Robert Moog synthesized. (Column) (Interview)
by Lisa Sarasohn
COMPUTE: At the age of 14, you built your first electronic musical instrument. What was the instrument?
Robert Moog: It was a Theremin. Back then, there was a big army of hobbyists, electronics hobbyists, who used to build simple projects from scratch. There were magazines that catered to these people. One of the projects that would appear over and over again was a simple Theremin. So I built one from one of the articles at the age of 14. When I was 19, I knew enough about it so that I could write my own article.
After I was 19, I knew enough about it to make them for other people. So right through the 1960s, I was making them while I was going to college, one at a time.
C: What's the impact of PCs on electronic music and composition? Are we going to become a nation of songwriters?
Moog: We already are. Computer software is the fastest-growing segment of the musical instrument business now. You go into a rock shop--they used to have nothing but guitars and drums, and now there's likely to be a whole big section on music software. . .
The problem for a computer wordsmith is to restrain [your]self and really try not to write more words with less thought than you should. I think musicians are finding the same thing. You put a synthesizer and a computer system in front of them, and it's just very easy to knock out a whole bunch of music, but you have to use a lot of discretion and make sure that what you're doing is actually making music. You have to develop discipline.
C: What changes do you see happening over the next few years in electronic music?
Moog: There's a tremendous amount of work now being done on new . . . control devices--things you put your hands on or work with your body as a dancer . . . interesting interfaces between the musician and the stuff that makes the sound.
Part of that interface is computer programs that detect electrical signals that come from what the performer is doing and operate on those to make a virtual reality. If you move your hand one way, the machine will translate it into something that is new and yet somehow natural and intuitively obvious to a musician--it feels right.
The keyboard is an old invention. It's very useful, but it's not all that can be done now that we have computers. One that I'm involved in is a space-controlled interface. You wave your hands around [to] change sound parameters.
C: What effect will multimedia have on electronic music?
Moog: [It's] possible now to integrate [high-resolution computer graphics with music]--to have both of them under the control of one program.
One thing you can already do with today's MIDI sequencing packages is to synchronize any music you make with something that's on film or video. And if you can carry that one step further and put the visual part of it under the same program control as the sound part, then it opens up a whole new world of how you can make a work of art.
C: What changes in the computer industry are most exciting to you?
Moog: Most of the excitement is in software. The hardware platform--IBM, Amiga, Macintosh--is getting to be more and more a generic thing. The best thing that you can say about any of them is that they work well--they don't break. But the real character, the real resource, is in the software.
This program MAX, for example, is a new type of musical creativity. The program is not a performance, and it's not a composition. It is a . . . musical tool that has opened up the minds of composers and performers and is bound to result in a type of creativity that would not have been possible before it was designed.
C: Will electronic music affect society in any new ways?
Moog: [What] word processors have done is return the publication of newspapers and magazines to the grass roots. I think the same thing is happening with music.
The Music Business--with a capital M and a capital B--is getting more and more up into the stratosphere with the amount of money it takes to start a group . . . and the amount of overhead that's involved. And what comes out of Columbia Recors or Elektra or any of those companies is more and more common denominator and more and more safe. But now we have thousands of creative artists, and they're making CDs--making high-quality music for peanuts and selling it over these . . . small networks of customers that they have.
The most exciting thing about this is not all the different kinds of music that you can make but the fact that once you have something that is important to you--artistically significant--anybody with a reasonable amount of money in his pocket can start disseminating it. You can make a cassette for half a dollar; you can make a CD--the price of pressing CDs now has come down to about two dollars each or a dollar and a half each. That's amazing.