ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It has been said that his invention is as important to popular music as was the electric guitar. Well, Robert Moog, the man behind the Moog synthesizer, passed away yesterday. He was 71 years old, and he had an inoperable brain tumor. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.
ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:
Robert Moog was the ultimate tinkerer. Well before he built the synthesizer that bears his name, he was fascinated with the theremin, considered to be the first electronic instrument.
(Soundbite of theremin music)
BLAIR: So Moog built a theremin when he was 14 from directions he got from a magazine. Robert Moog's mother was a piano teacher. In an interview with the WBUR show "The Connection," Moog said it was his engineer father who got him interested in electronics.
(Soundbite of "The Connection")
Mr. ROBERT MOOG (Keyboard Developer): Yeah, he was one of the very first radio amateurs. His electronic activities go back to when vacuum tubes were something new and cost $5 apiece. So what he knew about building radios out of vacuum tubes he taught to me, and I took it from there.
BLAIR: Moog studied physics at Queens College in New York and went on to receive an electrical engineering degree from Columbia University. To support his sophisticated tinkering, he built theremin kits and sold them for about $50. He introduced the first Moog synthesizer in 1964 and took it to musicians to see how it could be improved. Electronic keyboardist Wendy Carlos made it a huge commercial success with the music of Bach.
(Soundbite of Wendy Carlos performance)
BLAIR: In 1968, "Switched-On Bach" became the first classical record to go platinum. Wendy Carlos says that was at a time when to most folks synthesizer was a strange word.
Ms. WENDY CARLOS (Musician): We wanted to show that the synthesizer was capable of being a real musical instrument. And what better way than to find a kind of music that was familiar, unthreatening, like Bach's music?
BLAIR: Carlos went on to use the Moog for the soundtrack to "A Clockwork Orange." It was used by The Beatles, The Byrds and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Early versions of the Moog were massive contraptions, with wires and tubes, knobs and switches. So Moog came out with the Minimoog synthesizer, which made it portable enough to use on stage. Stevie Wonder told NPR he used a Moog on his album "Talking Book" because it allowed him to access and control all kinds of sounds.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. STEVIE WONDER: It would bend notes the way that I heard, you know, them being bent; create different sounds of horns, etc., string sounds and string line and really arrange them in a way that I felt I wanted them to sound--the arrangement.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WONDER: (Singing) I feel it down inside me some kind of loving. Got my baby; gonna let me be.
Mr. STEVE DUNNINGTON (Musician): He wasn't a musician, but anytime you saw him listening to music, it was with the absolute deepest of concentration.
BLAIR: Steve Dunnington is a musician and head of product development for Moog Music, the company Robert Moog founded when he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1978.
Mr. DUNNINGTON: He knew that there was a deep connection between a musician and his instrument. And he worked very hard to maintain a very, very close connection by making instruments that were really, really responsive to the musician's input.
BLAIR: Robert Moog himself was clear about his role in the creative process.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. MOOG: The monkey on my back doesn't make me compose; it makes me design circuits. You know, I see what something is good for. When I turn what I've done over to a musician, the monkey on their back tells them what to do.
BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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