Fifty years ago today, MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden hosted “Robert Moog and the Moog Synthesizer Concert-Demonstration,” an evening of music centered around the first-ever live performances on the Moog modular synthesizer. To mark the occasion, we’re reprinting a 2015 article by Lauren Rosati, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former Museum Research Consortium Fellow in MoMA’s Department of Photography, that originally appeared on MoMA’s Inside/Out blog. We also asked Brooklyn-based illustrator and cartoonist Brian Blomerth to put together a Moog music playlist, so you’ll have something to listen to while you read.
The exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye explores the ways in which sound technologies have shaped the way we listen to musical culture. Highlighting both technical innovation and design aesthetics, the exhibition includes a number of modern instruments, including a Yamaha Portatone Keyboard and a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. While MoMA was the first museum in the world to collect such objects, beginning in 1932, it also pioneered the live presentation of some new music technologies. For instance, Russian émigré Vladimir Ussachevsky performed the first tape-music concert in the United States at MoMA in October 1952. And though the Museum’s collection does not include a synthesizer, it presented the famed Moog synthesizer as a live performance instrument for the very first time on August 28, 1969, changing the course of music history and influencing decades of future instrument design.
Described by the press as “alien” and like “a fox let loose in a chicken shack,” the sounds of the Moog synthesizer filled MoMA’s Sculpture Garden during the final event of the 1969 Jazz in the Garden concert series. Critic Greer Johnson wrote that “the ‘demonstration’ of Robert Moog’s synthesizer at MoMA…had all the musical persuasiveness of lobotomized Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey singing ‘On a Bicycle Built for Two.’” Bob Moog was surely an unlikely act to close out the series, which also included performances by the Muddy Waters Blues Band and the Bob Patterson Gospel Singers, as well as a variety of more traditional blues and jazz groups.
Unwieldy, complicated to operate, and capable of playing only one note at a time, the Moog modular synthesizer was initially relegated to the recording studio. It consisted of oscillators, filter banks, reverb units, voltage control, mixers, and other modules in a single console connected by patch cords and controlled by an organ-like keyboard. A prototype was released in August 1964 and first appeared on a musical track later that year, when Herb Deutsch composed “Jazz Images: A Worksong and Blues.” Songs by the Rolling Stones, Monkees, Beatles, and Byrds helped to popularize the instrument, and by 1969 “Moog” was synonymous with “synthesizer.” Yet, despite demands from his sales representatives and session musicians, Moog had not yet devised a synthesizer for live concert events. An invitation from MoMA provided the push he needed. Impelled to produce an ensemble of real-time, portable systems for the event, Moog designed four modular synthesizers that operated from a new pre-set box, which allowed the musicians to activate six basic sounds at the push of a button and adjust settings in advance. The instruments—a basic Moog, a bass synthesizer, a polyphonic keyboard synthesizer, and a percussion synthesizer—were completed the day before the event.
On the night of the concert, roughly 4,000 people—quadruple the attendance of previous events—jammed into MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, climbing onto sculptures and into trees to get a better view. A quartet led by Herb Deutsch opened the concert with a performance of electronic bebop jazz that sounded “wavery and hollow, as though coming from outer space.” According to a review in Audio magazine, “Following a few preparatory bleeps, hoots, and grunts, the musicians swung into a pleasantly melodic four-movement suite…. At various times, sounds were reminiscent of trumpet, flute, saxophone, harpsichord, accordion and several varieties of drum, but, in general, one was content to listen to the music on its own terms, without trying to draw any comparisons with conventional instrumentation.” Pianist Chris Swansen next led his quartet in a thickly orchestrated rendition of “Ooh Baby” by the Free Spirits, until a fuse blew and a reveler inadvertently pulled the power plug for the sound system, abruptly stopping the performance. Despite these technical difficulties, the significance of the event was not lost on critics, who praised this historic concert at MoMA for launching the use of the synthesizer as a live performance instrument, for popularizing the Moog modular system, and for “making music modern.”
The author wishes to thank curator Juliet Kinchin and Albert Glinsky, whose book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage provided source material for this post. Watch a mini-documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer.