In Spring 1965 I was 19 years old and completing my second undergraduate year at Michigan State University. I was dissatisfied with the program there, ready to leave, and interested in continuing my composition studies in New York. That semester I was pursuing an eye-opening independent study project in elektronische Musik and musique concrète. The appearance on a bulletin board of a small blue poster advertising Bob Moog and Herb Deutsch’s 3-week seminar in “electronic music composition” electrified me. It was to be held at the R. A. Moog Co. in Trumansburg, N.Y.
Seminar attendees were put up in homes around Trumansburg, where I hopped off a Greyhound bus in August. I drew the house of Esther Northrup, a widow who lived with her 13-year-old daughter at a corner bungalow near the old tannery and who worked at the D.M.V. in Ithaca. The daughter was no more difficult and alienated than any other 13-year-old.... The deal was $20 per week for a room, clean sheets once a week, and breakfast. She also did laundry for a dollar or two more. I could keep a few items in the refrigerator for sandwiches and snacks. However, I was not encouraged to use the kitchen, so most meals were at Kostrub’s Luncheonette on Main St. Esther was hospitable; once I was invited to dinner and she served a pheasant shot by her brother, which retained a scattering of buckshot.
The 12 seminar participants were about as varied a mix as ever sat in any one classroom. You would think that the new field of electronic music would mainly attract radical avant-gardists. You would be wrong. Orientations included scientist, conservative music faculty, fringe music faculty, academic composer, anti-academic composer, professional performer, dilettante, student, and retiree. There was a complete hodgepodge of outlooks, making for unpredictable discussions that were predictably interesting. And making for an across-the-board antipathy to being taught electronic-music “composition,” because “I know full well what is and is not composition, so let’s not go there.”
There was considerable debate about John Cage. Where would music go after him? Was he doing what he should be doing? There was more tolerance expressed than I think some harbored in their hearts.
The classes were held in the basement of Bob Moog’s factory building, an old commercial structure with second-story storage rooms with creaky uneven floors. It was pleasant and cool downstairs during the summer heat (there was no air conditioning). Fans in the upstairs rooms made them nice to work in during the evening. We all focused on learning the technical principles and operating techniques of the synthesizer modules. Many of us were wrestling with very unfamiliar concepts (frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, voltage control) and the mathematical formulas for these.
We worked in teams of two or three at the individual workstations Moog had set up throughout the building. The place was short on tape recorders; each station had only one or two. There were breakdowns and misunderstandings about how to operate and maintain the tape decks. The presence of an experienced recording engineer would have been helpful. Mixing was limited. It was not easy to make a piece by layering tracks, so most of the focus was to put sounds on tape and, if desired, splice tapes together. Tape editing was not a forte.
Bob and Herb put a lot of heart and effort into their work, patiently answering questions and explaining things for the 4th or 5th time. They would stop by evenings to help us at the workstations, where we worked sometimes long into the night.
We were frustrated by the tuning problems of the early equipment. The oscillators drifted, less so when left on for long periods of time, and 12-tone equal temperament was not always stable. Naturally we took the hint and began working with resources like 10-tone equal temperament (who would know if it was off?) and clangorous sounds (Think you’ve got perfect pitch? Guess again!).
At least one of the workstations was battery-powered. I’m pretty sure this was an attempt to solve the tuning drift. People complained that there was no power lamp on the unit, so they weren’t sure if it was off or on. Bob replied that even the smallest power lamp would run down the battery (this was in pre-LED days).
(Targeting the power supply as the source of the problem was well-placed. It was still a weakness 10 years later, when at the Cleveland Institute of Music we jettisoned the Moog power supply into Lake Erie and bought three Heathkit regulated power supplies. End of issue.)
Camel’s Bar down the street offered 15-ounce steins of draft beer for 15 cents. They could also make a most restorative hot toddy if you had a cold. New York State at that time allowed 18-year-olds to drink. Having arrived from a state where the minimum age was 21, I became a newly-legal drinker who took a full minute or two to adapt to this novel situation. Many of us had extended “discussions” and “seminars” at Camel’s, and if I ever remember the wise insights and profound conclusions of any of these, I’ll post an addendum to this report. Fortunately I owned no car so I did not have to risk driving home to Esther’s from Camel’s. I remember once being stopped by a local constable upon walking home a tad irresolutely. We had a nice chat and years later I ended up following his advice: “You should finish college.”
My view was that the technical limitations and imperfections of the equipment were a very serious problem, and one that I did not expect to encounter. Nevertheless, progress would march on and eventually these could be expected to be fixed. The modular synthesizer seemed so much the immediate future of music that I shelved plans to study in New York. I told Bob I would like to stay in Trumansburg and persuaded him that we needed to start a magazine on electronic music. He offered office space and technical advice. Coming from a family of publishers, I felt I could handle the editorial and production work (or get answers from qualified people when I couldn’t). We set up the Independent Electronic Music Center as a non-profit entity and 2 years later Electronic Music Review appeared.
The seminar was a bonding experience. We spent more time in that group than we normally would with our families. We helped each other fight the equipment and struggled to put sounds down on tape. We were all in it together on the bleeding edge. And as the youngest I was the butt of much valuable career advice from people who had been around the track, whose hash had been settled, and who relished explaining to a youngster This Is How Things Work. Friendships ensued and I’ve enjoyed ongoing contacts with various participants ever since.
Reynold Weidenaar, July 2010