Book Review: Analog Days

    Our instruments – whether blown, fretted, or caressed – are not only objects: they're also repositories of stories - the outward and visible sign of decades of argument about the best ways to transduce small motor activity in the service of making music. If we miss that, it’s probably because they’ve been around for so long that it’s easy to forget that they were once very much works in progress.
    The resurgence of interest in analog synthesis over the last few years presents us with an interesting situation – analog synthesis is of quite recent origin in comparison to those other instruments – unlike say, the arrival of fixed frets, there are persons still in our midst who remember when synthesis was something emergent (for many of us, it involved receiving a copy of this album on Christmas morning) not only as a technological achievement, but who can also recall the world in which the synthesizer first appeared: the dominant paradigms of the musical world of the time, the bifurcated identities of the musical culture and counterculture in which it appeared simultaneously, and yes – even the idea of precisely who would embrace the mysterious new “instrument,” who would buy it (and from whom) and why.
    Modern Eurorack enthusiasts might be unlikely to encounter that history as anything other than a vague set of technical or formal questions that float across their consciousness as they patch (Why do Buchla machines separate audio and control signals? Whose idea was it to not separate them? Should these things even have keyboards at all? How come there’s so much left over from older keyboard instruments built into the gear in my rack?), or vaguely wonder about “how that was done” as they listen to Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon on a glorious pressing on 180-gram vinyl. And some histories of electronic music may be of little help (particularly those that concentrate on the creation of narrowly defined canonical works as exemplars of technical approaches) when those questions appear.
    There is a place for that sort of history, of course. But if you’re more inclined toward a history that locates itself in stories or descriptions of relationships and social accidents as generators of the future as she was being made (as I am) you’ll probably find Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer to be as entertaining and enlightening bit of recent-term time travel (the mid 1960s to 1970s) as you’re likely to find. This book, alongside other works such as George Lewis’s history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music or Bob Gluck’s volumes on Miles Davis’ later ensembles and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, is one of those wonderful projects that collect oral histories and synthesizes them with more traditional historical materials to create a richly readable social and cultural history of the music and the technologies we take for granted.
    As the title implies, Robert Moog’s invention of the synthesizer that bears his name is the central focus and core of the book - but although it’s considered in detail (assisted by hours of interviews with Moog himself and his colleagues and Moog employees), it isn’t so much the subject of the book as the attractor around which a myriad of other stories also orbit - it's about the arrival of the Moog and the Buchla and the Arp (and the relative U.S.-centrism of the book’s focus is even entertainingly tempered with a section on the work of the British synth designer Peter Zinovieff and the rise of the Putney and Synthi), as well.
    While the authors (and the voices of the numerous people interviewed for the book) are certainly interested in the technical ideas involved in the birth of analog synthesis, that story appears as only a part of the immensely readable narrative. It’s also a story of the world in which the first Moog synthesizer appeared, the instruments’ first enthusiastic adopters and their work, and the birth of the culture and yes – the business that those of us who came later may well take for granted. Unsurprisingly, those things all mix and mingle and interrelate in ways that render the merely technical stories hopelessly reductive (If you've ever why on earth Nonesuch records came to release what's essentially an introductory tutorial on analog synthesis or wondered by there was an ad for the British Synthi that included nuns, you'll find your answer. That Taco Bell/Moog synthesizer tie-in someone at a dinner party drunkenly buttonholed you about? It's all here). But there are other more subtle stories about the design decisions that defined early electronic music, too - the different approaches to integral vs. dual signal/control path designs in Moog and Buchla systems, questions about the utility of the keyboard, etc. The book’s dramatis personae include the familiar (Bob Moog, Don Buchla, Morton Subotnick, Keith Emerson, Suzanne Ciani, Wendy Carlos) and intriguingly less familiar (Ramon Sender, Tristam Cary, David Van Koevering, Bernie Krause, and Alan R. Pearlman) characters woven into an immensely readable tale of success, failure, unexpected triumph, and the birth of the world in which you live and patch.
    Note: If you're the sort of person whose urges are somewhat more taxonomic (or if you'd merely like more stories that run to later dates) Mark Vail collected the series of "Vintage Synthesizer" Keyboard Magazine articles from the 1980s/90s into Vintage Synthesizers - a single volume of bite-sized taxonomies, replete with gear photos, gossip, historical NAMM trade show floor photography, and great examples of late 20th century EMI business fashion photography.

    • Mar 09 2016 | 5:42 pm
      Man, what a memory you conjured with that reference to Switched on Bach. However, as a kid from a working-class southeast Baltimore home, this was not something I would have ever gotten from Christmas from any relative. I remember walking to the local public library and checking out the vinyl, bringing it home and playing it on my mom's big 'ol "stereo console" and having my mind promptly blown. Thanks for the memory!
    • Mar 09 2016 | 8:30 pm
      Anyone interested in the development of electronic music tools might find this documentary worth watching
      I did !