Articles by Larry Fine

From the Piano Buyer Blog

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In the Shop with Bob Moog: A Personal Account (continued)


Fringe Benefits

As enjoyable as it was to work with Moog, perhaps the best part of the day for me was lunchtime. As soon as Moog ascertained that one of us was hungry, he would slip upstairs, and I would follow about ten minutes later. During these few minutes, Moog would invariably have turned a few leftovers into an incredibly creative and mouth-watering spread that rivaled the offerings of many fine restaurants. Even the lowly tuna salad — or, when nothing else was available, the last-resort, melted-cheese sandwich — became uncommonly good in his hands.

It was during lunch, too, that I got to spend time with Moog’s wife, Shirleigh, a real estate agent, when she was not out showing houses. She’s an even more accomplished cook than her husband, as well as the author of a delightful cookbook, Moog’s Musical Eatery (The Crossing Press, 1978). The Moogs have long been students of the culinary arts, growing, canning, and freezing much of their own food, as well as cooking and entertaining. Shirleigh’s book arose from her experience entertaining hundreds of musicians and composers during the Moogs’ synthesizer days in upstate New York. The book is fun to read even if one doesn’t cook, because many of the recipes are accompanied by stories about some famous person who came to dinner on the night that dish was served. There is also a section on meal planning for groups of from three to a hundred, the latter from her experience of being asked at short notice to cater a meal for a hundred musicians for no more than $100. (Shirleigh’s second book, A Guide to the Food Pyramid: Recipes & Information, was published in 1993.)

At lunch, Shirleigh regaled me with stories from the Moogs’ former lives, as well as from the rapidly eroding world of New England real estate (real estate values in New England declined precipitously in the late 1980s). Although she was the junior member of her real estate firm, she consistently outperformed all the others in the office. I wasn’t surprised: her obvious business acumen, strong personality, and sociability couldn’t help but command the confidence of her clients.

During that time, I also met three of the four Moog children. (The oldest, Laura, a social worker in Greensboro, North Carolina, was on her own.) Renée, a world-traveled photojournalist, was in the Peace Corps in Senegal during most of my time with the Moogs, but she was home just long enough for me to buy a photo of hers I fell in love with — a colorful market scene in Ecuador — that now graces my kitchen wall. Michelle went off to college in Washington, DC, during that time, and is now a paralegal in Chapel Hill. Matthew, the youngest, was in high school; he went on to start a successful publishing company while attending college, and is now in marketing with Microsoft (see “Postscript” at the end of the article). What impressed me most about the Moog kids was their independence. Even as teenagers, they did their own laundry, were expert cooks, and generally took care of themselves like adults. In fact, I’d venture a guess that they were better behaved and more conservative than their parents, who really knew how to have a good time.

Having stuffed myself at lunch, I was at first afraid that I might become too sleepy to work all afternoon. Moog took care of that. Shortly after I returned to work, Moog would always appear with a bowl of cookies — if not homemade, then Pepperidge Farm — and sometimes a bowl of ice cream. When the cookie bowl was empty it would be refilled. Buoyed by a sugar high, I frequently worked well into the evening.

Most of the time we sat working together we listened to the radio and talked, trading stories from our respective lives and careers, and getting to know one another. I found Moog to be a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate man, a good listener, with an appealing touch of shyness, much more modest and reticent than his public persona and his fame would have led me to believe. When he did speak, it would frequently be to offer a wry comment about some government or corporate excess or folly, or to tell a story or joke. It was in telling stories and jokes that Moog really came alive. He has a terrific flair for the dramatic, his voice and facial gestures pursuing every nuance of a joke’s possibilities. I can imagine that if his life had gone differently, he might have enjoyed a successful career in the theater instead of in engineering. The only problem was that sometimes Moog got so involved in his story telling that he would upstage himself by exploding with laughter at the punch line.

Moog’s Story

It was through these tales that I got to know, little by little, the life story of this remarkable man and his inventions. In many ways it is the typical American success story: modest amounts of intelligence, curiosity, fun, and risk-taking combined with a large dose of being in the right place at the right time (as opposed to the other American story of triumphant struggle against all odds and adversities).

It seems that Moog, as a youngster growing up in Queens, New York, took an early interest in electronics, building his first theremin from directions in a magazine article at the age of 14. The theremin, which was to play so prominent a role in Moog’s life, is an electronic musical instrument invented in the 1920s by Russian scientist Léon Thérémin (who recalled demonstrating it to Lenin). Based on electrical capacitance, the theremin is played by waving one’s arms in the vicinity of the instrument’s two antennas. The distance between the right hand and a straight antenna controls the pitch, that between the left hand and a loop antenna, the volume. Although it has had some use in serious compositions, for the most part it is considered a novelty and an experimental instrument. Frequently used by Hollywood, the theremin was briefly manufactured by RCA in the 1930s.

By the age of 19, Moog had designed his own theremin, and a brief mention in a magazine started to bring orders in the mail. Throughout his undergraduate years (a double B.S. in Physics and Electrical Engineering from Queens College and Columbia University, respectively, in 1957) and in graduate school (a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from Cornell University in 1965), Moog continued to build theremins part-time. In 1961, he hit on the idea of offering theremins in kit form. This time a small ad brought in over a thousand orders. “I thought I had found the goose that laid the golden egg,” Moog says. Deciding that there was more money to be made in the kit business, Moog expanded his offering to include other musical hardware, such as amplifiers, in kit form, but all except the theremin kit bombed. (Interestingly, in 1991 Moog again returned to making theremins.)

In 1963, Moog met Herb Deutsch, a music professor at Hofstra University, at a conference for music teachers. Deutsch had built a theremin from one of Moog’s kits and was using it to train his students’ ears in pitch recognition. Deutsch said he had some new ideas to discuss with Moog, so Moog invited Deutsch to visit him at his home in Trumansburg, New York, a collaboration that led to the development of the Moog Synthesizer. Moog was not the first to produce an instrument capable of synthesizing instrumental sounds, but his machine came with a keyboard and certain other features and sounds that found favor with musicians, and sales took off. “It was really just a lark. I had no plans to mass market the instrument, but the demand was overwhelming.” With sales already rising, they exploded after the 1968 release of Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’s album Switched-On Bach, which featured Moog’s instrument.

The Moog Synthesizer appealed to a wide variety of amateur and professional musicians, who found an amazing number of ways to use it, leading Moog to meet many interesting characters. Moog loved to tell stories about this period of his life, especially stories containing expletives that allowed him to show his “naughty” side. I recall one of many such stories:

“It was only the second synthesizer I ever delivered, in 1965 (in the early days I delivered them myself). It was for Eric Siday, a very successful composer of commercial music, his credits including the Maxwell House coffee commercial and other really big-time corporate clients. He and his wife lived in a very swanky, ten-room apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with a view overlooking a large courtyard. Just about every room, except the bedroom, had been taken over for Siday’s musical instruments, electronics, and musical paraphernalia. Even the maid’s bathroom had been commandeered as a tape library. I brought in this large crate containing the synthesizer and was unpacking it in the hallway when Mrs. Siday, who apparently yearned only for a normal life with a house in the suburbs, seeing still another machine being added to her husband’s collection, shouted, ‘Eric, more shit in this house!’ and began crying hysterically.

“There’s a sequel to this story, though. Apparently Siday got even more rich and famous using the synthesizer in his work — picture in Time magazine and all that. Several years later he commissioned me to build an instrument that could be considered the forerunner of today’s drum machines. I had never done something like this before, and what with my other commitments, it took me much longer to build than I originally told him it would. He was quite impatient for it to be done, calling me a lot, etc. It was mounted on a rack, and when I finally wheeled it into his apartment, he immediately whisked it away into another room to try it out. At that point, Mrs. Siday walked right up to me, nose to nose, her finger poking me in the ribs, and said, very quietly, ‘You lousy bastard. Do you realize how much suffering you’ve caused my husband by being so late with this machine?’ ‘Yes, Edith, but isn’t it worth it? Look how happy he is,’ I replied. Her answer: ‘Ah — more shit in this house!’”

Sales of the Moog Synthesizer peaked in 1969 and 1970, by which time Moog was managing a company with 42 employees, something he says he was never cut out to do. By 1971, a combination of competition, recession, and a saturated market caused sales to decline, and Moog, short on cash, sold the majority interest in the company to a local entrepreneur who, in turn, sold it a few years later to Norlin Music, a large conglomerate. Moog was kept on as president for a few more years — largely as window dressing, he says — but sold his interest in 1977. Eventually Norlin ceased making synthesizers and sold off Moog Music, which today is hardly more than a name on the books, and one with which Bob Moog no longer has any connection (see “Postscript” at the end of the article).

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