The Birth of Keith Emerson’s Moog

50 years ago from the day of this writing, Herb Deutsch, Chris Swansen along with a handful of other dedicated performers and synth-minded people, assembled a concert on Moog synthesizers in front of 4,000 thrilled fans at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Bob Moog and his team created four modular synthesizers for this very well received, unique and innovative performance.

Jazz In the Garden Moog concert announcement

Keith Emerson, who played keys in The Nice at the time, reached out to Bob Moog and was able to acquire one of these modular synths for his own musical explorations. This began a lifelong relationship that ran deep on so many levels.

Over the decades, the gigantic sound of this iconic instrument found its way into the hands of eager fans on ELP songs like From The Beginning, Tarkus, Toccata, Tank, Karn Evil 9 and the favorite of so many, Lucky Man.

Keith Emerson’s Moog modular as it stands today

Keith’s Moog synth traveled the globe with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Keith worked with Bob and his team to update and upgrade the instrument to meet Keith’s on-stage and studio requirements. The synth would get hammered from the touring and Keith’s techs and the Moog crew chipped in to keep it working the best they could.

In 2011, as the instrument fell into disrepair, Keith decided to have this highly customized instrument rebuilt. Technicians Gene Stopp and Brian Kehew worked on it feverishly, the result was a stable and fully-working synth, capable of handling anything that Keith could throw at it.

After Keith’s untimely passing, his extended family determined that “the world’s most famous synthesizer” should end up in the hands of the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project. Through the guidance of Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation, they understood that our stewardship would harvest great substance from this instrument and that we would share it with the whole world, judiciously and with sensitivity. They also understood that what is most important to us is Keith Emerson’s musical legacy and that his Moog synthesizer is really a living and breathing symbolic object of this legacy.

In April of 2019, we brought Keith’s Moog synth to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to play a part in their “Instruments That Rock” exhibit. At the time of this writing, more than half a million visitors and fans got a close-up view of the Moog and two of Keith’s Hammond organs.

EMEAPP Exhibit2
Keith’s gear on display at The MET in New York

As his beloved instrument turns 50 years old, we celebrate the Jazz In the Garden concert where it all began. We tip our hats to Bob Moog, Herb Deutsch, Chris Swansen and the whole crew who made this milestone performance happen. We also tip our hats to Gene Stopp, Brian Kehew and all the folks involved in getting this iconic instrument back on its feet.

We look forward to its homecoming with great anticipation. 🙂 

 Here is a wonderful article written by Lauren Rosati of the Museum of Modern Art that tells the story of this very important performance.

View of the concert performed by Robert Moog and the Moog Synthesizer, part of the Jazz in the Garden series, The Museum of Modern Art, August 28, 1969. Photographer: Peter Moore. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

The exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye explores the ways in which sound technologies have shaped the way we listen to musical culture. Highlighting both technical innovation and design aesthetics, the exhibition includes a number of modern instruments, including a Yamaha Portatone Keyboard and a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. While MoMA was the first museum in the world to collect such objects, beginning in 1932, it also pioneered the live presentation of some new music technologies. For instance, Russian émigré Vladimir Ussachevsky performed the first tape-music concert in the United States at MoMA in October 1952. And though the Museum’s collection does not include a synthesizer, it presented the famed Moog synthesizer as a live performance instrument for the very first time on August 28, 1969, changing the course of music history and influencing decades of future instrument design.

Program for Robert Moog and the Moog Synthesizer Concert-Demonstration, part of the Jazz in the Garden, series, The Museum of Modern Art,  August 28, 1969. Public Information Records, II.B.708. The Museum Modern Art Archives, New York

Described by the press as “alien” and like “a fox let loose in a chicken shack,” the sounds of the Moog synthesizer filled MoMA’s Sculpture Garden during the final event of the 1969 Jazz in the Garden concert series. Critic Greer Johnson wrote that “the ‘demonstration’ of Robert Moog’s synthesizer at MoMA…had all the musical persuasiveness of lobotomized Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey singing ‘On A Bicycle Built For Two.’” Bob Moog was surely an unlikely act to close out the series, which also included performances by the Muddy Waters Blues Band and the Bob Patterson Gospel Singers, as well as a variety of more traditional blues and jazz groups.Unwieldy, complicated to operate, and capable of playing only one note at a time, the Moog Modular Synthesizer was initially relegated to the recording studio. It consisted of oscillators, filter banks, reverb units, voltage control, mixers, and other modules in a single console connected by patch cords and controlled by an organ-like keyboard. A prototype was released in August 1964 and first appeared on a musical track later that year, when Herb Deutsch composed “Jazz Images: A Worksong and Blues.” Songs by the Rolling Stones, Monkees, Beatles, and Byrds helped to popularize the instrument, and by 1969 “Moog” was synonymous with “synthesizer.” Yet, despite demands from his sales representatives and session musicians, Moog had not yet devised a synthesizer for live concert events. An invitation from MoMA provided the push he needed. Impelled to produce an ensemble of real-time, portable systems for the event, Moog designed four modular synthesizers that operated from a new pre-set box, which allowed the musicians to activate six basic sounds at the push of a button and adjust settings in advance. The instruments—a basic Moog, a bass synthesizer, a polyphonic keyboard synthesizer, and a percussion synthesizer—were completed the day before the event.

Herb Deutsche performs at on the Moog Synthesizer during the Jazz in the Garden program, The Museum of Modern Art, August 28, 1969. Photographer: Peter Moore. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

Live at MoMA, 1969. Printed in Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Analog Days (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 189

On the night of the concert, roughly 4,000 people—quadruple the attendance of previous events—jammed into MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, climbing onto sculptures and into trees to get a better view. A quartet led by Herb Deutsch opened the concert with a performance of electronic bebop jazz that sounded “wavery and hollow, as though coming from outer space.” According to a review in Audio magazine, “Following a few preparatory bleeps, hoots, and grunts, the musicians swung into a pleasantly melodic four-movement suite…. At various times, sounds were reminiscent of trumpet, flute, saxophone, harpsichord, accordion and several varieties of drum, but, in general, one was content to listen to the music on its own terms, without trying to draw any comparisons with conventional instrumentation.” Pianist Chris Swansen next led his quartet in a thickly orchestrated rendition of “Ooh Baby” by the Free Spirits, until a fuse blew and a reveler inadvertently pulled the power plug for the sound system, abruptly stopping the performance. Despite these technical difficulties, the significance of the event was not lost on critics, who praised this historic concert at MoMA for launching the use of the synthesizer as a live performance instrument, for popularizing the Moog Modular system, and for “making music modern.”

The author wishes to thank curator Juliet Kinchin and Albert Glinsky, whose book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage provided source material for this post.