Courtesy of Cornell University

Celebration of Robert Moog Ph.D. '64 takes place with exhibition in Carl A. Kroch Library.

March 9, 2020

Robert Moog’s Ph.D. ’64 Impact on Electronic Music Lives on in Kroch Library

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The electric sound of a synthesizer reverberates in the music of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones thanks to the innovations of Grammy-award winning Robert Moog Ph.D. ’64.

Last week, the University held a series of panels, concerts and exhibits celebrating the late Moog, whose role in inventing the synthesizer reshaped decades of song-making.

Prof. Trevor Pinch, science and technology studies, kicked off the celebration of Moog’s life who died in 2005 moderating a March 5 panel that highlighted the inventor’s impact on modern music.

At the event, Moog’s daughter, Michelle Moog-Koussa, executive director of the Robert Moog Foundation, and David Borden, former director of the Cornell Digital Music Program, recalled Moog as a humble figure dedicated to his passion for music.

“As a person, he was very unassuming, and you knew he was a genius and he didn’t come off as one,” Borden said.

Moog’s dissertation for his Ph.D. — the ultrasonic absorption of sodium chloride — had nothing to do with his invention of the synthesizer. Outside of his study of engineering physics, Moog gained an early interest for building electronic instruments.

“He started taking piano lessons when he was four years old,” Moog-Koussa said. “He had a long and pretty arduous training.”

As an undergraduate, Moog founded the R.A. Moog Company for electronic instrument design. Moog then worked with composers Herbet Deutsch and Wendy Carlos to develop the well-known “Moog synthesizer.

While first associated with avant-garde, psychedelic music, the success of Carlo’s album brought the synthesizer into the mainstream, later becoming widely adopted by the pop and hip-hop genres.

“He was very humble and the fame seemed to make him uncomfortable. He didn’t like things that were exclusive,” Moug-Koussa said. “To him, the recognition was not important, it was the work that was important.”

Despite the synthesizer’s success, his company faced financial difficulties, and in 1971, bankruptcy forced Moog to sell the firm. Despite the setback, he started to create custom-made electronic tools for musicians. 

“My dad’s passion was not manufacturing thousands of the same synthesizer,” Moog-Koussa said. “My dad’s passion was doing one-offs, it was problem solving, it was solving one challenge after the other.”

Moog also ran a personal studio in his Trumansburg, New York factory, where he held three-week seminars so musicians could try out different electrical instruments. He got to see firsthand how the musicians were using the gear and received feedback from the musicians.

“He was kind of piecing together an existence, carving out a new place for himself,” Moog-Koussa said.

During the three-day celebration, the University held concerts featuring music using the Moog synthesizer at Sage Chapel, Klarman Hall and The Haunt.

“He had a great sense of humor, and you never got the feeling that he was trying to sell you something,” Borden said. “He was this great, very generous person.”

The Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in the Carl A. Kroch Library will hold an exhibition from March 6th to October 16th featuring Moog’s archival work donated by his family. The exhibit is home to instrument prototypes, photographs, audio recordings and personal letters traversing Moog’s lifelong career.