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Sonic Outlaw

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IT'S PRESUMPTUOUS to make such a statement, but Bob Moog changed the entire course of music and audio technology in the 20th century. Anyone who has ever played an electronic instrument knows what a Moog synthesizer is. In these days where analog synths have been coming back in style, it is only timely to acknowledge that Mr. Moog sadly left this earth on Sunday, Aug. 21. He was 71.

I only met him once. He came to Stanford in 1991 to attend a celebration and concert for Leon Theremin, the famous Russian inventor of the electronic instrument that bore his name. At the time, Theremin was 95 and hadn't been to the United States in decades.

A theremin is a unique electronic instrument that works via hand capacitance, and it looks deceptively simple: A box with two antennae sticking out of it—one vertical and one horizontal. You don't touch the thing at all while playing it. You wave your hands in the vicinities of the antennae and control the pitch and the volume. You can make it sound like a cello or a broken radio if you want. It was the theremin that first got Bob Moog interested in making instruments as a teenager.

I can brag that I met Leon Theremin at this event, albeit for only a few seconds. A literal who's who of electronic music composers showed up and partied.

Now, in those days, the term "electronic music" still actually meant something. Instead of composing a piece for violin and piano, you're writing a piece for violin, piano and computer-generated sounds on tape. Or you're using Fast Fourier Transforms on a computer to analyze the sonic spectrum of a flute in order to see how you would best couple the timbre of that instrument with samples of an airplane engine. Or you're writing papers on how the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo made his own noise instruments in 1913 and influenced Dada, which then influenced the Surrealists, whose subsequent influence can be seen in the 1970s where folks were drilling holes in the middle of records in order to play them off-center. It's about the opening up of music to all sounds.

In the academic world, it all goes back to various electronic music studios at certain universities in the '50s and '60s where folks would cut up pieces of analog tape and splice them together in several different patterns to create several different effects for the final product. Or they'd plug away at behemoth modular synthesizers in which you had to "patch" cords to connect the different voltage-controlled oscillators with filters, envelopes and what not. All just to make sound.

Nowadays the term "electronic music" has long since been heisted by the techno music community and the hip-hop/scratch DJ folks, so it means nothing anymore, sort of like the term "industrial music." (Yeah, I'm being overgeneral, but don't shoot me, I'm just a piano player.) Anyway, as soon as a term gets co-opted by a different populace, the term becomes obsolete. This is what happened with "electronic music." You can accost the majority of turntablists and they won't be able to tell you a damn thing about Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, the San Francisco Tape Music Center or, for that matter, John Cage, who advocated making noise with variable speed turntables in 1939. Thanks to folks like DJ Spooky, who are actually literate in the history of such things, at least some of the minions are becoming more educated.

And what does any of this have to do with Bob Moog? Everything. Thanks to the Minimoog synthesizer and its contemporaries, you have the entire genre of 1970s progressive rock—whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing. The solo for Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer that you still hear blasted on horrendous classic rock stations around the globe would never have happened if Keith Emerson hadn't discovered the Moog synthesizer.

But please don't interpret these remarks as me talking ill of the dead. No freaking way. Bob Moog was one of the greatest music technology innovators of the 20th century. His instruments changed the entire course of both popular and classical music, and he exemplified the quintessential maverick inventor spirit. He wouldn't have remembered me at all, as we only spoke for five minutes at that Stanford party in 1991, but I'm going to pull my analog synths out of my mom's garage and make beautifully excruciating noise all night long in his honor. God bless Bob Moog.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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