Thursday, February 07, 2008

Burgess Shale Blues: The Moog Strikes Bach by Hans Wurman

My father came home from the city with this album in hand. He'd heard one or two samples from it on CBC radio, and thought we might get a kick out of it. It was called The Moog Strikes Bach ... To Say Nothing Of Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Paganini and Prokofieff. It was music transcribed for and rendered by this contraption called a "Moog Synthesizer" and was performed and engineered by this hipster egghead named Hans Wurman.

Wurman at work.
I can't speak for the women in our family, but I don't believe the men ever tired of this record. To this day, I predominantly think of Chopin's "Black Key" Etude, Op. 10, No. 5, as a piece made for the synthesizer. It's curious to scroll through a few links turned up by Google: most people recall this record as a novelty spin-off of Wendy (née Walter) Carlos' Switched-On Bach (which I think we may have owned as well). Rather than getting into the tit-for-tat issue of which album is "superior," I'll comment on particularly notable aspects to both of these records.

Foremost of these is Their Era: These albums were released at the close of the 60s, when the chattering classes considered the synthesizer a "toy" used frivolously by pop acts hoping to inject a little spacey frisson to otherwise unremarkable ditties. It seems Bob Moog was especially anxious to elevate his invention into the fusty halls of respectability, and both these albums were greeted with a critical amusement that could almost be mistaken for approval.

I was one tyke who considered it "Mission: Accomplished!" First of all, both Wurman and Carlos treated their chosen composers with a bedrock of reverence. These weren't esquivel renderings, with profane little garnishes of "zoom-zoom, boink!" The performances were resolutely faithful: if it wasn't on the score, it wasn't on the record. Secondly, if the synthesizer was less an instrument than it was a toy ... aye carumba, but what a toy! In 1969, the Moog was not something a person could purchase at the local Steve's Music, never mind stow in the backseat of an Austin Mini. The black and white photos on these albums showed a roomful of cathodes and diodes and doodads, all hooked up to an enormous organ-style keyboard. The only way to achieve pianissimo and fortissimo and all the other inflections of character that the composer demanded was the volume knob.

Four tracks, unwieldy and physically demanding technology, technician performers with genuine musicality and enough mischief to foist their art before critics who were skeptical if not openly hostile ... revolutionary stuff, man. I just wish I could give it another spin.


DarkoV said...

You honesty in the face of potential hostile (in the format of the Just-off-the Cusp Early Teenager) commentary is to be lauded.

I pray that no one in your quaint town happens to read your entries. It may be heavy times at the ol' coffee house for a while.

this entry is quite fetching, hilarious, and chock full of technical baubles that there will be no guffawing from my end.

A great beginning.

Tom said...

Everything counts in large amounts!


Whisky Prajer said...

DV - if anyone in town besides my friend over the hill reads this blog, I know nothing of it. Cafe customers are mostly keen for a fresh cuppa joe and a decent bowl of soup.

Tom - slow day in the coal mines? (heh heh)

Trent Reimer said...

Hmm, Hans Wurman may have to take Lucasfilm to court.