With our upcoming performance on the Moogfest only a week away, I spent some time recalling my experiences with the late great Mr. Moog…
BEN NEILL – BOB MOOG DIARY
My relationship with Robert Moog began in 1982 thanks to a small ad in the back of Keyboard Magazine for Big Briar, Inc. In fine print it described how Robert Moog was accepting custom projects at a new company based in Asheville, NC. At that time I was just beginning to develop ideas for the mutantrumpet, my self-designed instrument which has been at the center of my work as a composer and performer ever since. I had just moved to New York from Ohio and had begun developing my first compositions. My conception of the mutantrumpet was always to have a strong electronic component, which I was already doing by connecting it to a Korg MS-10 synthesizer. The MS-10 had a patch panel which allowed me to insert an audio input from the mutantrumpet that could generate controls for the synthesizer. However, the prospect of an electronic system that could be integrated more fully with my expanded, multi-belled acoustic instrument was highly appealing. And the idea of having it built by the illustrious Moog was even more exciting.
As a result of the ad I contacted Moog in early 1983, first writing him a letter outlining my ideas for the mutantrumpet. Not long after that I visited with him for the first time at his circular mountain home in Leicester, NC, about three hours from my hometown of East Bend, NC, where I spent my first 18 years. To get to the house you literally had to drive through a cornfield; I can still remember the anticipation and astonishment to find Moog’s ultra-modern house and the adjacent workshop where he was working on a variety of projects in this remote corner of North Carolina.
I brought the original mutantrumpet with me and recall distinctly playing parts of my earliest compositions for him as well as improvising with the mutantrumpet’s multi-timbral effects. He was fascinated and intrigued with the idea, I remember him taking several pictures of me while I was playing. His encouragement meant a lot to me, it was some of the most important feedback that I got in my early years of playing and composing for the mutantrumpet. In that initial meeting I also remember him talking extensively about his taste in music. He suggested that I listen to Eddie Harris, a musician who had also experimented with new approaches to wind instruments and electronics. Moog had worked with him on some of his projects. Moog said his most favorite music was Morton Feldman, which made a big impression on me. I wouldn’t have expected the inventor of an instrument with such incredible range to be enamored with Feldman’s zen-like restraint and economy. I took it as an insight into how deeply he understood and appreciated music and art, which was an undeniable component of his skill as an instrument designer.
Moog was also closely acquainted with several other musicians who I had just begun working with. Jon Hassell and Petr Kotik had both worked with Moog in Buffalo when he was living there. Moog had also worked with LaMonte Young, to whom I was introduced by Hassell. I was beginning to study with Young and would go on to perform and record his music extensively. This made the connection with Moog seem even more fortuitous; it felt like becoming part of a community that I could have only imagined connecting with a few years before.
Moog took a great interest in my instrument and proposed to put together an analog synthesis system for it. He gave me a greatly discounted rate on customized system that included a rack of Synton modules and a Gentle Electric Pitch to Voltage Converter. The system included a control panel with analog inputs for the potentiometers on the mutantrumpet and pedals. In the meantime he took a job at Kurzweil Musical Instruments, where he was working with Ray Kurzweil on the first touch sensitive keyboard. This was in the early days of MIDI; MIDI synthesizers and Pitch to MIDI devices were just starting to come on to the scene.
It took about a year for Moog to complete my system, after numerous conversations and letters about which components should be included and how they would be controlled. My idea was to have the electronics be as integrated with my acoustic performance as possible. The custom analog inputs were extremely valuable in that regard.
After waiting for several months for the project to be completed, Moog invited me to his home in Newton, MA, to pick up my system. More importantly, he gave me two days of private instruction on how to use it. It had taken about a year for the system to be completed and of course I was thrilled to get to work with him personally to explore some possibilities. We spent hours in his basement experimenting with different patches. He even cooked dinner one night, which was memorable, I was astonished that he was so open and generous to invite me into his home. In our work together he emphasized the importance of mixing different voltage control sources to achieve more complex and unpredictable results. His attitude was that the instrument should be able to create sounds that you could not imagine, that were pleasantly surprising. The system (which is still operational) used a Pitch to Voltage converter to generate control information from the mutantrumpet’s notes and dynamics. A variety of linear and logarithmic curves could be applied as modulators for oscillators, filters, a ring modulator, Sample and Hold, and other analog modules. In addition, extra control inputs enabled the use of potentiometers or a foot pedal for voltage control. We had a whole conversation about pedals, he insisted on an Ernie Ball guitar pedal and had one ready to go with the system.
While I was visiting in Newton he also showed me the IVL Pitchrider, which was an early Pitch-to-MIDI device. Since MIDI was quite new, the possibilities for the IVL were very limited. Unlike the analog system, the response was delayed in a straight pitch-tracking approach and since I had not started working with a computer there was no way to process the MIDI data. After creating my first pieces with the analog system, I soon moved into the realm of computers when I bought an Atari ST. From there I continued to use the Moog custom system along with the additional capabilities of the Atari. My last performances with the Moog system were the Green Machine ambient events at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1994, although it does also appear on my CDs Triptycal, Goldbug and Automotive.
While Moog and I did not work professionally together again, I did visit him several times after our initial meetings. I once ran into him in New York at the Cooler, an club in the Meat Packing district, in the mid 90’s. I was soundchecking downstairs and went upstairs to see him demonstrating a theremin for a conference. I also visited him again in Asheville in the mid 90’s, where he had set up a new shop. When my wife Amy Lipton and I visited him, he was extremely welcoming as always. He loved Asheville and was having a kind of renaissance building Theremins, filters and other analog boxes. He was keenly interested in what I was doing and in how the mutantrumpet had developed. I described all of the things I had been doing at STEIM in Amsterdam and he suggested a few possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before with regard to programming. We spent an afternoon together and heard about his projects and the happiness he had found. He truly seemed to be fully content with life.
My work with Robert Moog was absolutely essential to my development as a composer/performer. I have always been deeply grateful for his generosity and my opportunity to know and work with him. It is great to be a part of the festival in his honor back in the place where we first met. Thanks Moogfest!