(If you are interested in watching this documentary, it is currently available via instant-play on Netflix, or you can watch it in segments on YouTube.)
I have to admit that as a documentary film, it wasn’t the best it could be, but I love the subject matter. The synthesizer is another one of those artifacts that, when introduced, caused quite a lot of angst in the surrounding culture. Avant-garde musicians loved it, sound-effects engineers eagerly embraced it, but the wider culture didn’t really know what to make of this thing. It looked far more like a telephone switchboard than it did a musical instrument.
The original Moog synthesizers were complicated beasts, with dozens of dials, switches, and patch cords. They had keyboards as well, but the synthesizer could produce only one note a time, so the keyboard was really just a mechanism to set the initial pitch of the generated wave, which could then be bent and transformed by the various processing modules. Most avant-garde musicians actually had little use for the keyboard, preferring instead to generate new kinds of sounds and pitches that did not fit into the traditional tempered scale. Other synthesizer makers that were more influenced by these musicians (such as Don Buchla) omitted the keyboard entirely.
Several progressive rock musicians also started using Moog’s synthesizers, most notably Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Because these groups toured, they asked for a more portable, self-contained version, and in 1970 Moog introduced what became his most iconic instrument, the Minimoog.
Sadly, critics accused Moog and his synthesizer performers of destroying music. For these critics, real musical sounds could originate only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. Electronically-produced sounds were simply not ‘natural’ and thus not music.
But is there anything really ‘natural’ about a violin, saxophone, or drum? Each one of these musical instruments is an artifact, something created by humans that does not exist apart form human agency. At some point in history, violins were invented, developed, adopted, and shaped into the instrument we know today. Violins are certainly old, and their sound can move the human heart, but they are hardly products of Nature.
We must be careful when we swing around that word ‘natural’; we too often use it as an unreflective synonym for ‘traditional’. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is a rather hard and unyielding one, but what is considered ‘traditional’ is maleable; it changes over time, adapting to new cultural developments.
Historical cases like the Moog synthesizer should teach us that the dire predictions of today’s cultural critics need to be taken with a large grain of salt. The synthesizer didn’t destroy music; quite the opposite occurred as musicians embraced the new sounds and techniques made possible by that new instrument. It would have been difficult in 1970 to foresee how the synthesizer would enable new approaches to music-making that we today take for granted.
So will mobile phone texting and Twitter be the death of writing? Will Facebook destroy ‘real’ community? It is unlikely that we can foresee now just what changes these systems will engender in our society. These systems will, no doubt, reshape our cultures in profound ways, but our cultures will also reshape these systems in return. The real question is which social groups will be the predominant shapers of these systems as they evolve?