Electronica History
April 4, 2005 3:53 PM   Subscribe

By a weird coincidence, after reading this interview in New Scientist with three of the engineers who made electronic music possible, I walked by a poster for a documentary film about Bob Moog. One of my earliest memories of electronic music in the 1970s was an elementary school music teacher who was really into Wendy Carlos' and Isao Tomita's early arrangements of classical works for synthesizer. Of course, electronic music history goes back to the 1920s with the theremin developed as a classical instrument. It has its own web portal filled with lots of good stuff. And now for something slightly different, Conlon Nancarrow wrote piano compositions that could not be performed by human hands, demanding the use of a player piano.
posted by KirkJobSluder (20 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My dad was a fan of Tomita and Carlos, and passed on the passion for electronic music to me via 8-track tape.

I bet he regretted that later when I kept asking for synthesizers and obscure gear for birthday/Christmas presents... :)
posted by Foosnark at 4:01 PM on April 4, 2005

Speaking of documentaries and theremins, the movie Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is great: it tells the very strange story of the instrument's inventor. It even prominently features Bob Moog as a talking head.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:01 PM on April 4, 2005

Not to take anything away from Nancarrow since I don't know of anyone else that wrote player piano compositions but, regarding the "could not be performed by human hands", doesnt that place it in the genre of two-piano? That is, it can be played by humand hands - just more than two are required.
posted by vacapinta at 4:05 PM on April 4, 2005

Moog lives here in Asheville and is fairly easy to bump in to, and incredibly mellow. He drives an old Toyota painted over with psychedelic flowers. He was a regular at a restaurant I used to work in... once Eliot Wadopian wandered in too and there were two Grammy winners, eating chciken and slaw. Small world, it is.
posted by moonbird at 4:07 PM on April 4, 2005

My rather thin understanding of Nancarrow is that his arrangements go beyond two-piano. Two-piano is grounded on the assumption that you have two human players and a total of 20 fingers with a certain reach. At least one of the points of player piano compositions is to see what kind of music can be made without the limitations of human precision and reach.

For that matter, this was one of the reasons that Frank Zappa went entirely electronic at the end of his career. Part of my respect from him comes from an interview in which he admitted that he had unreasonable expectations that made working with him not very fun for performers who like to improvise.

Actually, I came to Nancarrow by accident, when I was really trying to link to Atheil's 1920s Ballet Mecanique composed for: "...a percussion orchestra of three xylophones, four bass drums, and a tam-tam (gong); two "live" pianists; seven electric bells, a siren, and three airplane propellors; and 16 synchronized player pianos." For technical reasons it wasn't performed as composed until 1999.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:42 PM on April 4, 2005

I've seen the Moog movie and it's done very well. Bob Moog certainly is a remarkable guy. Very cool title sequence, too.
posted by hydrophonic at 5:01 PM on April 4, 2005

There were electronic instruments before the Theremin, most famously the Trautonium which was a huge 200-ton machine made to broadcast live music over the telephone lines to restauraunts and hotels. From a great site on electronic music history that complements this link well.
posted by abcde at 5:22 PM on April 4, 2005

Telharmonium, rather (was reading the other page while typing that post)
posted by abcde at 5:24 PM on April 4, 2005

Guide to electronic music: a fantastic (and near-neverending) read/listen.
posted by travis at 6:24 PM on April 4, 2005

i just MIDIfied my moog this weekend. (YAY!) I figure that's a good gift for me to give for it's 30th birthday (roughly). Oddly enough, my model moog never played in scale when being controlled with control voltage, this mod corrects that.
Yes, the moog documentary is good. I think it would be a bit dry for non-technical, non-musical people, but a must-see for moog-heads. I like the performances interspersed thruout.
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 6:29 PM on April 4, 2005

Bach, Moogified, is graven onto my synapses.
posted by troutfishing at 8:22 PM on April 4, 2005

Drat, I was going to point out the Teleharmonium, but someone beat me to it.

As it turns out, I did extensive work in electronic music (back in the dark ages of the 70s), and I remember my professor giving a lecture about Mozart experimenting with an electronic sound generating device. For the life of me, I can't remember it's name.

posted by Relay at 8:35 PM on April 4, 2005

I once had lunch with Bob Moog (during a Theremin festival in Bath, England, where the largest number of Theremin's were played at one time). I can contribute that he is a very nice guy, whose name rhymes with the first syllable of "Toga".

The festival featured a documentary on Theremin, which would most likely be of interest to those interested in the Moog documentary.
posted by re6smith at 1:15 AM on April 5, 2005

Isao Tomita, the greatest. Fabulous rich textures of analog synths combined with a beautiful interpretation of, most especially, Debussy. If you're interested, check out his "Snowflakes are Dancing" album, which was my introduction.

I first heard him in 1974. What an amazing artist he is.
posted by Goofyy at 5:22 AM on April 5, 2005

can Max Mathews get no love?
posted by adrien at 5:31 AM on April 5, 2005

Relay: I'll go out on a limb here and say that Mozart story would have to be apocryphal. At the time Mozart died, scientists hadn't even worked out how to maintain a steady current to keep an electronic device charged, and even the earliest known electronic instruments don't appear on timelines till 80 years afterward. Mozart did write for glass harmonica (Ben "electricity" Franklin's invention), and, I think, a couple other mechanically-based sound generators, but an electronic musical device prior to 1792 seems pretty close to impossible.

Anyway, Mozart was a hack - at least as compared to a true musical genius and electronic innovator, Raymond Scott.
posted by soyjoy at 8:16 AM on April 5, 2005

Mechanical, not electrical ... you're right Soyjoy.

I remember seeing diagrams of the thing. Lots of turning rotors, sort of like a scaled up Hammond B-3.
posted by Relay at 10:16 AM on April 5, 2005

Funny how we forget just how influential Wendy Carlos was. Switched-On Bach was the best selling classical album of all time, Sonic Seasonings pre-dated the whole ambient movement, the score for A Clockwork Orange introduced the now cliched vocoder - and created quite an upset at the time and Glenn Gould reckoned her performance of the fourth Brandenburg concerto was "the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs--live, canned, or intuited--I've ever heard."

An amazing talent, as composer, arranger and performer.
posted by arc at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2005

regardless of how your name is actually pronounced, if you throw "MOOG" in great big letters on the side of something and sell it to people, certain expectations should be made.

namely, that they will pronounce it in whatever way makes the most phonetic sense based on the context clues provided.

so. telling other people (and let's at least admit the likelihood of this being the at least the 6th or 7th time you've had to tell people this, sheesh, and it's really starting to bug you that you have to continually correct folks...) how to accurately pronounce "Moog" is kind of like waving your dick in the room : doubtless, you're impressed with yourself.

i, on the other hand, will just let people use the most commonly accepted pronunciation variant and smile knowing that ultimately not a damned thing about the instrument or the music changed as a result.
posted by radiosilents at 7:23 PM on April 5, 2005

but....but.....The Plastic Cow Goes MOOOOOOG!
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 10:37 PM on April 5, 2005

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