Robert Moog Dies; Created Electronic Synthesizer

Robert A. Moog plays his electronic synthesizer with the Going Baroque band at a church in Asheville, N.C., in 1980. In 2002, nearly 40 years after the instrument first appeared, he received a Grammy for his technical achievements.
Robert A. Moog plays his electronic synthesizer with the Going Baroque band at a church in Asheville, N.C., in 1980. In 2002, nearly 40 years after the instrument first appeared, he received a Grammy for his technical achievements. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Robert A. Moog, 71, who invented the Moog electronic synthesizer, a keyboard that became central to rock and electronica bands of the 1960s and 1970s, died of a brain tumor Aug. 21 at his home in Asheville, N.C.

When Dr. Moog's synthesizer appeared in 1964, it resembled a World War II-era operator switchboard. Modified slightly, it burst to prominence on Walter Carlos's Grammy Award-winning recording "Switched-On Bach" (1968), which took many of the classical composer's works and gave them a bubbly, electronic reworking.

The Moog became one of the most widely used novelty instruments of the period, appearing in commercials (for Pepsi); in films ("A Clockwork Orange," performed by Carlos); and on pop recordings (from the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" to Donna Summer's disco hit "I Feel Love").

The Byrds, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd also experimented with Moogs, as did avant-garde pianist Paul Bley, who featured the Moog and a topless singer in a 1969 concert. A flurry of albums were produced with such titles as "Moog Espana," "Moog Power" and "Music to Moog By," less and less to Dr. Moog's satisfaction.

"Sure, I like the idea of my name becoming a generic term for the synthesizer," he told the New York Times in 1969. "But I don't like the fact that cruddy records are being put out with my name attached."

He added: "There are maybe 25 people in the world who have the necessary competence in both physics and music" to play the Moog satisfactorily.

In 2002, he belatedly received a Grammy recognizing his technical achievements.

Robert Arthur Moog -- his Dutch-German surname rhymes with "rogue" -- was born in New York City on May 23, 1934. He bristled at the hours of piano lessons he was forced to take growing up in Queens but had fun in the workroom of his father, a Consolidated Edison electronics engineer.

After reading a magazine article about the theremin, an eerie-sounding electronic instrument, he assembled one himself, less as a musical challenge than as a mechanical one. Because of its wide range of octaves, the theremin can sound like a human voice, a stringed instrument or a deranged animal, and it is manipulated by moving one's hands between two antennas.

What intrigued him, he once told London's Guardian, was "the idea that you could wave your hands in the air and actually change something."

In 1954, he began to sell his theremins. Among his customers was the sound pioneer Raymond Scott, a studio bandleader and tinkerer extraordinaire who had cut off the theremin's pitch antennas and reassembled the device with wires in back of a keyboard.

This "Clavivox," Dr. Moog once wrote, "was not a theremin anymore -- Raymond quickly realized there were more elegant ways of controlling an electronic circuit."


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