Articles by Larry Fine

From the Piano Buyer Blog

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

The Kurzweil Period

In 1978 the Moog family bought 89 acres of land (later increased, through another purchase, to 118 acres) near Asheville, North Carolina, and moved from the Buffalo suburb where they had lived since 1971. Moog spent the next few years building a round house, doing much of the construction himself, and then, under the name Big Briar, Inc. (named after the cove in which the Moogs’ residence is located), resumed designing novel electronic music equipment, especially new types of performance control devices, and providing consulting services to manufacturers.

In 1983, Ray Kurzweil began to occasionally consult with Moog. Looking back, Moog realized that Kurzweil was probably testing him out for an eventual position in his company, but nothing came of it for a while. Then, in 1984, Kurzweil ran into trouble. With the first units just off the assembly line, their flagship synthesizer, the Kurzweil model K250, was having sound-quality problems, and people were complaining.

“Kurzweil had hired all these high-powered engineers for their knowledge of digital technology. But sound quality is largely an analog problem, an ‘old-fashioned’ technology about which they knew very little. So they were having all these meetings, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” Analog, of course, was what Moog knew best. “So they called me up to Boston and asked me to solve the problem right then and there. But their offices were so noisy and hectic with people running around that I knew I wouldn’t find the quiet I needed. I persuaded them to let me take an instrument back to my shop, and in three or four days I came up with a list of at least 17 different sources of the problem, mostly small things.”

An invitation to become a Vice President of Kurzweil Music Systems, with an offer he “couldn’t refuse,” soon followed. Initially Moog did refuse, but reflecting on the cost of sending two more children through college convinced him that temporarily moving to Boston made sense; so the family rented out the North Carolina homestead and packed up their belongings.

As the months wore on, Moog worked with me less and less often. Sometimes he would be around the house writing or doing chores, but more frequently he would be traveling for Kurzweil. Moog commented: “Whatever you say about Ray Kurzweil, you have to say that besides being technically brilliant, he really understood the importance of public relations in business. If anything, in the end, he relied on it a bit too heavily.” Moog had been hired both for his engineering skills and for his P.R. value, but it was the latter that increasingly took up his time. By 1988, Kurzweil was sending him on speaking gigs of ever dwindling importance, and it was getting him down. Perhaps also reflecting on his years with Norlin, Moog sighed, “Whenever I work full-time for a company, they seem to have trouble making good use of me. They value my presence, but my skills always seem to fall in the cracks between their needs.”

Feeling underutilized, missing North Carolina, and with their youngest about to graduate from high school, the Moogs figured it was time to move back, and in May 1988, Moog quit his full-time work with Kurzweil and started working full-time with me. Our goal: to finish by August all the keyboard work for which I was needed. In mid-August, a few days before the moving vans were to arrive, we replaced the walnut covers for the last time, and packed up the keyboards in the shipping crates from which we’d removed them two-and-a-half years earlier. My last day with Moog was spent helping him pack up shop equipment and dismantle steel shelves.

The Keyboards in Concert

I didn’t see the keyboards again until nearly four years later, in May 1992. The occasion was their premiere performance by John Eaton. The winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, Eaton had moved from Indiana University to the University of Chicago, and since we’d last worked together, Moog had managed to complete the electronic assembly and programming of two keyboards for Eaton to use in concert. Although my presence was certainly not needed, I was curious as to what kind of music might be produced by this instrument I had helped build, and flew to Chicago to attend the concert.
 

Moog, at computer, with John Eaton, programming and testing a completed MTS keyboard Moog, at computer, with John Eaton, programming and testing a completed MTS keyboard.
Photo Credit: Bob Moog Foundation


The concert, which was well publicized in the Chicago press and well attended, actually contained a number of premieres, and Moog’s keyboards were scheduled for the end of the first half. The first piece on the program was called Microtonal Fantasy (for two pianos tuned a quarter of a tone apart). I found the piece terribly funny. It sounded exactly like so many of the pianos I’d been called on to service as a piano technician — the ones that hadn’t been tuned in 30 years.

The piece for the MTS keyboards was called Genesis, and was preceded by brief remarks from Moog and a demonstration. To be honest, not being a fan of modern music, I can’t remember much about the piece — I find it difficult to remember things I don’t understand or appreciate — but to call it “atonal” would be an understatement. I tried to keep in mind that the keyboards themselves had no intrinsic sound and could just as well play Mozart as Eaton, but it was little consolation at the time.

After the intermission, the New York New Music Ensemble performed the Chicago premiere of “a theatrical romp for instrumentalists” based on the Ibsen play Peer Gynt. The musicians doubled as actors and ran around the stage with their instruments. The highlight of the evening for me, however, came after the concert, when I was able to go backstage and again touch the keys I had shaped.

Asked whether these keyboards might be produced in any quantity, Shirleigh Moog chimed in, “Not if I have anything to say about it.” Perhaps thinking of the throngs of dinner guests she had entertained, she continued, “Once in a person’s lifetime is enough to go through that.” Moog was just a little more noncommittal. “If enough people want to pay me $16,000 each, which is what it costs to custom-build them, I might make a few more.” Did he think it likely the demand would be there? “If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years designing instruments, it’s to not try to guess what the musicians are going to want.”


Postscript: In 1988, at the conclusion of our work together, Bob and Shirleigh Moog moved back to Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog continued his consulting and electronic development work under the Big Briar company name, making theremins and analog effects devices. Bob and Shirleigh divorced in 1994, and in 1995, Bob married Ileana Grams, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina, whom he called “the love of my life.”

Norlin, which had owned the Moog Music name, went out of business in 1993, and in 2002, after a legal battle, Bob reacquired the right to the commercial use of his name. With a renewed interest by musicians in analog synthesizers, Moog began to bring out updated versions of his original instruments under the Moog Music name. Also in 2002, Bob brought on Michael Adams as a business partner (now sole owner), but continued working at Moog Music full-time. He also taught a course in electronic music at the University of North Carolina.

In spring 2005, Bob Moog was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and he died in August of that year, at age 71.

After Moog’s death, his family established the Bob Moog Foundation to honor his legacy “through its mission of igniting creativity at the intersection of music, history, science, and innovation.” To that end, the Foundation preserves and exhibits the Moog archives, and runs educational programs in electronic music to teach students science through music, among other activities.

Moog’s first wife, Shirleigh Moog, is retired and lives in Asheville. Of their four children, Laura Moog Lanier is a social worker living in High Point; Renée Moog lives in Portland, Oregon; Matthew Moog runs an Internet marketing firm in Chicago; and Michelle Moog-Koussa is Executive Director of the Bob Moog Foundation, in Asheville.


Photo Sources:

1) Bob Moog Foundation archives

2) William LaVista, a student of Bernard Friedland, who was a professor of Bob Moog at Columbia, and is now at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Friedland is supervising a project to adapt the MTS keyboards for use with modern computers.

3) Gregory Kramer

For more information:

Bob Moog Foundation www.moogfoundation.org

Moog Music, Inc. www.moogmusic.com


Larry Fine received his training in piano technology at the North Bennet Street School in Boston in 1976. He is author of The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano (Fourth Edition) (Brookside Press, 2001), and its successor, Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, available online at www.PianoBuyer.com.

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