Moog: A Documentary Film

AAJ Staff By

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Directed by Hans Fjellestad
70 Minutes

To live in the modern world is to embrace technology. Obviously, making that kind of statement in an internet publication is like preaching to the converted, but it's worth pausing now and then to consider how our tools affect our lives.

Take, for example, recorded music. Until the advent of recording and playback technology within the last century or so, the only way to experience music was to be there, physically and in person, while it was being made. And although we still have the option of live performance today, we do most of our listening from recordings.

Consider, among other things, how that has changed the interactive dynamic between performer and audience, condensing it into an abstraction at best that bears little relevance to the studio—or the living room either, for that matter. So it's not only wise, it's also practical to bear in mind how our tools affect our daily lives. And, of course, break free of them now and then.

Robert Moog, the seventy year-old inventor of the musical instrument that bears his name—which rhymes with "vogue" or "rogue," depending on your orientation—has had as big an influence on late 20th Century music as anyone else. The monophonic analog Moog synthesizer and its various derivatives, first sold in 1964, introduced musicians and the listening public to the idea that instruments could produce sounds that had never been heard before. The very expansiveness of that idea has given rise to the philosophy of modern studio production, not to mention performance in popular and "art" music alike.

Wendy (then Walter) Carlos made the Moog synthesizer a pop culture phenomenon with 1968's Switched-On Bach, which was the first classical record to go platinum, selling over a million copies and raking in three Grammies. Pop groups as diverse as the Beatles, Parliament, Donna Summer, the Doors, ELP, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd picked it up. Jazz artists like Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, and others were not far behind. And, of course, the analog synthesizer gave rise to digital ones, like the Synclavier (in 1975), and much more sophisticated derivatives down the road. (Pictured below: the classic Minimoog Model D, produced from 1970-81.)

Moog examines the inventor up close and in person, aiming the camera at the man himself—as well as his instruments and the people who play them—instead of attempting to provide a complete history of the Moog phenomenon. It's an interesting choice, and it works out very well, for the main reason that Robert Moog is an interesting, thoughtful, and idiosyncratic guy. (Among other things, he has some of the coolest hair on the planet.) Director Hans Fjellestad, who previously made Frontier Life, a 2002 film about the electronic music scene in Tijuana, Mexico, obviously built up enough trust with the subject that he felt entirely comfortable speaking freely.

Robert Moog offers his thoughts on the connections between man and machine, musician and inventor, planning and execution, the physical and the spiritual. He gives a guided tour of his organic vegetable garden, pausing to sample peppers and point out herbs. He talks with several other figures who played key roles in the development and exploitation of synthesizer technology. He hangs out in a hallway and shoots the shit with Rick Wakeman and Bernie Worrell.

Interspersed throughout the various conversations are performances by Money Mark with Mix Master Mike, DJ Spooky, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, Jean-Jacques Penney with Luke Vibert, Stereolab, and others (see the 47-minute DVD "extras" for more). Several, including a living room scene with Pamelia Kurstin, help illustrate the function of his instruments. Moog did not invent the theremin, which Kurstin plays, but his company sells more of them than anybody else in North America. And more importantly, it provides an excellent example of how people and instruments can interact in very sensitive and unpredictable ways—without once touching each other.

As Moog puts it pretty early on, his work has always been "something between discovering and witnessing," and it's truly a privilege to be able to discover and witness the man who helped spark the electronic music revolution. It places the whole process in a very human perspective, which is exactly what modern music needs.

Visit Moog: The Movie and Moog Music on the web.

[Ed. Note (August 22, 2005): Robert Moog passed away yesterday.]


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