Friday, April 4, 2008


My friend Tim Lucas posted a comment in response to my previous entry, “His Master’s Voice,” containing a number of interesting ideas that prompted me to pursue yet another line of speculation regarding the meaning of the Moog synthesizer in sixties popular music. I'll admit to being especially intrigued by an observation made by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco in Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Harvard University Press, 2002), one which I cited in my earlier post:

The Moog was a machine that empowered . . . transformations. The [Moog] synthesizer . . . was not just another musical instrument; it was part of the sixties apparatus for transgression, transcendence, and transformation. (305)

In addition to the grouping of transgression, transcendence, and transformation, one could add any number of words containing the prefix trans: transmission, transistor, translation, transvestite, transferal—and transsexual. Pinch and Trocco speculate as to whether Walter Carlos’ transformation into Wendy Carlos--which roughly coincided with the time she began work on the hugely successful synthesizer album Switched-On Bach (1968)--occurred “around the time she was developing as a synthesist,” and whether the transformation “had anything to do with the Moog, and with synthesis itself” (137). Admittedly, as Pinch and Trocco themselves point out:

The question of gender and the synthesizer is a tricky one. Certainly electronic music technologies have traditionally been used for building masculine identities—the boys and their latest toys. But different sorts of masculinity can be involved in how men interact with technologies, and several women we interviewed for this book, notably Suzanne Ciani and Linda Fisher, have developed intense personal relationships with their synthesizers....If, as Judith Butler argues, gender identities have to be performed, a key prop in the performance of these synthesists is the machine with which they spent most of their hours interacting—the synthesizer. What we want to suggest with Wendy [Carlos] and her synthesizer is that it may have helped provide a means whereby she could escape the gender identity society had given her. Part of her new identity became bound up with the machine. (138)

While I’d like to pursue some implications of these speculations by Pinch and Trocco, I'll digress for a moment in order to point out how their speculations contribute to a theory about how we might possibly interpret a musician’s particular use of the synthesizer during live performance:

Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer): genital prosthesis/phallic symbol
Rick Wakeman (Yes): genital prosthesis/phallic symbol (but more synths than Emerson, therefore his is “bigger”)
Allen Ravenstine (Pere Ubu): non-instrumentally, as noise, a child playing with a complicated toy, thus conforming perfectly with David Thomas’ odd stage persona as a prematurely large, chubby kid (Baby Huey)

In Wendy Carlos’ case, the use of the synthesizer to interpret a Baroque composer such as Bach is, of course, avant-garde in its impulse, but if one pauses to consider the synthesizer as a fetish object, her identification with the Moog, a machine whose operation rested upon its capacity to be re-wired--think of the endless plugging and unplugging of patch cables across a bewildering array of panels, as well as the tweaking of many dozens of knobs--in order to produce a different sound effect, is not an inappropriate object of identification for a transsexual, since gender is indeed in part a social performance--an effect. (Derrida on the fetish: “the projection operates in the choice rather than in the analysis of the model.”) In addition, engineers' coding of wire connections as "male" and "female" is highly suggestive as well.

Early Moog synthesizers had the capacity not only to produce “ethereal” or “unearthly” sounds but also the capacity to produce simulacra--not the sound of an actual harpsichord, for instance, but a pseudo-harpsichord--a “fake” or “trick” harpsichord. A simulacrum is like its model in every way, yet is unlike it because of an often intangible difference based on lack. For Wendy Carlos, the synthesizer is not a prosthesis for genital display (as are banks of synthesizers, or the electric guitar), but is homologous to a castrati, a castrated male who, dressed as a female, sang soprano parts in Italian opera. Although their high voices were the consequence of a physical cut, an alteration, castrati were nonetheless highly feted singers. (See Roland Barthes’ S/Z, a reading of Balzac’s “Sarrasine,” the story of a naïve French artist named Sarrasine who takes the requisite artistic pilgrimage to Rome. Ignorant of the fact that soprano parts are performed by castrati, Sarrasine falls in love with a soprano who goes by the name of La Zambinella, eventually to learn the devastating truth about the actual identity of his beloved and that his love is un-consummateable.)

How appropriate, then--and I remark upon this without irony or sarcasm—that Switched-On Bach was presented by “Trans-Electronic Music Productions.” It is also interesting to note that, as revealed by Pinch and Trocco's interview with Bernie Krause, the eccentric Paul Beaver--an early synthesist pioneer who died prematurely in 1975, and whose career has been largely overlooked in favor of Wendy Carlos' career--was bisexual, yet another provocative association with the Moog synthesizer, and those drawn to its mystery and singularity.

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