Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Patching Ideas: A Recapping of Moogfest 2014

May 26, 2014

The first complete Moog Synthesizer with modules, built by Robert A. Moog, 1964 (Object ID: 82.68.1).

What does a Moog synthesizer sound like? The word itself is often mispronounced. Moog sounds nothing like the moo-ing of a cow. I was guilty of this faux-pas myself for many years until I was chastised by a musician friend: “No! Not like the cow! Moog rhymes with vogue!” When the experimental composer Herbert Deutsch first met Bob Moog, he told him that he wanted an instrument that didn’t exist. He said he wanted something that could “make these sounds that go wooo-wooo-ah-woo-woo.” Moog’s electrical engineering skills and openness to collaboration played well alongside Deutsch’s musical engineering talents. And so, as they developed the instrument together, the short version of the story is that Deutsch began to hear the first signs of his “wooo”’s and “ah”’s in July of 1964. By October, Deutsch was composing electronic music on the first complete Moog prototype – the very same synthesizer that was eventually acquired for our collections here at The Henry Ford.

Love for the Moog continues today, evidenced by the recent celebration of its 50th Anniversary at Moogfest 2014: The Synthesis of Technology, Art & Music. I was privileged to be able to attend this festival, and to meet the foundational members behind the history of synthesized music, to hear presentations by people influenced by Bob Moog and his legacy, and to participate in demonstrations alongside current visionaries in the field of technology and sound.

Music to the engineering world’s ears would align the Moog synthesizer’s best qualities as coming from its feats of interior technology: electronically generated sounds, driven by voltage-controlled transistor technology, organized into standardized modules, oscillators, and a keyboard. I promise I won’t go too far down this technical rabbit hole, because while this history was absolutely crucial to its invention, I believe that the legacy of the Moog synthesizer is rooted in what it can do, and what is has done, rather than what it is. In a world that is saturated by creative invention (and equally rapid obsolescence), it is often difficult to imagine there being enough space left for something truly original and lasting. But Bob Moog’s synthesizer was pure innovation: no one had ever heard anything like the sounds it produced.

So while I’m doing a roundabout job of describing what the Moog sounds like, I’m comfortable in assuming that you have probably heard it, and perhaps not realized it. While Wendy Carlos’ 1968 classical application of the instrument in “Switched on Bach” is considered to be the first commercially successful Moog recording, its use quickly branched into popular music: The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, and Giorgio Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s disco hit “Love to Love You Baby.” Musicians working today love the Moog because it supports organic experimentation and seemingly limitless sound potential, distilled down into a portable instrument with a physical interface. In spite of the widespread availability of computer-based music programs, many performers are choosing to return to analog instruments. Clicking buttons on a laptop is simply less satisfying than making a physical patch with a cord. Signals travel from one patch port to the next, travelling over wires, producing otherworldly sounds.

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Moogfest attendees logged many hours of play on UM Projects’ theremins (left); thereminist Dorit Chrysler kicks off the festival at Pack Place Lobby, April 23, 2014 (right).

Daily performances by Dorit Chrysler were played out among the custom-built theremins by François Chambard of Odd Harmonics / UM Projects. In addition to being considered one of the world’s preeminent thereminists, Chrysler is also one of the founding members of the New York Theremin Society. Attendees were welcome to try their hand at playing the theremins during the open play hours. Most people (this curator included) were shocked to find out how difficult it was to get any sense of control out of the oddball instrument.

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Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make Magazine, introduces the creative powerhouses that will appear in Make Magazine’s day-long panel (right); Nic Collin’s Tall Poppies film showed how simple contact microphones could be used creatively, to amplify the sound of the metal rods of fireworks sparklers. Watch (and listen!) here.

Make Magazine’s lineup for a day-long session did not disappoint. Tom Zimmerman, Master Inventor working within IBM’s Research Division, opened the floor by discussing his career in the foundations of human-machine interaction. His first patent was for the Data Glove, the same technology that helped to support early efforts in the Virtual Reality arena. His recent inventions have included digital tracking devices that alert a control center when endangered sea-turtle eggs are hatching, and Project Autobahn, a system to convert the mechanical data of a Ford automobile into music. Zimmerman’s passion for the importance of STEAM (that’s STEM + Art) education is clear, as he shared his mantra: “Hands-on wins, hands down.”

Jay Silver of Joylabz and Intel demonstrated the abilities of his creative platforms Makey Makey and Drawdio. With these devices, the world essentially becomes an electrical, interactive playground: you can turn your kitchen sink into a theremin, or make a working video game controller out of Play-Doh.

Nic Collins, author of the influential book Handmade Electronic Music, spoke about his career trajectory through the avant-garde music scene of New York in the 1970s to his current position as Professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When he first arrived at SAIC, he realized that his students were “digitally saturated,” and that they were hungry to learn about the messiness of analog circuitry. Collins shared his knowledge of circuitry, ultimately sparking off a riotous revolution in sound-making and art at his popular workshops. A favorite moment was Collins’ description of his Tall Poppies project in which he built microphones to capture the sound of sparkler fireworks burning down and cooling – from the inside.

Forest Mims III has written over 60 books, many of them well known to Makers and electrical enthusiasts. His books Getting Started in Electronics and the Engineer’s Mini-Notebook series for Radio Shack have sold millions of copies and sparked off generations of garage workbench tinkerers in the process. Mims recounted his work over the years: the “Jokes That Bomb” noisemaker for the Johnny Carson Show, the Atari Punk Console, and infrared travel aid glasses to safely direct the blind. In 1975, Mims also wrote the very first manual for a home computer, the Altair 8800, manufactured by his company, MITS.

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The vocoder began as a room-sized interface called SIGSALY, equipped with two turntables that are suspiciously reminiscent of the performance setups that hip-hop DJs would later use (left, image courtesy of the Audio Engineering Society); Douglas Vakoch (right) of the SETI Institute spoke as part of the Science Fiction & Synthesized Sound workshop presented by OMNI Reboot.

The overwhelming amount of incredible speakers to choose from found me session-hopping for the remainder of the festival. Favorites included hearing the history of the vocoder unfold through the captivating and humorous expertise of Dave Tompkins. His book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, traces the vocoder from its beginnings as the behemoth SIGSALY, a WWII-era speech encrypting device, to its diminutive (but no less impactful presence) into its days of being harnessed for science-fiction film and television, and eventually bleeding over into robotically-inflected effects used in hip hop and electronic music.

Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, spoke in depth about the history and content of “goodwill messages,” those inscribed pictorial plaques sent into space onboard Pioneer and Explorer spacecraft. The Institute continues this type of highly coordinated communication through their Earth Speaks project. Using crowd-sourced contributions, SETI invites people to submit pictures and text to be broadcast in the event that an extraterrestrial civilization is ever detected. The themes they ask contributors to respond to related to what it means to be human, and the provocation: “Should we reply, and if so, what should we say?”

Module synthesizers continue to be designed and crafted by hand at the Moog Factory in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. In a surprise unveiling, the factory wowed the crowd with a painstakingly recreated version of Keith Emerson’s iconic instrument. This engineering feat took three years to complete, and is a powerhouse of workmanship and commitment to the vintage synth spirit, from hand-soldered circuit boards to photo-etched aluminum designs.

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The new Emerson Moog Modular System, unveiled at the Moog Factory (left); Herbert Deutsch and Kristen Gallerneaux talk about all things Moog (right).

I was also honored to be able to spend some time talking to Herbert Deutsch himself in his down time between performances. Suffice to say, Deutsch’s role as collaborative advisor in the development of the synthesizer meant that he was well-armed with amazing stories and information about our artifact. I will look forward to revealing some of these in a future blog post. At his lecture, “From Moog to Mac,” Deutsch performed early compositions from the heyday of Moog experimentation, including music that was originally created on The Henry Ford’s own synthesizer.

When Deutsch played a recording of a correspondence tape from 1963, sent to him by Bob Moog, the audience fell silent. Above the stunned hush, we heard the first sounds of the synthesizer, and Moog himself, jokingly calling his invention “the old Abominatron,” warning Deutsch, “It doesn’t sound like much when I play it, but maybe somehow, someone with a bit more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it…”

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford. Be on the lookout for sound and synthesis-related events at this year’s Maker Faire Detroit, July 26-27!

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