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Electronic music pioneer Moog dies at 71

23 August, 2005

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Robert Moog, whose self-named synthesisers turned electric currents into sound and opened the musical wave that became electronica, has died. He was 71.

Moog started building theremins, an early electronic instrument that produces an unearthly sound and is played without the musician touching it, as a teenager and established his first commercial venture, the R.A. Moog Co., in 1954.

Despite travelling in circles that included jet-setting rockers, he always considered himself a technician.

“I’m an engineer. I see myself as a toolmaker and the musicians are my customers,” he said in 2000.“They use the tools.”

As a Ph.D. student in engineering physics at Cornell University, Moog – rhymes with vogue – in 1964 developed his first voltage-controlled synthesiser modules with composer Herbert Deutsch. By the end of that year, RA Moog Co marketed the first commercial modular synthesiser.

The instrument allowed musicians, first in a studio and later on stage, to generate a range of sounds that could mimic nature or seem otherworldly by flipping a switch, twisting a dial, or sliding a knob.

Other synthesisers were already on the market in 1964, but Moog’s stood out for being small, light and versatile.

The arrival of the synthesiser came as just as the Beatles and other musicians started seeking ways to fuse psychedelic-drug experiences with their art. The Beatles used a Moog synthesiser on their 1969 album, Abbey Road; a Moog was used to create an eerie sound on the soundtrack to the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange.

The popularity of the synthesiser and the success of the company named for Moog took off in rock as extended keyboard solos in songs by Manfred Mann, Yes and Pink Floyd became part of the progressive sound of the 1970s.

“The sound defined progressive music as we know it,” said Keith Emerson, keyboardist for the rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Along with rock, synthesisers developed since Moog’s breakthrough helped inspire elements of 1970s funk, hip-hop, and techno.

Charles Carlini, a New York City concert promoter, staged Moogfest in May 2004 to mark a half-century since Moog founded his first company while still in college. Emerson, Rick Wakefield of Yes, and Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic were among those who played, and a second Moogfest was held a year later.

But the now-pervasive synthesiser’s ability to mimic strings, horns, and percussion has also threatened some musicians.

In 2004, musicians extracted a promise from the Opera Company of Brooklyn to never again use an advanced kind of synthesiser, called a virtual orchestra machine, in future productions.

Born in 1934 in New York City, Moog paid for his studies at Queens College and Columbia University by building and marketing theremins, which are played by passing the hand through and around vibrating radio tubes. Theremins were used create the spooky “eww-woo-woo” sounds on the soundtracks of science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still.

He went on to attach his name to a long list of synthesisers developed over the years – among them Micromoog, Minitmoog, Multimoog and Memorymoog.

Moog, who had set up shop in suburban Buffalo, New York, sold RA Moog in 1973 and moved five years later to a remote plot outside Asheville, a scenic Appalachian Mountain city and centre for new-age pursuits that Rolling Stone magazine once dubbed “America’s new freak capital”.

A deliberate man with brushed-back white hair and a breast pocket packed with pens, Moog drove an ageing Toyota painted with a snail, vines and a fish blowing bubbles.

“When I drive that thing around, people smile at me,” he said. “I really feel I’m enhancing the environment.”

He spent the early 1990s as a research professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville before turning full-time to running his new instrument business, which was renamed Moog Music in 2002. The roster of customers includes Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Beck and Sonic Youth.

Moog is survived by his wife, Ileana; his children, Laura Moog Lanier, Matthew Moog, Michelle Moog-Koussa and Renee Moog; a stepdaughter, Miranda Richmond; and his former wife, Shireleigh Moog.

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