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The “Switched-On Bach” Story

WHAT IS A MOOG? A “Moog” is not a WHAT, but a WHO – a thirty-four-year-old Robert A. Moog, whose years have been almost equally divided between aspirations to music and to science. After attending primary schools and studying the piano, he decided that the Bronx High School of Science had more appeal than, say, the High School of Music and Art. Out of high school, into engineering, first at Queens College for a B.S., then to Columbia for an E.E. (Electrical Engineering degree), and on to Cornell for a doctorate. This accounts, no doubt, for the location of Moog Laboratories in Trumansburg, New York, a suburb of Ithaca. “Moogs” are now available in standard and Custom designs, depending on the needs of the purchaser. Moog Synthesizers range from $3,000 to $10,000.

Other modules in the Moog system perform such functions as “envelope generation” (shaping of a note’s attack, duration, and decay time); “envelope following” (synchronizing changes in one note’s parameters with parameters – not necessarily the same ones – in another note); and the programing of rhythmical sequences.

The keyboard that controls them all was chosen purely as a convenient, general-purpose switching device, embodying no specific musical significance. The control voltages it switches can vary pitch (the “conventional” use, though the scale need not be a conventional one), amplitude, timbre, or any other parameter: “You use the whole instrument to get as much control and musicality with a line as possible,” says Carlos. “While one hand is playing notes on the keyboard, the other can be playing loudnesses.”

Other control devices could be used as easily: Moog also offers a “linear controller,” the output voltage of which is proportional to the position of the player’s hand along a metal band; while the Buchla Synthesizer uses touch-sensitive metal plates, that do not move, as keys.

The keyboard of the Moog Synthesizer used by Carlos has additional sensors (not found on stock Moog instruments) that register the velocity and depth of each key’s depression, “things that no organ is normally ensitive to – more like a piano … it gives you the opportunity, at last, . . . to start shaping phrases as you play,” says Carlos.

His is a custom Moog in other ways as well. It features polyphonic oscillators, which allow one of his two keyboards to produce chords or overlapping notes; and it contains more than the normal complement of “envelopers, amplifiers, and filters,” the components that give each wave its final touch and timbre.

Switched-On Bach exploits all of these possibilities for musical expression, so natural to conventional performance yet all too new to the electronic field. But beyond these effects are those that only electronics can supply – an infinity of tonal variations – and Carlos uses them to equally good effect. For the most part, these resources are deployed conservatively. But in the second movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, Carlos and Folkman have improvised a cadenza employing the most frankly electronic – and to my mind most interesting – techniques on the record. Among the sounds are a wild, swooping electronic cry like a glissando on bare, jangly piano strings; some quasi-subliminal liquid gurglings; chirps; exuberant popping sounds; and urgent, telegraphic beeps – all carefully contrasted with some blatant harpsichord imitations. “It’s the same thing, realized in two different kinds of instrumentation,” Carlos says, ” … done both ways at the same time; you can hear it being executed in the more traditional sense, and you can also hear the electronic equivalent, like doubling, on top of it.” Adds Folkman: “And the chromaticisms in it are all lifted out of the Fantasy and Fugue, or the G-minor Organ Fugue, except for one …. This is the most educational section of the album. Our attempt here was to show some correspondence between modes of expression, Baroque and electronic.” It is their contention that no combination of live instruments could achieve the clarity of texture of this recording. “At last, every note and line can be heard, which was among our chief purposes.”

The result is a Brandenburg that makes me want to stand up and “conduct” and one which has inspired me to seek a replacement for the Brandenburg recording (Prohaska) I had previously favored. That it isn’t this electronic version probably will not disappoint its creators – their point still comes across.

For the moment, the synthesizer remains a “performing” instrument for recording only – not for use before live audiences. That is because it is basically a linear instrument: each musical line has to be recorded separately on its own track of a multi-track tape recorder. Tape does, of course, add certain new dimensions of control, including echo and accelerated tempi. But it still stands in the way of Carlos’s intention “to make electronic music as much a performing art as possible.”

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