A day of Moog (and Buchla)

I took a drive to Cornell University in Ithaca the other day. Took the scenic route, passing through Trumansburg, a small Upstate New York village, not much going on. Definitely not the sort of place you’d find someone changing the course of music history.

Okay, maybe it is.

The building in question is this:

That’s where it began — where Moog first produced the Moog Modular synthesizers and the Minimoog. Half a century later, the Robert A. Moog Archive is at Cornell, and last week there was a series of events there in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit, “Electrifying Music: The Life and Legacy of Robert Moog”. I found out about it only about three days earlier and told myself I had to be there, if only for Saturday.

The first event of the day was a synth building workshop led by Trevor Pinch and Jordan Aceto. You might know Pinch as a co-author of the book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. The “synth” in question was a very simple circuit, a Schmitt trigger square wave oscillator controlled with a pot and a photoresistor built on a solderless breadboard. If you’re a teacher who wants to do this with a class or just an interested individual, you can get the instructions and bill of materials here.

Here’s Pinch’s home built synth, circa 1973 and, with a few of the boards replaced more recently, still functioning. (See this YouTube video.) It wasn’t there just for show, people were encouraged to come up and play it.

This event, like the others of the day, was free and open to the public, and the public showed up. The organizers appeared to be expecting about a half to a third as many people as actually came. There were a lot of kids. It was great to see so many turn out to learn how to build their own noise making circuit.

After half an hour or so, Pynch’s synth wasn’t the only one making noise.

Sitting in back and watching was Jim Scott. He was one of the three Moog engineers who developed the Minimoog.

Next I headed to the Carl A. Kroch Library’s Hirshland Exhibition Gallery for the exhibit. You know you’re in the right place: The first thing you see is a Moog Modular cabinet. This is from a modular built for Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, the world’s first live synthesizer ensemble.

Going back earlier in time, a 1961 catalog of Theremin kits and components.

This was from just after the company moved from Ithaca to Trumansburg. Here’s the company headquarters, maybe you recognize it?

Also from the days before the synthesizer business took off, a guitar amplifier made by Moog and sold under the Segova brand name.

By 1967 it was all about synthesizers. This is a letter from Wendy Carlos to Bob Moog about a module being returned for repair and oscillators whose tuning seemed to be getting worse, and some ideas for a touch-sensitive keyboard.

Here’s a shipping log from 1969, evidently they sent some synth components to some band called the Beatles.

A few years later, here’s a couple of letters written between Frank Zappa and Bob Moog.

There’s a lot more here. The exhibit’s going to be open through mid October 2020, so if you have a chance to get to Ithaca anytime soon it’s definitely worth seeing. How often do you get to see a Polymoog?

“Do not touch”, oh well. You can touch, and play, a Minimoog, though (a reissue, not a vintage one). And there’s a couple of Theremins which of course you can play without having to touch.

The events continued in the afternoon with a panel discussion with Steve Dunnington, engineer from Moog Music; Ileana Grams-Moog, Bob Moog’s widow; Mike Adams, president of Moog Music; and Herb Deutsch, whose conversations and collaborations with Bob Moog led to the development of the Moog synthesizer.

Following that was an interview with musician Suzi Analogue. I missed most of that in favor of finding some food.

Finally, a lecture and concert by the legendary synth performer Suzanne Ciani, playing her “Improvisation on Four Sequences”. A wonderful performance. If you’re pleasantly surprised a woman known for working with Don Buchla and for playing a Buchla synthesizer was closing out this day of Moog, I was too, but this isn’t the old days when Moog and Buchla devotees were regarding each other as the enemy. And in fact, one of the three iPads she used for this performance was running the Animoog softsynth.

Quite a day!

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