Portrait of the inventor as a humanist

Robert Moog’s invention of the modern synthesizer, now common in contemporary music, brought him respect and admiration from electronic-music enthusiasts the world over — and a deep personal satisfaction.

However, Moog, a documentary film by director Hans Fjellestad released on DVD May 31, illustrates the story of a man largely unrecognized by fans of music he directly influenced.

Fjellestad’s touching adoration for Moog’s genius unfolds in revealing commentary by the pioneering engineer from his home in Asheville and on the road in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and London. The film features live performances and interviews with musicians that span the spectrum of Moog’s influence, from rock to funk, hip-hop to current electronica.

The history of the Moog synthesizer parallels Moog’s own philosophy of life, and his “spiritual connection” to the circuits he manipulates. The idea of synthetic music, using the tenets of Moog’s background in engineering physics, was not always such a popular one. In an early scene, Moog explains from his porch an incident at the first trade show where he demonstrated some of his new work. “Aren’t you ashamed?” was one onlooker’s comment to this seemingly inhuman noise.

Angered so much by this reaction to his hard work, Moog recalls he nearly ran his car off the road as he left the show. Striking vintage footage depicts a young Moog tinkering with his early experiments, a wild-haired scientist with furrowed brow bowing a violin and taking readings. The comparison of this modern inventor to a pioneer of the classical age, like Mozart or Beethoven, runs as a thread through segments of the film. Moog assembled his first theremin from a do-it-yourself kit as a teen. When describing the curvatures of the circuits on one of his synthesizers’ boards, he says humbly he has “a similar feeling to what a violin maker feels when he’s getting the right amount of wood in a certain part of the violin.” The film’s narrative delicately connects the dots between the infancy of the synthesizer, when it was primarily used by avant-garde artists, and its ascendancy into the pop realm, when rock musicians adopted Moog’s creations and broke through the stigma.

Funky, bubble-shaped cartoon graphics accentuate this period in the 1960s and ’70s, when Moog’s sounds appeared in progressive rockers’ fanciful play and dippy commercial jingles. Ed Kalehoff, an early Moog aficionado, shills for Schaefer beer in a humorous aside to these early uses of the synthesizer. Singing a goofy tune to the bubbly noises of his giant synthesizer profuse with wires and knobs, the bespectacled groover warbles, “Schaefer, when you’re having more than one!”

In a backstage conversation, two poles of the Moog universe discuss with Moog the personal impact his invention had on them. Rick Wakeman of the group Yes notes that for the first time, “keyboardists could give guitarists a run for their money.” And Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell says he always believed the Moog was a “sexual instrument,” its unearthly sounds coming from a higher power. Moog himself agrees with the non-religious spiritual reference to an “X” factor, believing himself a conduit of the energy derived from “up there,” then through him and into the musicians.

Though there is little intrusion into the personal matters of Moog’s family, he explains that he and his wife, who has a background in the philosophy of religion, often discuss the nature of reality. Moog’s luminescent personality — from his empathy when discussing how stray dogs killed his chickens, to his deep thoughts on the connections between the intangible and his machines — beams throughout.

In live performances, early innovator Jean Jacques Perrey plays in tandem with techno artist Luke Vibert, and hip-hop keyboardist Money Mark explains his first love of the synthesizer, when it was used to depict flying saucers in early sci-fi films. In an appeal to people making music in the digital age, Moog proposes, “I just hope we don’t forget how important it is for live performance [to exist], where musicians interact with players and form a community right there on the spot.”

These modern disciples provide inroads to Moog’s world — but the most engaging aspect of the film is the spiritual journeyman himself. The film closes on Moog playing theremin in his Asheville garden, the ever-curious, gleeful inventor perhaps conducting far-away energies yet unknown.

[Chris Toenes is based in Chapel Hill.]

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