Cornell celebrates electronic music pioneer Robert Moog
By Daniel Aloi
Cornell and the Ithaca community celebrated the life, work and influence of synthesizer inventor Robert Moog, Ph.D. ’65, with three days of events March 5-7.
Moog and his inventions revolutionized pop, jazz and classical music in the 1960s as the unique sound and versatility of his electronic instruments found favor with artists including classical musician Wendy Carlos of “Switched-On Bach” fame and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Moog’s instruments would go on to transform nearly every genre of music, from soul, disco and funk to electronic dance music.
The celebration, “When Machines Rock: A Celebration of Robert Moog and Electronic Music,” featured workshops, panels and talks with musicians, producers, scholars and special guests from Moog Music Inc. and the Bob Moog Foundation; performances on and off campus; and the opening of a special exhibition of artifacts, recordings and documents from Moog’s archive, held by Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
“Ileana Grams-Moog, Bob Moog’s widow, was looking for an institution to take on the permanent care of his archive, which is more than 250 boxes of schematics, photographs and drawings, and instrument components,” said Katherine Reagan, the Ernest L. Stern Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and assistant director for collections at Cornell University Library. The archive “really celebrates Bob Moog’s contribution to music [and] provides a foundation for the study of electronic music and its influence going forward.”
The exhibition in Kroch Library’s Hirshland Gallery, “Electrifying Music: The Life and Legacy of Robert Moog,” is on display through Oct. 16 and features a playable Moog theremin and synthesizer; posters and record albums; video; complete instruments and component parts; early prototypes; some of Moog’s tools, his student notebooks and original schematic diagrams; and a small guitar amp from Moog’s first manufacturing venture at his factory in Trumansburg, New York.
Promotional posters on display feature many of the musicians who made the Moog name and sound famous, including the Beach Boys, Elton John, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa.
“The schematics are wonderful because they provide an entree into research and understanding of not just the multiple engineers who worked with Bob on these instruments and components over time,” Reagan said, “but also Bob’s collaboration with artists and performers, keyboardists and others he worked with closely to develop custom instruments that met their specific needs. The schematics show in a detailed way how he did that.”
Moog’s correspondence with musicians – including Carlos, Zappa and Eddie Harris, a jazz musician who used a custom Moog attachment for saxophone – also is represented in the exhibition.
As part of the archive, “we received his personal vinyl record collection,” Reagan said, “so it was clear that Bob did follow the careers of the musicians who were using his instruments.”
The exhibition was co-curated by professor Judith Peraino and associate professor Roger Moseley in the Department of Music; and Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell and author of “Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer.”
As part of the celebration, Peraino spoke with British pop star Gary Numan, who used a Minimoog on his first U.K. hit single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” in 1979, and utilized the Polymoog synthesizer’s “Vox Humana” sound on “Cars,” his international hit that year.
In their public conversation March 6 in Klarman Hall, Peraino asked Numan about “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and its contrast between sung and spoken sections that convey emotional distance while also expressing, in Numan’s words, the pain of “spurned love.”
“A lot of the criticism about it was how cold it all was and how unfeeling it all was,” Numan said. “That surprised me, because so much of it was exactly about how I was feeling or how bothered I was about my own life and things around me. But it seemed to be a really generic sort of criticism that people that didn’t like electronic music would just throw out. I remember reading one thing that said it’s all made by machines.”
The synthesizer is “the only instrument where … the sound itself can create the atmosphere that you’re after,” he said. “And so, in that respect, I always thought it was the most human instrument of all, that has ever been. You can’t do that with a piano … trumpet, or a cello, or any of these things, these conventional instruments. With a synthesizer, you can get right in there and create the very mood that you’re looking for.”
March 8 was Numan’s birthday, and at the end of the interview Peraino presented him with an early present, “the only proper gift here – the most goth Cornell T-shirt I could find.”
The Moog celebration was organized by the Department of Music, the Department of Science and Technology Studies and Cornell University Library’s Rare and Manuscript Division.