Leading up to one of the earliest Bele Chere festivals — the street party took place in downtown Asheville 1979-2013 — a couple of local musicians decided to reach out to Robert Moog. The inventor of the first commercial synthesizer had recently relocated from New York state to Western North Carolina; songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dan Lewis and keyboardist Mike Abbott wondered if Moog might like to take part in Bele Chere. “He asked them, ‘What are you guys doing?’” recalls Michelle Moog-Koussa, executive director of the Bob Moog Foundation and Moog’s daughter. “Dad just said, ‘Well, I’ll play with you guys.’ And that’s what he did: He played the Minimoog.’”
A signed poster from the performance was recently donated to The Moogseum, a hallmark project of the Bob Moog Foundation, which will include interactive and rotating exhibits, archives and insights into the life of the renowned electronic music pioneer. “The Moogseum is really a celebration of Bob Moog’s life and work and legacy and not about just synthesizers,” says Moog-Koussa. The soft opening for the space, at 56 Broadway, is slated for Thursday, May 23, which would have been Moog’s 85th birthday. A grand opening will take place in August.
The Bob Moog Foundation was formed in 2006, a year after its namesake passed away. In 2008, representatives of the foundation applied for and received a grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to create the Moogseum. But the economic downturn, among other complications, led the foundation to pull back from the museum idea and, instead, focus on preservation of its archives and its educational project, Dr. Bob’s Soundschool. (Today, the Soundschool serves 3,000 kids per year in Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. It’s poised to grow to neighboring counties and eventually expand nationwide.)
In fact, the foundation was not actively planning for the Moogseum when its members learned, less than a year ago, that the former Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center location would be available due to that organization’s relocation. “We thought, ‘You know what? This is the perfect space for us,’” says Moog-Koussa. “So we decided to grab the opportunity. … It was a space that was accessible, both sizewise and financially.”
Plus, she adds, the downtown location is ideal because “what we’re trying to do is make Bob’s life and legacy accessible to as many people as possible. Thinking realistically about the sustainability of a small museum, that’s much more likely when you have foot traffic. … We’re trying to reach people from all walks of life.” The space hosted pop-ups during the winter, including performances by local musicians on Moog’s personal piano, and attracted “a nice mix of people, locally and from all over the country and even different parts of the world,” according to Moog-Koussa.
Many fans of Moog’s inventions might not be aware that he was a pianist. He enrolled in Manhattan School of Music, played in a couple of bands in college, and one summer he had a job as a pianist in a dance band in the Catskills, Moog-Koussa says. “He liked that experience of making music with other people. … And near the end of his life, he played piano in a [local] production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’” she reveals. “He liked supporting local musicians, people who were playing his instruments. … His highest compliment for music was it was ‘damn good.’”
What Moog fans likely do know about is about the inventor’s relationship to the theremin. At 15, he built his first as part of a science fair project, according to the Bob Moog Foundation’s timeline. The Moogseum recently acquired an early theremin that Moog made when he was 20. “It’s a magical instrument — something you play without touching it,” Moog-Koussa explains of the electronic device. “Once he got past that, into designing it, he really was enthralled with Leon Theremin, who was the inventor of the theremin, and the simplicity and elegance of the circuitry design.” Moog considered Theremin to be a virtual mentor, says Moog-Koussa, though the two innovators didn’t meet until 1989.
Other recent acquisitions of the local museum are two foot pedals. At one point, Moog had sold his business and was working under the direction of the company’s new owner. “In the mid-’70s, Bob was no longer designing synthesizers, [although] he would have liked to have been,” says Moog-Koussa. Her father was instead tasked with doing small projects for other companies under the Norlin Music Corp. umbrella, such as amplifiers for the Gibson Lab series and pedals for Maestro. “Not only are they an oddity, but they’re a very important part of the story,” Moog-Koussa explains.
The Moogseum offers an opportunity to explore these and other stories that made up the life and career of the electronic instrument pioneer. “Part of my personal mission, with this foundation, is to help people understand Bob Moog — who they know as an iconic figure — as a real human being with successes and trials and ups and downs,” says Moog-Koussa. “I think people find just success unrelatable, and then they cut themselves off from thinking they could do something just as important.”
In fact, Moog was always trying to push his own boundaries, his daughter explains. In 1970, he began working on the Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard for avant-garde composer John Eaton. “He worked on that keyboard for the better part of two decades, while he was doing everything else, but he was passionate about it because it incorporated a lot more human nuance into synthesis,” Moog-Koussa says. “Even in 2004, he and [Eaton] were looking for a software developer to help them finish off this project. Up until the end, he was trying to figure out how to do things in a new way.”
The same could be said of Moog-Koussa, who has channeled her own creativity and passion into sharing and forwarding her father’s legacy. The Moogseum is a dream more than a decade in the making. “It’s not something I ever planned on, [but] this job has exposed me to more than I could have ever imagined,” she says. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to walk down this golden path, to rediscover not only my father but the impact he’s had on so many people, who I then get to interact with.”
She adds, “It’s a pretty magical experience.”
WHAT: Opening of The Moogseum
WHERE: 56 Broadway, moogfoundation.org
WHEN: Thursday, May 23. Museum hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays-Saturdays. $6 general admission/free for children 7 and younger