Showing posts with label Moog Synthesizer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Moog Synthesizer. Show all posts

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Spaceship Moog

For the synthesists of the late 1960s, as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco point out in their fine book Analog Days (2002), to be properly recognized for their efforts on a recording was a real problem. They claim that within the recording industry during the late 60s, the status of a synthesist was institutionally ambiguous: was he or she an artist, or a technician (the latter being analogous to a computer programmer)?

Was the actual creation of original electronic sounds—the patching and programming—an artistic, or engineering achievement? With all its dials and wires, it was perhaps not surprising that producers and record-industry people regarded the Moogist as being more like a recording engineer….The record industry just did not know how to deal with this hybrid machine-instrument and its operators; it defied the normal categories. (125)

This fundamental ambiguity of electronic music has persisted to the present day. As Robert Ray points out:

Sampling and sequencing, go the current complaints, make musicians unnecessary: you can make records now entirely by recombining bits and pieces sampled from other records; you don’t have to play a musical instrument at all. (70)

Virtuosity, in other words, no longer seems relevant when it comes to music, just as rhetorical eloquence is no longer relevant within a culture that more and more communicates through emails and text messages. Early “Electro-pop” (or “Techno-pop”) groups, especially those of European origin such as Kraftwerk, exploited the ambiguity surrounding the synthesizer within the music industry: Were synthesists musicians, or merely technicians, patching the correct cables and tweaking the proper knobs? Songs such as “Showroom Dummies,” “The Model,” and “The Robots” seemed to underscore this fundamental ambiguity: art, or artifice; human, or simulacrum?

“Electro” was a British term used to designate early ‘80s African-American dance music that primarily used electronic instrumentation. Perhaps the essential Electro recording (and certainly a key recording of "old school" Hip Hop) is Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” a 1982 single featuring AB’s rapping to a (Roland) 808 drum machine and a sampled melodic figure from Kraftwerk. According to David Toop, in his article, “A to Z of Electro” (1996) that can be found here, the genre of dance music known as Electro “was black science fiction teleported to the dance floors of New York, Miami and LA; a super-stoopid fusion of video games, techno-pop, graffiti art, silver space suits and cyborg funk.” While Toop suggests important precursors to Electro are figures such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, it perhaps might be important to remember that, in the 60s—meaning early in its historical reception—the (Moog) synthesizer was strongly associated with transgression, transcendence, and transformation (see Pinch and Trocco’s Analog Days). These trans-itive associations with the synthesizer seemed to have informed all its subsequent developments in the 70s and early 80s, especially evident in the work of George Clinton (who strongly influenced Afrika Bambaataa), with his creation of his idiosyncratic space mythology, in which his own experience with cultural marginalization led to a strong association with the Alien Other.

Given the recent resurgence of Electro, we perhaps might do well to understand its origins in the Moog--and all its subsequent offspring, such as the drum machine.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Art of Noise

Introduced to the rock world at the Monterey Pop Festival, held June 16-18 1967, the Moog synthesizer was the most sophisticated and expensive noisemaking machine ever invented. Although seldom considered as a noisemaker, that is more or less how the synthesizer was initially perceived, given its first uses in popular music were weird and unusual sounds. There were various noisemaking machines introduced earlier, of course: Bebe and Louis Barron, for instance, were accomplished at using electronic noisemaking devices, creating the unearthly sounds—i.e., noises—used on the soundtrack to MGM’s SF classic Forbidden Planet (1956). But even before them, Spike Jones fired guns and banged pots and pans (among other things) when he set out to “murder the classics.” Other accomplished noisemakers include John Cage, Harry Partch, Frank Zappa’s beloved Edgar Varèse (pictured), Sun Ra, Yoko Ono, and of course Lou Reed, whose Metal Machine Music (1975) would have been inconceivable without these earlier composers preparing the way.

Hence the Moog synthesizer can be considered as simply another means of making noise, albeit a highly sophisticated one, and all noisemaking ritual has its anthropological roots in the charivari. According to, charivari is defined as, "A mock serenade (e.g. for newlyweds) of loud, discordant noises using pots and pans, cowbells, guns and other noisemakers; by extension, any cacophony of out-of-tune noises." The word is French, from the Old French for “hubbub,” perhaps from Late Latin carībaria, headache, from Greek karēbariā: karē, head + barus, heavy.

Here’s what Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his essay “Divertissement on a Folk Theme” (from The Raw and the Cooked, University of Chicago Press, 1969), says about the charivari:

The Encyclopédie compiled by Diderot and d’Alembert defines “charivari” as follows:

The word . . . means and conveys the derisive noise made at night with pans, cauldrons, basins, etc., in front of the houses of people who are marrying for the second or third time or are marrying someone of a very different age from themselves. (288)

One can see from Levi-Strauss’s definition the origin of the meaning of charivari (in American English, shivaree) as "mock serenade": if the serenade celebrates romantic love, the charivari satirizes it.

The recent re-issue on CD of Mort Garson and Jacques Wilson’s charivari, The Wozard of Iz (original release: 1968), subtitled “An Electronic Odyssey” and produced by electronic music pioneer Bernie Krause, is a good illustration of the early uses of the Moog synthesizer. A media satire using The Wizard of Oz to structure the heroine's journey to the "Upset Strip," The Wozard of Iz is badly dated by virtue of its (heavy) use of late 60s slang and for being too obviously created for juvenile audiences (nothing about it is in the least way subtle), but it is interesting nonetheless as an illustration of how the synthesizer was perceived as nothing more, early on in its history, as a novelty. Most certainly it was Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, released a couple of months after The Wozard of Iz in 1968, that first gave the synthesizer musical credibility, demonstrating to a skeptical audience that the synthesizer was something much other than an expensive toy.

I made the observation in an earlier post that early on in its history any unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. I suggested that popular music's appropriation of the "psychedelic experience" was initially perceived as a bad joke: the first albums containing the word "psychedelic," such as the Blues Magoos' "Psychedelic Lollipop," used the word in a joking way. The idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on. The Wozard of Iz illustrates the same idea: like these other, aforementioned records, it sold poorly, because it lacked both credibility and substance, and was just so much noisemaking. Conversely, Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach sold well because it was straight. Unlike Spike Jones, who set out to "murder the classics," Switched-On Bach approached the music with the utmost seriousness, as high art, and the role of the synthesizer as a noisemaking toy was minimized, if not absent altogether. In other words, Wendy Carlos set out to do anything but perform a charivari.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Man From Moog

Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (filmed 1968; released 1970), starring Mick Jagger, James Fox, and Anita Pallenberg, is the first—and so far as I know, only—feature film in which a Moog synthesizer makes an appearance. A synthesizer named TONTO appeared in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) but its sounds were not actually heard in the film.

If records available at are correct (and there's no reason to believe they are not), then the Rolling Stones did not purchase a Moog synthesizer until 3 September 1968, in other words, about five weeks prior to the end of the filming of Performance, and after the recording of Beggar’s Banquet (and therefore not, as one might have expected, immediately after the recording of 1967’s psychedelic Their Satanic Majesty Requests). And if Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, in their marvelous book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Harvard University Press, 2002) are correct, then Jon Weiss, "the Man from Moog,” did not arrive in London with the Rolling Stones’ Moog synthesizer until late summer 1968, which jibes with the above date of 3 September 1968.

Apparently at the time the idea was that Mick was going to use the Moog synthesizer “as his instrument in the band” (303). At some point, soon after Jon Weiss’s arrival in London, Weiss and Jagger came up with the idea of using the synthesizer as a prop in Performance: “The Moog with its rows of knobs and dials would make a perfect addition” (303). Since, as Pinch and Trocco so astutely observe, the synthesizer was “part of the sixties apparatus for transgression, transcendence, and transformation” (305), the Moog was indeed an ideal prop for Performance, especially since its appearance coincides with Chas’s (James Fox’s) tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms.

We first see the Moog synthesizer—which would have been an utterly unfamiliar piece of technology to the vast majority of viewers at the time—as it sits on the floor of Turner’s studio, a bewildering array of knobs and patch cables framed by fluorescent light bulbs. Turner sits on the floor before it.

According to Pinch and Trocco, the Moog used in Performance is a Moog Series III modular synthesizer. The above frame grab from the film conveniently shows the three modules characteristic of a "modular synthesizer." Each one of the modules is essentially self-contained; there were virtually no connections within each of the three modules. The purpose of the patch cords, each with a 1/4" phone plug at the end, was to link the modules together; nothing would happen otherwise. The purpose of the patch cords was to carry one of three types of information: signals, or what sound we ultimately would hear; control, a specific (low) voltage telling the modules what to do; and triggers, or electrical pulses, telling the modules what to do at the particular moment.

The special virtue of the Moog was its durability; there was no “right” or “wrong” way to use it—no particular grouping of patches, or combination of knob settings, could damage it. On the other hand, some patch combinations and knob settings would not yield any sound, so while there may have been no right or wrong way to play around with it, if you didn’t know what you were doing, nothing would happen. At the time, therefore, someone who knew how to use it—such as Jon Weiss, "the man from Moog”—was quite valuable.

A closer view shows that a rather simple patch, or connection made between the various modules, has been made. My guess, though, is that while there is the sinister drone characteristic of the Moog on the soundtrack when Chas enters Turner’s studio, that sound was not “live” on the set, but dubbed in later. (The Moog on the soundtrack was played by Bernie Krause, one half of the synthesizer team known as Beaver and Krause.) My guess is that while Mick is shown twiddling some knobs and feigning some adjustments, the synthesizer isn’t actually turned on at all.

What Mick seems to be doing with his left hand is fiddling with the knobs of a controller section, which appears to be a Moog 901A VCO (the "voltage control oscillator," the thin panel at the extreme left) combined with a series of Moog 901B oscillator controllers (each of the panels lined up next to it to the right). His left hand seems to be turning the lower knob of a 901B unit. Directly above his left hand is the 904 series of “filter modules,” the 904A “low pass filter" and the 904B “high pass filter," the electrical systems that in fact defined the Moog and for which Robert Moog had filed patents. The second module from the left, sitting between the 904A (far left) and 904B (right) is the 904C coupler that mixed the output of the two filter modules (it could also be turned off and hence not used). Mick’s head is partially covering the Moog 901 voltage controlled oscillator (VCO), while the larger unit of knobs in the left center of the module on the far right is the Moog 960 sequential controller, which could provide a series of controlled voltages. Only one of the eight stages was active at a time, indicated by the row of lights across the top (none of which are lit, nor does the sequencer appear to be used as a part of the patch).

A better view of the sequential controller can be seen in the following frame grab; other modules in view are various low frequency oscillators, input processors, and a Moog 911 envelope generator. Note that the placement of the patch cords are not the same between the earlier stills and the one below:

The rest of the story:

1) According to Pinch and Trocco (348) the patch that the man from Moog, Jon Weiss, had set up for Mick on the synthesizer used in Performance was used to create the soundtrack for Kenneth Anger’s short film Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), which featured a soundtrack by Mick Jagger.

2) As is well known, Mick Jagger did not take up the synthesizer—but, according to Pinch and Trocco, the Moog synthesizer originally purchased by the Stones lived on:

It was sold on to the Hansa by the Wall recording studio in Berlin, where in 1973 Christoph Franke of Tangerine Dream purchased it for $15,000. The Moog sequencer became the defining element of Tangerine Dream’s sound, and the Moog became an enduring influence on the many waves of German electronic music in the 1970s. This influence eventually provided renewed stimulus in the United States when Donna Summer’s I Feel Love (1977), produced by Giorgio Moroder in a Munich studio with the aid of a modular Moog, along with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express (1977), were taken up in black dance culture.... (305-06)

If the Performance modular synth was indeed sold to Christoph Franke of Tangerine Dream in 1973, then the first album made by that group on which that particular Moog appeared was Phaedra, recorded late in 1973 and released early in 1974, an album that is now considered an essential album of electronic music, and a breakthrough in the use of synthesizer/sequencer technology.

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.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

His Master's Voice

Although colloquially referred to as a “Leslie”, the Leslie Rotating Speaker System is actually a sound modification (deformation) device, not a standard speaker as such, in the sense of being an amplification and reproduction mechanism, one so accurate and so realistic in its sound that the reproduction could fool one’s faithful dog. The mythic origin of the relationship between the master, the master’s voice, and the faithful dog is ancient: it can be traced back to Homer’s Odyssey, with the relationship between Odysseus and his elderly dog, Argos. If you’ll remember, Odysseus has been gone from Ithaca for twenty years, and when he finally returns, he’s disguised as a beggar. Having landed back home after such a long absence, when Odysseus eventually speaks, even after all those long years, Argos, his old, dying dog—so miserably old that the only way the beast can stay warm is lay on a composting manure pile—instantly lifts up his head in excitement, having recognized his master’s voice. The presence of his master’s voice, of course, means to the dog that his master has finally returned. Thus Nipper, the name of the dog used as a model in the painting that eventually became RCA’s logo, is really misnamed. In honor of that miserably old dog that waited twenty years just to hear--once more before he died--his master’s voice, RCA’s mascot should be re-christened Argos.

The Leslie did not originate as a speaker the purpose of which was to reproduce “his master’s voice.” Although invented in the 1940s to augment the sound of the Hammond organ, in the 1960s the Leslie--named after its inventor, Donald J. Leslie (1911-2004)--began to be put to use by rock bands in an unexpected way. Michael Jarrett writes:

The overlapping waveforms produced by the Leslie’s two speakers—not unlike the effect derived by yelling into an electric fan—generate a sonic moiré pattern (a Doppler effect): the tremulant sound associated with Hammond organs. But other instruments have also been played through Leslie cabinets....To the psychedelic mind, the Leslie and LSD were homologous; both altered everyday perception. (140)

The lead guitar part on The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” was modified by a Leslie, while on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” it was Ron Bushy’s drums. The Beatles’ vocals were modified by a Leslie on “Tomorrow Never Knows” (among others), as was Ozzy Osbourne’s on Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.”

A Few Representative Recordings Featuring the Leslie:

The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds,” Pet Sounds (1966)
The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver (1966)
Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum (1967)
Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild,” Steppenwolf (1968)
The Band, “Tears of Rage,” Music from Big Pink (1968)
Iron Butterfly, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)
Black Sabbath, “Planet Caravan,” Paranoid (1970)

The Leslie was to LSD what the Moog synthesizer was to interstellar space travel. If the Leslie was light-hearted and benign, the Moog synthesizer was dark and forboding: the Leslie was incapable of creating the sinister drone of the Moog. However, both machines reveal that for sixties rock bands, sound made all the difference. According to Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, in Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Harvard University Press, 2002), Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (filmed 1968, released 1970) “is the only movie we know of where the Moog synthesizer [a Moog Series III] itself makes a cameo appearance.” (Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise [1974] featured the synthesizer TONTO, but not its sounds. Jon Weiss actually set up a patch for Mick Jagger on the Performance set.) Pinch and Trocco write:

In a key scene . . . Turner [Mick Jagger] for a moment is the mad captain at the controls of spaceship Moog. The Moog and its sounds are the perfect prop, part of the psychedelic paraphernalia, the magical means to transmigrate a fading rock star into something else. The Moog was a machine that empowered such transformations. The synthesizer for a short while in the sixties was not just another musical instrument; it was part of the sixties apparatus for transgression, transcendence, and transformation. No wonder the sixties rock stars loved their Moogs. (305)

The synthesizer’s key place in sixties rock began in June 1967. Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause (the recording duo of Beaver & Krause) set up a booth on the Monterey fairground as part of the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 in order to promote, and perhaps even sell, the Moog synthesizer. They actually sold several. According to Pinch and Trocco, “Monterey was the place where the subculture became mainstream” (117).

A Few Representative Recordings Featuring the Moog Synthesizer:

Mort Garson and Bernie Krause, The Zodiac Cosmic Sounds (1967)
Johnny Mandel, Point Blank (1967) (Film Score Monthly, 2002)
The Doors, Strange Days (1967)
Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music (1968)
The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)
Walter [Wendy] Carlos, Switched-On Bach (1968)
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (1971)