Did you see the Google Doodle for today? It’s a functional model of an analog synthesizer in honor of what would have been Bob Moog’s 78th birthday. You can adjust the oscillator, filter, and envelope settings to create a wide range of sounds. It even has a recorder attached to it so you can capture your creations and share them with others!
Over a year ago now, I wrote a couple of posts about Moog (rhymes with ‘rogue’) and his synthesizer. The first was inspired by a documentary about Moog and his work. Here is a trailer for that, in which he discusses how people reacted to the synthesizer when it was first introduced:
Moog recounts how critics at the time really didn’t know what to make of his creation. For them, “real music” came only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. These new electronic synthesizers seemed more like sophisticated noise-makers, something useful for sound-effects engineers, but hardly something that could be categorized as a “musical instrument.” Moog’s most strident critics actually accused him of “destroying music” by introducing a most “unnatural” device.
The synthesizer’s shift from “noise-maker” to “musical instrument” is captured well in Pinch and Trocco’s book Analog Days, which was the subject of my second post on Moog. These authors trace the early days of the Moog, describing how it quickly became a staple feature for psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. But in the fall of 1968, a recording was released that completely changed how people thought about what the synthesizer was, and was good for. It was called Switched on Bach, and as the title implies, it featured the works of Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on the synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, and was one of the first classical recordings to ever go platinum. That album inspired many other keyboardists to explore the potential of the synthesizer and integrate it into their creative work.
I think the history of the synthesizer is valuable for two reasons. First, it reminds us to be careful about conflating the concepts of “natural” and “traditional.” The synthesizer was certainly untraditional when it was introduced, but is was just as much an artifact, and therefore unnatural, as a violin or saxophone. And instead of destroying music, it opened up entirely new sonic possibilities that helped expand the creative potential of musicians. We need to be careful when making dire predictions about how this or that new device will destroy some aspect of our traditional culture—it may very well turn out to be quite the opposite.
Second, the synthesizer, like the iPad or the telephone, is the kind of device that requires a bit of “working out” before a culture decides what it actually is and what it’s good for. The synthesizer’s social meaning was underdetermined and somewhat flexible when it was first introduced, and the way it turned out was influenced just as much by its initial users as it was by those who designed, produced and marketed it. Early adopters often play key roles in redefining and reshaping new devices so that they better fit into the target culture.
OK, enough theorizing—now go make some music!