The Archivist’s Nook: Provoking the Canon – Moog, Meyers, and Experimental Music

Emerson Meyers
Emerson Meyers

In honor of Moogfest, next week’s fantastic electronic music/art festival in North Carolina (that I wish I was going to), this month I wanted to highlight some CUA connections to not only early electronic music, but also to Bob Moog himself, the inventor of the legendary synthesizer, and the person after whom Moogfest is named.

Would you believe that CUA was once a pioneering institution for experimental music? Founded in 1961 by Professor Emerson Meyers, the university’s Electronic Music Laboratory housed the most state-of-the-art recording equipment of the time, including one Moog synthesizer. This particular unit was one of the first manufactured; indeed, the School of Music was so eager to procure one that official manuals were not available at the time of purchase. How, then, did they figure out how to operate what was then a completely new kind of instrument? They wrote directly to Moog, who replied with pages and pages of technical instructions and hand-drawn diagrams that we still have here at the Archives. Faculty then used these documents to create in-house manuals for the equipment in the studio.

Students operate the Moog

Electronic music flourished at the university in several ways. Meyers (assisted by graduate student Richard Lockhart), used tape machines to manipulate recordings made by faculty and student instrumentalists to score a production of Medea of Euripides by the department of Speech and Drama. Subsequent interdepartmental cooperation led to the purchase of a tape reverberation unit and some government surplus sine wave generators in order to provide sounds for productions of St. Joan, Heartbreak House, and Peer Gynt. The growth in equipment available at the studio continued with Meyers’ invention of the Alexophone. Jokingly named after his dog, the device was comprised of 14 oscillators with individual amplitude and frequency controls attached to 14 touch-sensitive keys.

The first step into pure electronic music was a concert recording of pieces from The French School of Electronic Music in 1963, tape for which was provided by Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (the then national public broadcasting organization of France) and the cultural section of the French Embassy in Washington, with playback equipment provided by DC classical music station WMAL-FM (107.3 FM, now home to pop station WRQX).

A commercial recording followed soon thereafter. Provocative Electronics (Electronic Constructions on Traditional Forms), with compositions by Emerson Meyers and Frank Heintz, was recorded at the studio and released on ABC Westminster Gold in 1970. Believe me – it’s wild. Check it out here:

 

 

Although CUA’s electronic studio is no more, the fruits of those initial experiments can be seen to this day across a spectrum of genres and in the work of countless artists. Where would soundtracks be without Moog? What about pop music? What about dance music? What about experimental music? CUA was there at the beginning, and we couldn’t have done it without him. Pretty cool, right?

An inventory of the records of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music is available from the University Archives. For more information, contact lib-archives@cua.edu.

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