Vol. 29 Issue 4 Reviews

Hans Fjellestad: Moog

DVD (NTSC), 2005, plexiform 018; available from Flexifilm, 45 Main Street, Suite 504, Brooklyn, New York 11201, USA; telephone (+1) 718-643-7300; fax (+1) 718-643-7320; electronic mail info@flexifilm.com; Web www.plexifilm.com/moog.html or www.plexi.co.uk/.

Reviewed by James Harley
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Moog DVDAfter having made the festival circuit in 2004, Moog, “the name that brought electronic music to the masses,” has been released on DVD. Robert Moog is, of course, a central figure in the history of electronic music. This film, along with the 2002 publication of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), signals the attention recently being paid to his place in the field.

The film is produced in an easy-going, documentary style. Mr. Moog is presented in many settings: encountering important musicians associated with the Moog synthesizer (and the Theremin); in his workshop/production plant; at home; in historic clips from earlier in his career. The introduction features an interesting waveform-derived animation (created by fizzy eye) and an amusing cartoon sequence in which a Simpsons-esque Bob Moog character introduces his wild-looking modular synthesizer, finishing with the humble line: “Well, I appreciate your comments, what you think the potential of a contraption like this is.”

As director Hans Fjellestad notes in his written introduction included with the DVD:
…we decided early on that we weren’t interested in taking a conventional approach to the Moog story. The film does not track the history of electronic music. It is not a chronological history of the synthesizer. No archive still photos, no narration. Moog is focused on the man today, in his own words.

Mr. Moog, who was pushing 70 when the filming was going on, is clearly no longer young. He speaks haltingly, and occasionally lacks focus. (He is, it must be said, an official “geek,” with a pocket protecter and a bunch of pens handy!) But, the spark is still there when speaking of what he cares about. He gets mystical at times. This bent ranges from comments heard at the beginning such as, “I can feel what’s going on inside a piece of electronic equipment,” to thoughts on the “connection” between musicians and their instruments that goes beyond the physical/rational, to his conviction that his ideas “came through” from beyond, “something between discovering and witnessing.”

Along with his instruments, Mr. Moog also cares about his organic garden, located outside of Asheville, North Carolina (pity about the chickens!). And, his family, along with the conviction he shares with his philosopher wife, Ileana Grams, that there “is a level of reality where there is no time and there is no space, there’s just energy, and we have contact with that through the intermediate layers… so, if the right connections are established, I don’t see why a piece of matter… can’t make contact through this very high level of reality that has access to everything, past and future.”

Along with the “solo” interviews, Mr. Moog is shown conversing with a variety of characters: from Herb Deutsch, the first experimental composer to work with the engineer and who to a large extent stimulated the development of the modular synthesizer, to Walter Sears, an early sales associate who did much to promote the new instruments, to various musicians such as Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Money Mark, and many others. Some of these encounters are wonderful. One of my favorites is the session with Money Mark (a.k.a Mark Ramos-Nishita), who sits with Mr. Moog at a synthesizer and tweaks knobs while talking about what he thinks sounds cool, drawing the inventor into playing with the sounds as well. Some of the encounters are more stilted: DJ Spooky, for example, comes across as mostly speaking to himself, with little connection to Mr. Moog or his technology (to be fair, this is not a musician known for playing synthesizers). Elsewhere, we learn that Rick Wakeman is a bit of a “lad” (crude jokes), and that Bernie Worrell equates music with sex. Yee-haw!

I viewed the film with someone who had no specialized knowledge of the history of electronic music. From that perspective, the film worked well. From my perspective, I wondered about some of the elements of Mr. Moog’s story that were missing. For one thing, beyond Herb Deutsch, there are no composers included or even referenced (beyond mention of Vladimir Ussachevsky). We do witness how the evolution of the instrument moved from “experimental” music to commercial applications to live performance, so perhaps this lacuna is understandable. We also don’t hear anything about Mr. Moog’s protracted business and legal struggles (although today, he is doing well with Big Briar/Moog Music, with the newly won right to the commercial use of his name, so perhaps it wasn’t necessary to talk about what happened in the intervening years). In the various discussions throughout the film discussing the history of the Moog synthesizer, there is only a single oblique reference to Switched-On Bach. Considering the impact this album had on the popularization of the synthesizer, this does seem odd. In the liner notes accompanying the DVD, the director mentions that attempts to contact Wendy Carlos were thwarted and that she “even threatened legal action.” For someone whose career has been shaped by her involvement with this instrument and the man who invented it, this is puzzling behavior. In any case, this is a hole in the story that looms large, at least from the historical perspective.

What does come across in the film, however, is that the Moog, and the Theremin, are alive and well. Current groups and musicians continue to use them: among many others, Stereolab, Tino Corp., Pamelia Kirsten, and Charlie Clouser (the session with him that is included in the Extras is one of the best; imagine Mr. Moog and his family attending a Nine Inch Nails concert!). I think it’s especially relevant that the director himself performs with the Moog, using the moniker “33.” The soundtrack is filled with a variety of Moog-based music, new and old, from artists who appear in the film and others who do not. This continuing relevancy of this instrument (and man) to music-making is perhaps the strongest message of the film, and Mr. Moog does express his preference for live rather than studio-produced music. For all the effects his age and struggles have had, Mr. Moog’s own vitality shines through, and his legacy, his synthesizers and Theremins, are still present, living through music being performed today, still cool!