Moog: A History in Recordings
A Little Space Music
While most musicians were finding ways to adapt the Moog Modular to popular music–using the keyboard controller to play the instrument like an organ– others found satisfaction in creating “beds” and continuously changing background textures of sounds. These were sometimes created for pop songs and soundtracks—e.g., “Natural Harmony” (The Byrds, 1968), “Performance” (Mick Jagger, 1970). But some musicians found these sound textures to be intrinsically beautiful and composed works of music with them.
One thing the Moog Modular provided to musicians was an early way to “program” sounds. This was done through patches, or set-ups of patch cords and dial settings. The keyboard could be used to trigger the sounds, or the sounds could be activated by the patches themselves, using the control knobs, mixer, and gain controls to vary the effects manually. The Moog 8-step sequencer added another dimension to this programming, allowing the repetition of melodies or textures practically until the plug came out of the wall.
Enter the early days of space music. Stephen Hill, co-founder of the Hearts of Space radio program, describes space music as “almost any music with a slow pace and space-creating sound images … The material we work with is generally quiet, mostly consonant, often ethereal and without conventional rhythmic and dynamic contrasts.” (1) With origins in the space age, this music often evoked associations with meditation, drug experiences, and space travel. It evolved to become ambient, new age, and other kinds of music intended for quiet contemplation and relaxation.
The choices made by musicians dabbling in space music often included a rhythmic pulse, melodic arpeggios, string sounds, vocal harmonies or choirs, and a slowly changing bed of rich synthesizer sounds. In many cases, the arpeggios were provided by a Moog Modular sequencer, creating a dreamlike atmosphere for extended instrumentals. Echo and reverb also seemed to be ever-present in space music, evoking other-worldly vistas and a place for one’s thoughts to wander.
Early examples of space music show that the genre didn’t quite fall into place all at once. There is much variety in the sounds that evolved into the genre. What was clear is that it was distinct from earlier electronic music and that one of the first instruments to make space music possible was the Moog Modular synthesizer. The music was also long, so in my suggestions below I’ve focused on tracks that were ten minutes or longer.
A word on the male-dominance of space music. I bemoan the fact that this is a genre whose earliest members were almost exclusively men. I have not been able to trace a female composer back to space music of the early 1970s, although several pre-eminent women composers appear as the new age movement took hold. Suzanne Ciani, Constance Demby, and Lauri Paisley, using synthesizers other than Moogs, each managed to find success in a male-dominated field. At first releasing self-produced cassettes, each eventually released albums and CDs. Ciani, of course, is probably the best known. Recently, Ciani visited the Moog plant in Asheville, NC and became acquainted with the reborn Moog System 55 to record a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnC9pu65pa0 I especially like Paisley’s album The Fire of Dreams for its fantastic, ethereal sounds and sonic imagery. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stFsGEjtYJs I would cautiously add Eliane Radigue to this list (also using an Arp), although her music has not so much been considered space music as music of slowly changing dynamics and meditation. It purposefully lacks the melodrama of space music.
Let’s run down a sampling of early space music that used the Moog. I don’t claim that his list is comprehensive or complete, so please suggest additional examples!
Roots of Space Music
Early recordings that influenced the development of space music.
Douglas Leedy, The Electric Zodiac (1969). I have previously used this blog to marvel at Leedy’s Entropical Paradise, but before that triple-album of programmed Moog and Buchla music, Leedy produced The Electric Zodiac. This recording was made soon after he established the electronic music studio at UCLA. It consists of one disc and two compositions without actual titles; they are simply on sides 1 and 2.
While Entropical Paradise certainly qualifies as a kind of early space music, I wanted to mention this album because it, too, has qualities that reflect the droning, ethereal atmosphere and slowly changing textures of space music. I think that The Electric Zodiac and Entropical Paradise, using the Moog and Buchla in tandem, show that Leedy was clearly tuned-into producing music that contrasted sharply with other new and experimental music of the time. Side 1 (21:38) slowly, quietly unfolds with gong-like sounds and drones that sit well with a state of meditation. Side 2 (15:28) is more percussive, rhythmic at times, building to a noisy climax before quietly ending. It definitely inspires the kinds of imaginary visions that space music is intended to evoke. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG9GX16ZUA8
Edward M. Zajda, Independent Electronic Music Composer (1969). This album collects tracks composed between 1965 and 1969, not all of which include a Moog Modular which Zajda acquired in 1967. But one outstanding track from 1969 includes many elements of space music: “Magnificent Desolation.” Inspired by the lunar landing that took place that summer, the piece has a non-rhythmic structure and uses reverb and rambling solos to establish the space vibe.
Syrinx, Syrinx (1970). I want to mention this album by the Canadian trio Syrinx because its keyboard player John Mills-Cockell was one of the early private owners of a Moog Modular and wrote most of the compositions for this album. One track that definitely has the qualities that comprise space music is “Appalosa-Pegasus” (11:34). The track begins with a solo synth and then settles into a rhythmic pulse with drones over which more synth soloing and textures are placed. One can easily get mentally lost in the process of listening to this. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AjdU05KrFo
Nik Raicevic (aka Nik Pascal) 107-34-8933 (1969); re-released as Head (1970). The enigmatic Nik Raicevik definitely deserves mention as an influence on the development of space music. He not only found the spacey sounds, heavily reverberating over drones and rhythms, but was also inspired to make a connection between his music and psychedelic drugs. All of the tracks on this LP are named after drugs: “Cannabis Sativa” (17;30); “Methedrine” (6:00), and “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” (8:50). Listen to “Cannabis Sativa” and you will hear a Moog Modular being manually manipulated in real-time with the tape running, plus some reverse tracks and additional effects added later. Raicevik followed this album with four more, all highly collectible: Beyond the End … Eternity (1971); The Sixth Ear (1972); Magnetic Web (1973); Zero Gravity (1975).
At the Heart of Space Music
Key recordings that inspired and popularized space music.
Now we turn to the core of the genre, the early recordings that made space music a movement in the early 1970s. These are the artists who largely popularized the genre. Whereas the early influences already mentioned were American, space music took off in Europe largely because of progressive rock and German electronic bands. Klause Schulze was a pioneer of this genre, but not a Moog user until the album Moondawn in 1976. He was in the group Ash Ra Tempel when it released its first album in 1971. It consisted of two, long progressive rock tracks, some parts of which could be likened to space music. Schulze was primarily a drummer on this album whereas Manuel Göttsching, the guitarist, was mostly responsible for the electronics. Link: http://www.discogs.com/Ash-Ra-Tempel-Ash-Ra-Tempel/master/2679 But Schulze’s first two solo albums (produced using organ and an EMS VCS 3) were foundational to the genre: Irrlicht (1972); Cyborg (1973). Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8tjPGCWlTM
Popol Vuh, Affenstunde (1970). Florian Fricke was very possibly the first German musician to own a Moog. With his group Popol Vuh, he recorded this influential album of space music in 1970. It has most of the hallmarks of the genre—long sustained tones, wandering solos, sustained energy level, and pulsing rhythms to anchor one’s listening. Popol Vuh also added ambient sounds and noise to add texture. It was a remarkable album. They followed this up with more of the same on In den Gärten Pharaos (1971). Fricke once said that the magic of the Moog was that it “was a fantastic way into my inside consciousness, to express what I was hearing within myself. … The music that you create with a Moog covers the entire range of human emotion.” The only element that they didn’t explore was the use of the sequencer for playing arpeggios, which became the trademark sound of Tangerine Dream. Fricke gave up on electronic music by the mid-1970s and famously sold his huge Moog Modular III to Klaus Schulze. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U20MlfQWXgY
Tangerine Dream, Zeit (1972), Phaedra (1974). While Zeit has a hint of synthesizer sequencers on it—courtesy of a guest appearance by Moog owner Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh–it was the album Phaedra that established Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, arpeggiated sound and the German electronic music movement. Newly signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin label, the group bought a Moog Modular III of its own with the advance and recorded the album in the UK. They decided to use a Moog arpeggio for the bass line, programming it into the sequencer. The Moog was setup and a patch was designed, but while it warmed-up it went out of tune, rising in pitch. This was captured on tape and eventually became part of the finished title track of the album, with added Mellotron and other instruments (begin listening at around 9:40 or the rising arpeggio). Tangerine Dream tamed the famous synthesizer and used it as the foundation of many influential albums of space music. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zM2t0B-Pg9M
By the mid-1970s, the Moog Modular and its kin, the Minimoog, Polymoog, and a host of new synthesizers from Arp, EMS, and Korg spread the genre of space music beyond Germany. While the Moog Modular diminished in use, many other keyboards appeared from other manufacturers. In many cases, they successfully followed the plan established by Moog of providing modular variety and programming. Many musicians, from Vangelis (Greece), Klause Schulze (Germany), Jean Michel Jarre (France), Tomita and Kitaro (Japan) created space music during this period. A culmination of sorts occurred in 1981 when Carl Sagan produced his 13-part series Cosmos for PBS in the United States. Using state-of-the-art visual effects, the host took viewers on a virtual journey through space and time, exploring such things as comets and asteroids, the planets, the life of a star, and the journeys of the Voyager probes to the outer reaches of our galaxy. For the soundtrack of this series, the producers chose space music, most notably by Vangelis and Tomita. The soundtrack album, The Music of Cosmos, was a best seller, forever making space music synonymous with outer space. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJLc6J4Uz-M&list=PL41CFC4363D105196
(1) Hill, Stephen, Hearts of Space website. https://www.hos.com/aboutmusic.html
Thom Holmes is a music historian and composer specializing in the history of electronic music and recordings. He is the author of the textbook, Electronic and Experimental Music (fifth edition, Routledge 2012) and writes the blog, Noise and Notations. For his ongoing project, The Sound of Moog, he is archiving every known early recording of the Moog Modular Synthesizer.
blog: Noise and Notations
If you want to read more from Thom Holmes, please see his many fascinating historical blogs here: http://moogfoundation.