I’ve been reading more about the Moog synthesizer, and in this post I want to talk about a story I ran across in Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s wonderful book, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. The story concerns the early days of the synthesizer and a rather significant recording you might have heard of.
As I mentioned in my previous post on the Moog, it was not immediately obvious to everyone what exactly the early synthesizers were, much less what they were good for. The avant-garde musicians were excited by the new sonic possibilities created by the synthesizer, and sound effects engineers quickly embraced it for their work, but both of these early uses had the effect of defining the synthesizer as an ethereal noise-making device, and not an instrument capable of making “real” music. One reviewer criticized the early synthesizers as sounding like an “obnoxious mating of a catfight and a garbage compactor,” useful only for “cheesy, invader-from-Mars movies” (132).
So how did the synthesizer get redefined as the keyboard instrument we know today? In their book, Pinch and Trocco describe in detail how this occurred, but there was one crucial story that seemed to be the turning point in the process. It’s a story that has all the elements you’d ever want: Johann Sebastian Bach, analog synthesizers, and one of the first transgendered musical performers.
By 1968, the Moog synthesizer had already been featured on a few rock albums, but it’s use was still limited to creating ancillary, psychedelic, sonic effects. Groups like The Byrds, The Doors, and even the Beatles had been enthusiastic adopters of the Moog (especially after they discovered the synesthesia-like effects its sounds often had for those high on LSD, a drug that was legal in the US until late-1968), but their use of it was limited to a narrow set of common sounds that each copied from the other. This made the Moog an important, almost required component of late 1960s rock music, but it was still “largely seen as a way to add an unusual psychedelic effect here and there,” as opposed to an instrument capable of carrying the melody or harmony (122).
This all changed in the fall of 1968 with the release of the album Switched-On Bach. The recording featured the works of Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer, which was quite a feat considering that the Moog could produce only one note at any given time, and changing between different sounds required the time-consuming shuffling of patch cords and adjustments to various knobs. The album was entirely a production of the studio, with countless splices and overdubs to create the required effects, but those effects were nothing short of redefining: for the first time, someone had created very recognizable keyboard, and at times orchestral, music using nothing but an analog synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, becoming one of the first classical albums to go platinum, eventually reaching the Billboard Top 10.
The performer, or “synthesist” as they were commonly known, was credited as Walter Carlos. A classically-trained pianist who also had a passion for electronics, Carlos studied music at Brown University, but actually majored in physics, and brought that technical expertise to a masters in music composition at Columbia. Uninterested in the compositional serialism that was dominant at that time, Carlos turned his attention to electronic music, meeting Bob Moog in 1964, and purchasing one of his modular synthesizers soon after.
Carlos and Moog got along famously. Carlos was demanding, and could translate what he wanted musically into Moog’s native language: electronics. Carlos pushed Moog to improve the touch response of the keyboard, and develop new modules that would allow him to better recreate the timbres of orchestral instruments. Carlos was a perfectionist, and the quality of music he was able to produce was beyond what anyone else had done with a Moog. In many ways, Carlos’s efforts reshaped the Moog from a sound-effects device into a keyboard instrument capable of playing Bach.
The relationship between Carlos and Moog provides us with a nice example of how “users” of technologies often turn out to have profound effects upon them. Many cultural critics tend to assume that the influence of technology on culture goes in only one direction; that technologies “impact” culture, and culture has little to no influence on those technologies in return. But when we examine historical cases like the Moog in detail, we often see examples where the early users profoundly shaped devices as they were being adopted. In fact, the line between inventor, producer, and user is often quite blurry and porous during the initial years of a new technological artifact or system.
The commercial success of Switched-On Bach spawned a litany of copy-cat albums: Switched-On Bacharach, Switched-On Gershwin, Switched-On Santa, and Chopin á la Moog, to name just a few. My personal favorite is The Plastic Cow that Goes MOOOOOG, a title which no doubt further cemented the common mispronunciation of Moog’s name; Moog is actually a Dutch name that rhymes with “rogue,” though most people (including myself before I heard otherwise) assume that it is pronounced like a cow’s “moo” with a “g” on the end.
The album’s success also made Carlos an overnight star, but sadly it was a fame that Carlos could not fully enjoy. During the making of Switched-On Bach, Walter Carlos was slowly becoming Wendy. Carlos began cross-dressing and taking hormone therapy during 1968, and was living “permanently as a woman by the middle of May 1969” (137). Carlos made a few public appearances as Walter, wearing a man’s wig and makeup to simulate sideburns and facial stubble, but eventually withdrew from public scrutiny to complete the metamorphosis. Since the music he/she created was impossible to play live, there was no demand for a tour, and Carlos returned to the studio to create more albums featuring the Moog.
The lesson here is that Switched-On Bach was a powerful resource in the struggle to define just what this new device was, and what it was good for. It demonstrated without a doubt that the Moog was a real instrument capable of producing not just psychedelic or ethereal sonic effects, but recognizable melody and harmony. Pinch and Trocco also note that this album was the reason many notable pop and rock keyboardists, such as Keith Emerson, Patrick Gleeson, Tomita, and Stevie Wonder embraced the synthesizer as a new instrument, capable of playing the lead musical line (147).