Friday, August 14, 2009

Red Bull Interview of Bob Moog

I recently watched this video of Red Bull's Interview of Bob Moog which was posted by Matrixsynth on Twitter:

I always find that interviews like this often contain a few gems but you have to listen carefully. Moog mentioned a few things that I think are well worth repeating in a blog.

First, he commented on the low tech nature of the Moog Voyager and called it a 20th century musical instrument as opposed to a 21st century musical instrument. Even before the 20th century, he speaks of the history of brass instruments, woodwinds and the crowning of achievement of the piano in past centuries, which he called the greatest of the mechanical instruments. Certainly, any talented musician does not see his instrument as a limited instrument even though the range of sounds from any acoustic instrument is much more limited than a Moog Voyager or any other synthesizer. While the materials used in prior centuries were those of brass and wood, he speaks of how the field of electronics that changed the music of the 20th century. How true this is.

I love his nostalgic look at going into NYC and finding all sorts of low cost electronic components. I remember making a similar trip to Canal street in the late 70s. I was just a kid then and while I did not get into electronics as much as Moog obviously did, the lure of being able to create something from the raw components of capacitors, resistors, transitors and tubes had a certain magical appeal.

In the interview, Moog speaks lovingly of the Voyager as an instrument not simply a collection of circuit boards. Like all acoustic instruments, the Minimoog and Voyager have that magical sensory feedback that makes them instruments. If we look at a synthesizer simply in terms of what it looks like in an oscilloscope or worse yes, the computer program that produces it (like a Virus), then we loose site of the instrument. Instrument becomes machine and music becomes more product than true art.

As I listened to Bob Moog reminisce about his past achievements which certainly earn him an honored, perhaps most honored, place in the pantheon of synth designers, I thought of my own music. I call myself a composer, for lack of a better word. I realize that this is somewhat of a distortion. My work is largely improvised. Often, I do a lot of preparation before I record. Some of that can be sound design to create just the right patch or perhaps trying different effects. It may be trying to find the right layers of sounds to mix together but almost always, with some exceptions, my final product is the work of a musician and not composer. In other words, its a performance even if its just in my home studio.

I loved the question about asking Moog to look to the future, what he thought was develop in music in the future. You might expect him to talk about the latest computers or perhaps modulars but what he rather talked about controllers. I could not agree more. Like that magical interaction that occurs between musician and instrument, the world of controllers provides a rich universe well beyond the now almost cliched world of pitch bend and mod wheel.

One of my personal irritations with 20th century pop music is the tyranny of the sequencer. Have just the right mix of drum machine and sequencer and vocalist barely needs musicians. The magic of how musicians interact is replaced by careful crafted sequences and add effects to the vocalist and even those who may not be truly talented singers can find themselves making millions with the right marketing.

Moog speaks of how music should be performance oriented and I believe one of the negative effects of sequencers is that they have divorced instruments from performance. OK, I use them but I used them to record what I am playing not to create it. The true magic of music is in "real time" as Moog expresses it in the interview.

Given Moog's comments about controllers, I find it interesting that the Voyager has a touch pad which goes beyond traditional XY control and also uses area, a very novel approach but clearly shows the desire to make the Voyager into more than a collection of circuits. Of course, the Therimin has also earned its place in not only the history of electronic music but still has a prominent place in the Moog product line.

So when I hear at times that the Moog Voyager is a throwback to the past with no polyphony and only semi modular, I think that it misses the point. The Voyager is an instrument. Who would look on a flute or trumpet or any of those instruments that so many spend years mastering and call them limited. The knobs of the Voyager and the universe of other possibilities for sonic design by using those plugs in the back of the Voyager not to mention the programmable options, make the Voyager a real instrument and perhaps a challenge to the lie that bigger and more complex always leads to better music.

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