Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the surprising sounds of “Switched-On Bach” will also recall a time when acoustic instruments were the only game in town. I’m sure that seems like empty nostalgia to the under-30 set, who have long taken for granted the ability to create artificial music on little machines without benefit of formal training or even a sense of pitch. For better or for worse, the invention of the synthesizer altered the world’s musical landscape forever. Most pop tunes are now created as much by synths as by the good old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums. Most TV shows are now scored with electronically generated music, and at least half a dozen major film composers owe their careers to the fact that they used to be talented synth programmers.
College professors Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco trace the origins of the synthesizer in this look back at a decade of seminal change in the music business (the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s). We’ve all heard of Robert Moog, the “inventor” of the synthesizer. But the reason we’ve never heard of his West Coast competitor, Don Buchla, is at the core of their book.
Moog was not just a musician and innovator; he listened to his customers and added a keyboard to help them facilitate their ideas. Buchla feared the addition of a keyboard would unnecessarily limit the palette that the new machine would offer composers interested in exploring new musical sounds. The more user-friendly Moog, and its popular successor the Minimoog, won out (although smart marketing by a successor, the ARP, helped drive Moog under).
Despite a glossary defining such terms as “exponential converter,” “ring modulator” and “voltage-controlled oscillator,” those without engineering degrees are likely to be lost during the inevitable technical explanations of how those early synthesizers actually worked. And there is a nagging inconsistency of style (Moog is referred to alternately as “Bob” and “Moog,” for example, throughout).
To their credit, the authors incorporate a touch of humor now and then (as when a spectator accidentally, and literally, pulled the plug on New York’s first live Moog concert in 1969). And they attempt to place the synth into a larger cultural context of the time, notably the psychedelic era that helped to popularize it among the turned-on set.
Pinch and Trocco spent years interviewing dozens of participants (including early synth proponents Keith Emerson and Jan Hammer), and reviewing all of the existing literature on the subject. Unfortunately, Wendy Carlos — who began life as Walter Carlos, and whose “Switched-On Bach” began the synthesizer revolution with its canny interpretations of baroque music — refused to grant the authors an interview, and that is a serious loss considering the importance of that album’s impact on the future of music. Also strangely missing is any mention of the pioneering work of West Coast maverick Gil Melle, whose own experiments in electronic music of the time included the highly original scores for “The Andromeda Strain” and “Night Gallery.”
The authors attempt to bring things up-to-date with a concluding chapter about the transition to today’s digital formats (along with the expected “analog was better” complaint) and the current obsession with electronica in dance clubs, all traceable back to the machines’ unwieldy, knobs-wires-and-plugs ancestor of a generation ago.