October 24, 2002

Manufacturing Music:

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A Brief History

Music and Electricity have become inseparable. The two met sometime around 1878, when they were introduced at a party by a mutual friend, Microphone. Of course, dates on the soon-burgeoning hang-out The Radio accelerated the relationship, as did Electricity’s introduction of the Amplifier (think of it as a sex toy to keep the metaphor going).

One might argue that Music and Electricity finally got hitched in the workshop of Robert Moog, a Cornell grad who had his company in Trumansburg, sometime back in the late 1960s. A (brain)child was quickly born (popping out of Moog’s head like Athena from Zeus, if you’re ready for a more intellectual analogy). The young invention, a “voltage-controlled electronic music module,” was appropriately called the Moog. The instrument revolutionized the electronic-based music scene, already being explored by experimental composers like John Cage and David Tudor. Moog gained notoriety in part thanks to the release of Switched-On Bach, an album of Bach standards reinterpreted on the Moog by Walter Carlos. More and more musicians became interested in Moog’s invention, including Steve Reich (another Cornell grad).

Fast forward to the present and you find the Moog having been used on albums from the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds to Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream to more recent releases by Radiohead, Stereolab, Tortoise, and Dr. Dre.

The Ithaca Connection

There is a distinct homegrown reputation to Ithaca’s music scene. From the Sim Redmond Band to Donna the Buffalo, and all the performers at the annual Grassroots Festival, Ithaca music often remains in a “rootsy” realm removed from Moog’s innovations.

However, as Moog invented his revolutionary synthesizer just 20 miles up Route 96, it could easily be argued that Ithaca’s local musical loyalties reside within the realm of “synth” music as much as they do within the acoustic-based folk styles that are so often associated with area music.

Interestingly, local band Plastic Nebraska recently began incorporating the MiniMoog into their performances. Similarly, local favorites John Brown’s Body have long used electronic elements in their music.

The recent publication of Analog Days (Harvard University Press), by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, provides a detailed and fascinating look at the invention, introduction, and vast impact of the Moog Synthesizer. The book approached the subject from a number of angles, including the history of Moog’s T-burg studio, the musicians the invention inspired, and more recent technological advances. Pinch and Trocco have compiled an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the origins of synthesized music and even more general music afficionados.

Archived article by Dan Schiff