To close out today’s celebration of Dr. Robert Moog’s birthday, here’s a letter that captures an extraordinary moment in time. It’s a reminder, too, that we also live in extraordinary times today, moments that we can appreciate for their potential, without the benefit of hindsight. Today or tomorrow is the birthday of some new electronic pioneer, or some new innovation. And that’s the best kind of legacy anyone can leave.

Chris Stack writes:

Jon Hassell just shared with me a very interesting and historic letter. Very timely too, with tomorrow being Bob Moog’s Birthday celebration…

Letter to Jon Hassell
Electronic Music – The Early Years

I had a very interesting experience about one week ago. A gentleman, Mr. Robert Moog, who claims to know of you, visited Washington and demonstrated a compact electronic studio. He claims to be the only man in the country building and designing equipment solely for the creation of electronic music. He was tremendously impressed with your proposals. [For – among other things – applying the principles of electronic music manipulation to the video domain.]

He stated that he would be able to provide much of the equipment called for in those proposals at the same quality or better at considerably less cost. He also demonstrated equipment (in a crude state of development) which could provide great flexibility with extremely simple manipulation involved, almost to the point of being able to improvise an electronic composition – to be recorded or not.

He is going to send me descriptive material and quotations, copies of which I will either forward to you or hold for your interest and considerations.

Lloyd Ultan
Head, Music Department
American University
Washington D. C. 20016

  • Todd Fletcher

    A little background: this was long before Jon Hassell was the artist we know today. I believe it was around the time he was playing with Lamonte Young, so early 60s. Hassell had invented some kind of video bluescreen system, at least that’s what it sounded like from his vague descriptions. He worked on developing it as a commercial system for some years before abandoning it. It would be at least a decade before he developed his unique trumpet techniques & forth world music style.

    • Peter Kirn

      Absolutely. And this – “applying the principles of electronic music manipulation to the video domain”

      …well, *that* ground sure isn’t yet exhausted. Wonder what still lies ahead.

    • Random Chance

      Given that video special effects were for a long time done by video synthesizers that were mostly quite analog in nature as was video then and how film was cut ans pasted back together similar to how tape was cut and how today a DAW looks a lot like the video cutting software tools of the trade I don’t really see how the application of electronic music manipulation is not yet exhausted. There is still a lot of fun to be had and there will be beautiful art along the way but I do not know which techniques from electronic music creation and manipulation have not yet been applied to, re-inventend or mirrored by video.

  • Stefan Rijkse

    “He claims to be the only man in the country building and designing equipment solely for the creation of electronic music.”

    bruce haack allready released an album in 1963 with his home built and designed electronic equipment made solely for making music.

    • Peter Kirn

      I expect that particular statement lacks context. Also, I think the word that may be missing is “selling.” There was a lot of stuff out there at this point, with which Moog would have been familiar, but not necessarily in product form.

    • Peter Kirn

      We’ll be looking again at Max Mathews soon. One of the fascinating things is the way in which Mathews’ unit generator and digital concepts predate the Moog creations. And that’s before we even get into Raymond Scott, who specifically mentored Bob Moog. These kinds of intertwined threads make invention more interesting, not less – because “invention” is not a bolt out of the blue, but part of a much longer path. 

      It should encourage people “inventing” (or developing, more like it) tech now. It means when you find other people working along similar lines, that should be your cue to keep going, not to stop.

  • Dbartley00

    whether its for sale or not, we all ultimately benefited, doncha think?

  • ToneHead

    Although there were quite a number of folks innovating in electronic music at the time, many were musicians who were secretive about their techniques, like Raymond Scott or Max Crook … Moog was undoubtedly the only person aggressively pursuing the commercialization of the technology, which is why his name became synonymous with synthesizers in the 60s. I read an interview somewhere where Moog attributed his faith that he could be successful with it as a business to the success he had selling theremin kits as a teenager, which was a pretty unique experience at the time.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, that’s not entirely true. Basically, as I understand it, Don Buchla and Bob Moog were simultaneously pursuing a fairly similar time at the point when this letter was written. It was a bit later than 1964 before Bob Moog and his company began widening their circle of musicians in a way that looks more like what the industry would become. I don’t think anyone really conceived what was coming. Then again, when you’re busy making synthesizers, you tend not to think about the future generally in that way. (Trust me… I now know from experience! But historically, yes, that’s also what you can read in Dr. Moog’s accounts.) That’s not to lessen his achievement by any means – on the contrary, it took some real vision to keep plugging away on this thing without really knowing exactly what it was going to look like.

  • Analogcompendium

    “He claims to be the only man in the country building and designing equipment solely for the creation of electronic music.”
    I’m going to assume that this statement is in regard to the thing that Bob Moog did innovate:  the notion of taking the traditional tools of the “avant garde” electronic composer, combining them in a relatively small space, and interconnecting them with voltage control.  If Bob asserted this (which we don’t know for sure, as this is hearsay), it was from this angle… and was completely true.  There was literally no one else creating voltage-controlled electronic music composition modules for sale in the way Bob was.

    Of course, Don Buchla was also creating his variety of voltage controlled electronic music devices, but Bob didn’t know that in 1964 according to my understanding.

  • toemac

    American has had a Audio Tech program for years. I wonder how much Lloyd might have had to do with it?