Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Milliontown" and the Moog Keyboard

My wife and I rather randomly decided to take a trip to Inner Space Cavern in Georgetown this afternoon.  We joke that she has “carcolepsy,” meaning that she just can’t stay awake as a passenger in a moving car, which gives me the chance to get in some listening.  Yesterday, I planted “Milliontown” by Frost* in the player and if you are a fan of contemporary symphonic prog, it’s an energetic, melodic, and sometimes cacophonous example.  My recent interests drew my attention to keyboardist Jem Godfrey – here’s a quick low-fi snippit of him in action:

In addition to the Rick Wakeman-inspired lines like you see here, Godfrey also plays piano beautifully on “Milliontown.”  In my current listening, Mouse on the Keys is pushing the boundaries of piano on one end while my appreciation of Jean-Michel Jarre’s atmospherics has opened up on the other.  The piano affords a certain set of musical possibilities and limitations, as does the organ, the mellotron, and the moog synthesizer.  There are things that each of these instruments can do that the others cannot, which is why in the old days, the 70s prog-rock keyboard pioneers kept them stacked up in the corner of the stage.  Despite their shared “ebony and ivory” interface, each one is ultimately a unique instrument with a distinctive set of techniques.

The Moog synthesizer was particularly unique in this arsenal because its sound was entirely created by electric means.  When Bob Moog made the first synthesizers, they consisted of little more than dials and knobs – a sound/body interface that seemed to appeal more to engineers than musicians. He considered carefully the means by which players would interact with his instruments, and he eventually decided to use a piano keyboard.

This immediately boosted the popularity of the Moog synthesizer and added a whole new realm of musical potentials to the keyboardist.  However, when he attached that configuration of white and black keys to his instrument, he also attached hundreds of years of history and repertoire to the instrument.  The synthesizer became the domain of the keyboardist and the synthesist became primarily judged by their piano or organ technique.  Sometimes I wonder if the price that Moog paid for accessibility limited the synthesizer’s progress.  I don’t think that many technically proficient players were able to look at the Moog as its own instrument, but a couple did (although I really don't like Keith Emerson that much).

Now, of course, since any keyboard can make any sound, the stacks of instruments are less high, and it seems like “playing piano” has become more like a style of interacting with a keyboard than playing any particular instrument while synthesis has become a plug-in.  The distinctive instruments have collapsed into a single one that has all sounds ready-at-hand.  It seems that Godfrey, like the best prog-rock keyboardists, navigates this interface by sitting in the middle of the spectrum as a jack-of-all-trades - at least on "Milliontown."

No comments:

Post a Comment