Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 26
           By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1969 the film The Illustrated Man was released. This event and many other March events provide our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach on the Moog.

The Illustrated Man is a science fiction film based on a short story by Ray Bradbury starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. The film was a flop, but the soundtrack was a hit. Even Ray Bradbury said he didn’t like the film but loved the score!

The score was by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith (1929-2004) may not be as familiar a name as, say, Henry Mancini, in the world of film scores, but he was a giant! He was also a “hometown boy” born and raised in Los Angeles who knew as a youngster that he wanted to write music for the movies.

He began his career in television in the 50s, with such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and went on to compose for major motion pictures. He won a total of 18 Academy Award nominations, making him one of the most nominated composers in Academy history, although he won only one Oscar, for his score of The Omen (1976). The American Film Institute, however, ranks his score for Chinatown (1974) and Planet of the Apes (1968) as numbers 9 and 18 respectively on its list of the 25 greatest film scores.

His score for The Illustrated Man is highly respected as well: “The Illustrated Man is the most satisfying Goldsmith listening experience for me” (Tone Row 2010). “I love The Illustrated Man. It’s one of Goldsmith’s bona fide masterpieces. . . . I love the electronics too . . . those fantastic Moog fifths with their yawning filters really do it for me!” (Heath 2010).

The latter quotation ties into our Bagatelle for today, for Goldsmith’s score was one of the earliest film scores to use the Moog Synthesizer.

Robert Moog (the vowel pronounced either to rhyme with “moo” or “Moe”—Moog himself prefers the latter), was born in New York City on May 23, 1934 and passed away August 21, 2005.

He earned a BA in physics from Queen’s College, a second BA in electrical engineering from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University. While still a student he began developing his synthesizer. In 1953 he founded his own company (later named Moog Music) to manufacture his invention.

An analogue synthesizer uses analogue circuits and computer techniques to generate sound electronically. Vacuum tube synthesizers had existed since the 1920s, with the RCA version of 1955 being the pre-Moog standard. Moog created a smaller instrument that eliminated patch cords in favor of signal routing systems, used a piano keyboard, and added stereophonic and polyphonic sound that allowed musicians to play multiple musical lines and harmony.

The Moog was first demonstrated at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, but the commercial breakthrough came with the record Switched-On Bach made by Wendy Carlos (under the name Walter Carlos) and released in March of 1968.

Switched-On Bach was one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. It entered the top 40 of the Billboard 200 pop chart on March 1, 1969, climbed to the top ten and stayed there for 17 weeks. So, on March 26 it was still at the top of the charts. The album won three awards in the March 12, 1969 Grammys: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance, and Best Engineered Classical Recording. Robert Moog was given a Grammy Trustees Award on March 11, 1970. On March 1, 2004, a documentary film entitled Moog was released.

When Jerry Goldsmith used it in The Illustrated Man, the instrument was brand new!

Interestingly, though, Jerry Goldsmith has an earlier tie-in to Sebastian Bach. A film titled Sebastian, with a soundtrack by Goldsmith, was released in March of 1968. Starring Dirk Bogarde, Susanna York, Lili Palmer, and Sir John Gielgud, it tells the story of a British mathematician working on code decryption who unexpectedly falls in love with another decrypter, leading to intrigue among the code breakers.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun Times on March 12, 1968, said, “It is a fascinating time capsule of the late 60s sensibilities and underrated cult classic.”

Goldsmith’s tune in the film titled “The Decoders,” was based on a fugue by J.S. Bach, but the liner notes don’t define which one. Many intent listeners have speculated on the source, but to no avail.

Your mission for today, should you choose to accept it: Name that Tune!

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