Today is Robert Moog’s birthday, and while you may not know his name or who he is, you almost certainly know of his invention – the Moog Synthesizer. Moog (pronounced MOHG), born in New York City on this day in 1934, changed the face of music in the 1960’s – opening up the world of electronic sound with the Moog Synthesizer which was both cheaper, smaller and more versatile than the synthesizers that had come before it (an analogy: the Moog Synthesizer is to its predecessors as the desktop computer is to the massive computers of the 1960’s).
The Moog Synthesizer looks like a cross between a piano and an old telephone switchboard and works via a series of transistors and patch cables (cables with plugs on both ends). It improved upon previous synthesizers like the Theremin by offering wider sound control (the theremin could only produce sine waves) and more accurate pitch control. For the first few years of its existence, it was a fairly niche product – more of interest to engineers and experimental composers than the wider public. But, eventually the Moog Synthesizer’s potential was realized by movie producers and then, after Wendy Carlos used the Moog Synthesizer to record a number of Bach pieces on “Switched On Bach,” by the general public as well. After these breakthroughs in the late 1960’s the Moog sound began to pop up all over the cultural landscape – from the Beatles’ “Abby Road” to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
One of the more famous Moog evangelists is Gershon Kingsley. Born in Germany as Götz Gustav Ksinski, Kingsley is even less of a household name than Moog, but, at least among the Israeli dance enthusiast community, one of his works is a well trod (danced?) classic – 1969’s “Popcorn.” This bouncy number was composed after Kingsley was struck by the sounds of, you guessed it, a popcorn machine. Kingsley, like Carlos and so many other Moog composers before him, frequently used the Moog Synthesizer to reinterpret classical or jazz works (as in “Switched on Gershwin”), but he also composed multiple Moog-centric works based on Jewish themes and liturgy.
On his album “God Is A Moog,” Kingsley composed a number of psuedo-Klezmer tracks featuring Yiddish and Hebrew lyrics – imagining, I’d guess, what a shtetl on Mars might sound like. The “Maven On The Moog” tracks are incredibly strange, but, like a lot of Moog music, there is something delightfully weird and kitschy about them.
One less successful, but significantly kitschier, Jewish-Moog piece is Kingsley’s 1968 piece “Shabbat For Today: Sing A New Song Unto The Lord.” The piece was commissioned by Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes of the Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in New Jersey. The idea, which had been circulating for a number of years before the piece’s premiere, was to incorporate the musical sounds of youth into synagogue services in order to draw more young people to prayer. If this sounds like a terribly uncool idea, well, just wait until you watch the video below:
The piece sounds and, in performance, looks kind of like a service for a science-fiction cult built from the framework of Judaism by a pulp-paperback author. It is, in summation, bizarrely silly.
Yet still, pieces like this are exactly why the Moog Synthesizer is so popular. Just as much as its technical innovations, it is the almost maniacal devotion to the Moog Synthesizer, regardless of context or good taste, that has helped lead to the instrument’s cult status in the musical community. Since 2004, musicians and engineers have gathered for Moogfest – a celebration of the Moog Synthesizer and everything it inspired. It’s been utilized for countless film and video game soundtracks and has become a sort of immediate aural marker of 60’s and 70’s nostalgia – both for the time itself and for its strange imagined futures. It is the perfect embodiment of Marshall McLuhan’s old dictum “the medium is the message” – the music played by the Moog is almost secondary to its presence.
In any event – today, of all days, seek out some bizarre, silly, comically earnest Moog music and enjoy the wonderfully weird gift that Robert Moog (deceased in 2005) unleashed upon the world.