When he first contacted the family of electronic music innovator Bob Moog, Douglas Babb couldn’t clearly explain why he wanted to help sort through the archives of the recently-deceased inventor and get involved with activities to celebrate Moog’s legacy. “I didn’t really have a good answer for them,” Babb, an Indianapolis-based musician, composer and educator, said. “I just was really drawn to do it. Everything that I’ve done in music has been partially because of Bob Moog. My career has been based on synthesis, and I just felt like, if somebody could go help them, I wanted to go do it.”
As Babb says, his interest wasn’t unprecedented: He’s been involved with electronic music since college, studying with microtonal composer John Eaton and musique concrète pioneer Iannis Xenakis at Indiana University in the early ’70s, and taking home a prototype of the Minimoog — one of the first keyboard-based synthesizers portable enough to be useful to travelling musicians — for one summer break. Babb has since made his career as an electronic musician — performing live with an array of computers and keyboards — and as an educator, both in college courses and with Young Audiences and Very Special Arts of Indiana. He’s even spent time as a Midwest sales representative for the inventor’s company Moog Music, hawking wares like a revamped Minimoog and an analog/digital hybrid called the Piano Bar (designed to be laid atop a regular stringed piano to create an instrument capable of synthesized sounds).
But when Babb got the go-ahead to travel to North Carolina in January 2007 he didn’t know where his interest in honoring the inventor’s legacy would take him.
It took Babb first to a shed in Leicester, N. C., on a 100-acre farm where Moog — rhymes with “vogue” — spent part of his time (he also maintained a home in Asheville, N.C., about 10 miles away). The shed housed most of Moog’s archives: rare synthesizers, theremins (an electronic hands-free instrument that piqued Moog’s interest in electronic music at age 14) and a life’s worth of correspondence. Babb headed down to the farm with Ileana Grams-Moog, Moog’s second wife and widow, and a guy named Steve with whom Moog had worked at the Cove, the nickname for the farm. Babb was thoughtful enough to bring along a digital camera, to record the trip for archival and insurance purposes, as well as press coverage more than a year later.
They came upon a metal building with overflowing gutters, water seeping into the foundation. Babb will take it from here, slipping into the present tense to recall an indelible moment: “You open the door, and the smell just hits you of mold and rot, and there’s mouse feces everywhere. There’s literally snakes. There’s no ventilation, and there hadn’t been heat or air conditioning on in this building for a long time. It just looks like a garage sale.”
Luckily, most of the boxes and electronic equipment were lifted on skids, avoiding the worst of the water damage. But those on the front line still risked their health trying to extricate and catalog materials in this shed without climate control, not that they knew the dangers at the time. “This lady came in from Biltmore Estate [a preserved Vanderbilt-owned mansion in Asheville] and within 10 seconds, she says, ‘I’ll be right back,’” Babb said. “And she went to her car and got gloves and a mask; she wouldn’t even go in there. And I’ve been in there for days. I don’t care: It’s Moog mold.”
“Moog mold” indeed: The mild-mannered instrument maker, who held a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell, was an unlikely celebrity, but his work designing portable synthesizers useful for pop musicians, and taking electronic music beyond academia, brought him a fame that’s survived — classic and unwieldy electronic instruments continue to draw interest from collectors and performers despite their computational inferiority to the cheapest notebook computer.
His name also became widely recognized because he slapped it on all his creations, from the Minimoog to the Micromoog to the slightly risqué Moogerfoogers. He worked with stars like Stevie Wonder, often developing instruments to meet the needs of particular performers, he considered himself a “toolmaker,” according to an interview with Salon in 2000, making instruments available to those engineers and musicians that could exploit his handiwork.
Mold and rat droppings cleared away, Babb and company made some discoveries that would impress electronic music aficionados and librarians: original schematics for every Moog ever built; theremins, assembled and dissembled, including the nearly-unique theremin cello; prototypes for a touch-sensitive keyboard that would change pitch depending on where on the key the player touches (developed with Babb’s professor John Eaton); and stacks of rare Moog recordings (including unreleased works by classical Moog pioneer Wendy Carlos and contemporary musicians). Of course, none of these materials were plugged in or played: Damp or moldy electronics might fry once the plug touches the socket, and reel-to-reel tapes will disintegrate if not properly prepared (by a long bake in a convection oven, goes the unlikely remedy).
Surprises were everywhere, like when Babb found the final Minimoog ever made. “It was literally in this garbage bag,” Babb said. “I use this analogy, but it works: It was like King Tut’s tomb. It was out in the country where anybody could have stolen it, vandalized it, burned it down.”
Babb had a similarly dramatic experience when he catalogued Moog’s reel-to-reels on a subsequent trip down to North Carolina (funded by a music preservation grant from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, of which Babb is a Grammy-voting member). “It was this psycho-spiritual evening,” Babb reflected. “At some point, I’m sitting there with thousands of hours of work represented by these people — most of it’s never been heard, or it’s been 20 or 30 years — and it was this moment that there was hope that this could live again.”
With Babb’s help in concert with friends and family, the Moog archives were moved from the moldy metal shack to a climate-controlled storage space in Asheville — not ideal conditions, Babb says, but a far better place than before. Eventually, Babb hopes to share these archives with the world, through a travelling exhibit that could stop at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and L.A.’s Grammy Museum.
Since that first essay into Moog territory in North Carolina, Babb has made six trips, continuing to move and catalog materials. His relationship with the Moog family and cause has become official: He’s now the curator for the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation for Electronic Music, an organization dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of Bob Moog founded shortly after the inventor’s death in August 2005.
The foundation, directed by Moog’s daughter Michelle Moog-Koussa, keeps Moog’s name alive mainly through outreach at this point, although plans for a permanent memorial museum and scholarships are afoot. Moog-Koussa is excited about these outreach efforts: “We have begun expanding the minds and musical horizons of young elementary school students by bringing theremins and Moog effect pedals into various Asheville-area classrooms. The results have been astounding. Through this hands-on experience, children have immediately connected with the simplicity and ingenuity of these instruments while being amazed at their sonic capabilities.” Meanwhile, another NARAS grant will allow the foundation to assess the feasibility of preserving those reel-to-reel tapes that prompted Babb’s “psycho-spiritual” epiphany.
But money makes the circuits fire, and the foundation — which maintains a Web site at moogfoundation.org — is currently looking for donations to pay salaries for full-time staff members and fund such large-scale projects as the proposed Bob Moog Memorial Museum in North Carolina.