lyons.

Robert Moog LecturingWhen we finally arrived at the school, there were about ten cars in the parking lot.  I thought to myself that I had been duped into driving 60 miles through a thunderstorm to hear a lecture on paring knives.  The school actually lay betwixt two cornfields, just south of a silo about a mile out of town.  We went inside—what else is there to do in Lyons at 7 pm on a Tuesday evening?

Upon entering the school we noticed lots of loud, enthusiastic voices coming from a door to the right of the entrance.  Was this it?  We bounded toward the door ready to hear and see the father of the modern synthesizer.  I opened the door and happened upon the local Lyons Elementary/Jr. High PTA meeting.  Oops!  Hello Ladies!  Down a few more doors to the left, sure enough, there he is with that unmistakable grin and full head of white hair.  It's Bob Moog!  Thank you, Lyons!  Mission accomplished!  (with pardons to Mr. Schifrin)

Scattered about the room were various synthesizers, a mini-moog, a theremin, a CD player and a slide projector.  At that moment, we knew that we were in for something special.  The crowd was a strange mix of about 20 or so.  It was a bizarre blend of local farmers, a few intellectual-looking musical types, a couple of older ladies (members of the Greene County Arts Council??), a couple of psychedelic relics, a few kids and me and my wife.  What was to become of the evening?  I could only hope.

Dr. Moog (pronounced Mogue, like rogue with a long o, although I still pronounce it Moog as in, the plastic cow goes......moooooog) humbly introduced himself to those who were not familiar with his name or his work, and began his slide show.  The whole evening took place on a stage that was built and painted to look like a giant castle, complete with moat and drawbridge.  I think that this was the room that the drama class met in, because I don’t think that this was a part of the agreement to bring Dr. Moog to Lyons, but I kind of wish it was—like the only demand in his contract rider was a drawbridge.

The lecture was totally informative and entertaining.  Moog is smart as a whip and could out-hip any hipster around.  I know that he is the oldest person I have ever heard say the phrases "Nine Inch Nails" and "house music" in the same breath without pause or stutter.  As I listened to him speak, I wondered if he realized the impact he has had upon modern music—how his inventions have created whole genres, categories and subcategories of music, cultures and lifestyles.  The name Moog is more than just a brand name of electronics, it’s a movement in music history, a word associated with such a unique sound that it could only be described as well, MOOG.  Who reading this article wouldn’t give their vital organs to own an original Moog synthesizer, or even to play with one? (Well, not exactly a vital organ, but maybe a spleen or a tonsil.)   Is he aware of his impact? Does he realize what he has actually created?  I’m sure he does, but his humble demeanor and outright enthusiasm tells me that he just likes what he does—building music machines.

Bob Moog is (and he states this very clearly right off) an engineer.  He designs and builds musical equipment for musicians.  He is also a music lover and an electronic music historian.  He spoke with much joy in his voice when discussing experimental electronic music.  He is highly educated, knows his history, and is completely aware of where his ideas came from and where his own creations stand in this timeline.  During his two and a half-hour lecture he discussed and presented slides of various experimental synthesizers and "electronic" pianos that preceded the Moog.  Some of them were successes; most were not, like the late 1930s Henner synth by Hammond (which Moog said was a good idea if WWII had not gotten in the way).  Another was the Kuplo Givelay (spelling?) synthesizer which was exhibited at the 1929 Paris Exhibition.  He briefly mentioned a man named Percy Grainger and his paper roll-driven music synthesizer.

One of the more interesting gizmos was what I believe Bob Moog called the Photogen, which was a combination keyboard and tape player.  The Photogen had about thirteen keyboard keys that each triggered a tape capstan that played a prerecorded "sample" on a tape loop.  This complicated analog gizmo paved the way for today’s digital sampler.  He also talked about the room-filling monstrosity RCA sound synthesizer, which was, in Moog's opinion, created by RCA to cut down or completely eliminate the need for unionized musicians.  He also spoke at length about the Hammond Corporation and the Hammond organ.

He then went on to discuss experimental music composers and engineers that built and played on these pioneering machines and even went as far as previewing compositions from his collection of CDs.  He held high regard for Vladimir Ussachevsky, a Russian-born tape music pioneer and composer, who was one of Moog's first customers.  Ussachevsky had Moog custom-build a synthesizer and modules to aid his composing.  Moog explained that Ussachevsky himself helped develop some of the designs that led up to the Moog synthesizer.

He mentioned briefly and played song samples from composers like Stockhausen, Otto Luening, and Bernard Krause, but he made the biggest fuss over Raymond Scott.  Scott was a big influence on Moog and his early designs.  He went on and on about what a genius Scott was and how he was the first musician to use electronic music in advertising (those of you who have picked up Basta Records’ fantastic two-CD set of Scott's electronic music Manhattan Research Inc will know what I mean).  He acknowledged that Scott played a very inspirational role and was a great influence on the development of the first Moog synth.  Moog gladly played a bit of the new CD.  When an audience member asked about the composition that was played and asked whether it was available commercially, he enthusiastically displayed and praised the new double CD.

Moog then went on to talk about the Moog synth, showing a few slides of some of the early Moog models.  I was surprised and a bit disappointed that he didn’t talk about the actual Moog synthesizer in more detail.  It seemed like he didn’t want to toot his own horn, that he was there to talk about the history that led up to the Moog.  He did proudly display some record jackets that bear his name, like Dick Hyman’s Moog, and albums by Larry Taylor and W. Carlos (to name but a few).  He proclaimed 1969 "The Year of the Moog", because Moog fever (and the number of Moog releases) hit an all time high that year.  He played a little bit of theremin music from Music For a Peace Of Mind.  Moog’s company, Big Briar in Asheville, North Carolina, produces theremins.  He also played small excerpts of some Moog music, like pieces from Switched-on Bach, Dick Hyman’s "Give it Up, Or Turn it Loose", and Gil Trythall’s "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" which Moog said was one of his favorites.  It seems that Moog does know what a cultural phenomenon the Moog produced.

He answered audience questions to the best of his ability.  Some of the questions were so ridiculous that I was embarrassed—one older woman, after hearing some of the music, asked why it hurt her ears.  As an added bonus, he played a tape of popular radio songs, in ten-second samples, which use the Moog.  This tape, he explained later, was prepared by his lawyers a few years ago to use as examples of Moog music in a trial in which Moog was suing another company for misusing his name.  I was amazed at all the songs I recognized, songs I heard while growing up and listening to radio in the 1970s that incorporate the Moog.  I realized that it’s hard to flip through the radio and not hear the Moog.  (I tried this on the way home and was rewarded with ELP's "What a Lucky Man" complete with long, drawn out, Moog solo.)

Moog playing Amazing Grace on a thereminAs it neared 9:00, he ended his lecture with a video of Clara Rockmore, in a dynamite beehive hair-do, playing "The Lark" on the theremin.  This was an inspiring bit of footage.  Rockmore’s facial gestures and body movements were not unlike someone in pain or in a trance, eyes half-closed, waving her arms around in the air with the most precise movements.  She used her knuckles, wrists, every part of her hand to get the right note (and maybe even her amazing eyebrows).  Anyone, who has heard the theremin played badly or has tried to play the theremin, knows what a difficult instrument it is to master.  Moog also previewed a live theremin piece by an artist named Vladimir Komorav.  It was a striking piece with voice samples of Leon Theremin, the tragic inventor of the instrument that bears his name, talking over musical tape loops and theremin.  I think it kind of disturbed some of the locals, as it was a bit eerie.  The icing on the cake was Dr. Moog playing "Amazing Grace" on his theremin.  He concluded that experimental electronic music owed everything to Leon Theremin and his invention.

Afterward I shook his hand (though I felt like kissing it), and asked him to autograph my Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music LP.  He graciously did so, and replied "oh my goodness" when he saw it.  I’m sure he was wondering why the hell I brought that. Even though he is a man who appreciates and has contributed to electronic music history, he is a very forward-looking man, and was probably wondering why I had brought such outdated media for him to sign.  I grabbed a catalog from his company and some literature, and then Kelly and I ventured back out into the rain.  It was the best two hours I spent in Lyons, Indiana.

What a strange and fun evening indeed!

Oh, I forgot to mention why Moog was in Lyons.  He was brought by the school's music teacher, Virgil Franklin, who is an advocate of experimental electronic music. Moog was there to lecture and put on small workshops for the kids (lucky little twits!).  The following day was a talk and performance by the guy who invented the electronic trumpet (can’t think of his name).  The finale was an electronic music competition and "jam" in which the jr high kids competed.  Pretty weird, but very cool.
 


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