Sounds Heard: Herbert Deutsch—From Moog to Mac
I have always found something particularly enriching about career-long retrospective presentations of an artist’s work. I have this concentrated immersive experience more often with visual art than I do with music, but albums such as Herbert Deutsch’s From Moog to Mac remind me that the ears benefit as much from taking such a journey as the eyes do.
Presented in chronological order and spanning a period from 1963 to 2007, the works included on From Moog to Mac demonstrate the process of experimentation and development that Herbert Deutsch went through as he created work for Bob Moog’s iconic synthesizers and then on into computer generated sound.
The disc opens with Deutsch’s A Christmas Carol, a 1963 tape piece made before the development of the Moog synthesizer that’s something of a state-of-his-art setter (as the disc notes report it was for Moog as well) for what is to follow. The piece positions audio news clips from the Birmingham church bombings of that era and monastic chanting alongside snippets of the children’s song “Frère Jacques” intended as a call to then-President JFK, all threaded together using a host of processed instrumental sounds.
What follows that track is a sort of audio letter and instrument demonstration from Robert Moog to “Mr. Deutsch, sir!”, which offers an intimate insider’s view of the early days (and sounds) of his prototype instrument. Having nicknamed it “abominatron,” Moog self-depreciatingly suggests that “it doesn’t sound like much when I play it. But maybe someone with more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it.” It’s an utterly charming six-plus minutes of his thinking, excitement, and nervousness at that time.
Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues (1964) is the first piece ever composed using the sounds of a Moog synthesizer (!) and offers a striking view of Deutsch’s early reaction to and experimentation with the technology. He writes:
In 1964, the sounds and the potential of sound modification had a startling effect upon me. It was as if each new sound produced would almost instantly free my mind and my fingers to move in a new direction. This experience fit perfectly into the way I was hearing, and wished to explore, the new jazz that I loved to hear and play.
While it’s an exciting ten-minute historical audio document, it also remains a great listen on its own terms, mixing the sounds of the synthesizer with Deutsch’s own improvisation on piano and trumpet. The same holds true for A Little Night Music, The Ithaca Journal Aug. 6, 1965, composed to close the Summer 1965 Workshop and Seminar in Electronic Music Composition that Deutsch and Moog held in Trumansburg, New York. This piece also relies on the headlines of the day and provides an interesting developmental mile marker when held next to the disc’s opening track.
Once the disc moves past these groundbreaking early experiments, some of the work wears its age more boldly than the rest. Prologue to King Richard III (1971), showcasing the integration of the Mini-Moog into the score for a “modern” production of Shakespeare’s play, makes for a fun bridge between Renaissance sonic cues and synthesized timbres of the time. Using a Moog MemoryMoog and a Korg M-1 Music Workstation, Slight of Hand (Mr. Magic Man) (1989) holds up less well for me, a piece of cabaret-pop marred by the heavy-handed use of now cheesy-sounding (and era-signaling) synth sounds. Fantasy on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (1995) is an often-jazzy conversation between saxophone and a palate of electronic sounds (those mimicking strings and organ particularly) that took me right back to the Casio keyboard I played as a teenager.
Abyss (1994), however, seems to have escaped its time. A luminescent setting of a poem by Sonia Usatch, it features a piccolo player and mezzo-soprano (at opposite sides of the stage in performance) both entangled in a bed of delicately glimmering computer generated sound. The piece explores the relationship between a mother and her schizophrenic son, as represented by the melodic lullaby-like delivery of the vocalist alongside the piccolo’s fluttering exploration of a 12-tone row. The juxtaposition is quietly powerful.
Deutsch closes the album with Two Songs Without Words for Theremin and Piano (2007). Originally composed for voice, Deutsch rewrote the piece to include theremin after learning Moog was ill and knowing the distinctive instrument was perhaps the inventor’s favorite. The pieces make for a poignant end to an album that traces the interwoven electronic work of the two men.
In addition to the music, the disc also includes historic documents and photographs, two downloadable ringtones (snippets of tracks on the disc), and a 15-minute documentary (also available below). Taken together, it’s a chance to step back through a doorway and listen to an artist’s electronic voice unfold, an opportunity to listen and consider both how much new technology matters and perhaps also how much it does not.