When music introduces a new technology

The trautonium, an electronic keyboard instrument, circa 1930. It was invented around 1929 by Friedrich Trautwein of Berlin. The sheet music is 'Nur Um Dich Zu Lieben, Mocht Ich Ewig Leben'.

If music tech nerds had a patron saint, that patron saint might be electronic music pioneer Robert Moog. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Moog's impact on synthesizers and electronic music in general is best described by gear heads who are more knowledgeable than yours truly. Nonetheless I've been thinking about Moog and his synthesizers a lot.

The 9th anniversary of Moog's death is just under a month away on August 21st. I've been thinking about Moogs in part because of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, which played Brooklyn on Wednesday. At this point, the band has reached a kind of classic indie rock status  known far more now than it was back when it was making records. And one of the great songs in the band's set right now features a special version of the Moog called the Rogue, played by bassist Julian Koster. Not designed by Moog himself, the instrument has its supporters and detractors.

But dang if it doesn't sound pretty awesome when Koster plays it on this tune. The first time I heard it, I was floored. Check it out (gets good around 2:00):

 

Instrument technology in the electronic age has vastly expanded the number of options musicians have when they go about making their music. That’s had a massive impact on the art form—maybe more than other disciplines, though that could be my bias.

As an example, the Rogue is actually pretty old fashioned. It came out in 1981 — since then there have been so many other kinds of synthesizers and digital instruments that have appeared to change the landscape for musicians. But it was cheaper than earlier models, making it easier for people who wanted a monophonic synth to get and play with.

For musicians, most of whom do not start out rich, price point is often a key deciding factor. And as technology advances, it often gets cheaper. So I think the Rogue is still one of my favorites — proof that innovation at its best can move the needle and the listener.  

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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