Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013

THE “MOOG” DOCUMENTARY

While combing through Netflix selections last week, I found a 2004 documentary called “Moog,” which was directed by Hans Fjellestad. This interesting film presented Dr. Bob Moog, the father of music synthesizers, just as I remembered him from the days that I worked with him at Kurzweil Music Systems.

Bob was a brilliant guy, but also down-to-earth and funny. He was kind of like your favorite nerdy science teacher — a little wacky, but friendly and approachable.

For instance, in the film “Moog,” Bob said that he sometimes got inspiration for his inventions while doing the most mundane things, such as cutting the grass or eating a hamburger. I think that most musicians and composers can relate to that, too. When a riff or a melody pops into my head, I try to write it down as fast as I can, because the distractions of everyday life can quickly derail the creative process.

Bob also mentioned in the film, that before “Switched-On Bach,” people knew very little about electronic music and doubted that it would ever have widespread appeal. And he admitted that the first synthesizer sounds heard by the general public “were freaky, like primitive sounds that would steal your soul.”

But when keyboard players like Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake and Palmer) and Rick Wakeman (YES) embraced Moog synthesizers, the public now realized that this new medium could be used to create beautiful music —not just spooky sound effects. As a guest in the “Moog” documentary, Rick Wakeman pointed out that this was “the first time keyboard players could give guitar players a run for their money.”

I definitely believe that I was hired for certain gigs because I owned a Moog synthesizer. It was exciting to be treated as a counterpart to a lead guitarist, rather than just some guy playing keyboards in the background.

Also in the “Moog” film, Bob talked about having tea with Keith Emerson in 1970 and getting a test pressing of ELP’s hit “Lucky Man.” Soon after that, Bob laughed, “Kids started demanding synthesizers for Hanukkah and Christmas gifts.”

I think my favorite part of the “Moog” documentary was when Bob remarked,
“The instruments we make are designed to be played live … (in) interaction with others.”

This is such an important point because there’s still a widespread notion that synthesizers have the ability to do some sort of tricks on their own. I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Synthesizers — or any musical instruments — don’t play themselves. They are merely tools that we use to perform or compose music. And while synthesizers are like machines, human emotion and human talent come along and turn the sounds into something that is pleasing to the ear.

I enjoyed the “Moog” documentary and recommend it to anyone who is curious about electronic music. I also think it accurately conveyed Bob’s love of music in general.

As a side note, Bob Moog passed away in 2005. In 2006, his family launched The Bob Moog Foundation to honor his contributions to both science and music and to keep his pioneering spirit alive.

The foundation’s Web site explains, “Music is at the very core of the Bob Moog Foundation. Bob’s motivation for his innovative work was not solely synthesis or electronic music, but music as a transcendental language that brings people together in community. Bob stated many times how he much he enjoyed working with musicians and the open, creative spirit that they bring to their work.”

For more information about the Bob Moog Foundation, visit http://moogfoundation.org/

Me (Duane Decker) playing live with my modular Moog synthesizer.

Me (Duane Decker) playing live with my modular Moog synthesizer.

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February 19, 2013

“RISE OF NATIONS OVERTURE”

Sometimes hard work and noble intentions aren’t enough to bridge the gap between musical genres. It seemed to work between other genres, so why not bring a game soundtrack to a classical music concert stage? Then again, maybe it really was a great idea, but the circumstances made it impossible to pull off.

About three years ago, my old friend, Maestro Gabriel Sakakeeny, contacted me with the idea of arranging a long piece of music using my work from the “Rise Of Nations” and “Rise Of Legends” video games. He suggested that I use a sonata allegro form because it has been used for hundreds of years in classical music. He was the Founder and Music Director of the American Philharmonic – Sonoma County and wanted to include the piece in one of the orchestra’s concerts.

From this challenge, I quickly realized that this could be yet another opportunity to learn and grow and take my career into a whole new direction.

But I was deep in the throes of looking for a paying job to support my family and I had no experience in classical music since college. Despite that, I started wondering if this could be a path that would be rewarding and far-reaching. After all, I have never backed down from trying things that might be considered unconventional. New paths had sometimes paid off for me throughout my career.

But sometimes no matter how hard you try, things just don’t turn out the way you plan. Such is the story of an ill-fated effort to bring my “Rise Of Nations Overture” into the classical music realm.

I spent months in my studio sifting through music, choosing what would be included, editing, arranging and orchestrating and ultimately created the entire 8-minute, 36-second piece inside my computer. It was the philharmonic orchestra arrangement of my work on those games. I had to leave a lot of music out, due to its diverse, ethnic nature and unique instrumentation. But I knew that it would not be practical to bring in soloists playing rare and unique instruments from all over the globe, so the overture focused on the orchestral portion of the scores.

The world premiere performances were to be at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California on February 19th and 20th, 2011. Then the reality of our undertaking became an issue. The community orchestra did not have the instrumentation required to pull off the piece. So my portion of the concert was cancelled.

Gabriel then booked the piece at a high level, private venue in Monte Rio, California in May of 2011. I was invited as a guest and was treated like royalty. But the concert was scheduled to take place outdoors and a thunderstorm turned the venue into mud. That concert was cancelled, as well, and rescheduling it turned out to be impossible.

While this piece of music has never been performed live, I have learned volumes about my craft. And even when you go into a project with all your heart and soul, things can go wrong.

Everyone in creative fields, whether they admit it or not, has gone through challenges and failures that may not be their own fault. Don’t take it to heart, learn from your mistakes and your successes — and always give it your all.

February 8, 2013

DUCKING THE FIRE

In my career, I’ve probably learned more from the most outrageous people with whom I have worked, rather than the sensible ones. They teach you that you can never underestimate the value of pushing the boundaries and getting a bit wild.

When I think back, there are a few people I’ve worked with who really stand out. I had the pleasure to work with one guy who was absolutely unforgettable. While he passed away a while ago, he made an indelible impression on me (and a lot of others) that no one could ever forget.

During my days as a touring musician, I was in a band called Lois Lane that was based in Chicago. We played all-original rock music and toured throughout the U.S. and Canada. There were certainly no wallflowers in the band. In fact, we were all bound and determined to lay it on the line every show and hold nothing back — even if it meant taking on some big risks to entertain the crowds. That’s why my friend and former band–mate Bill Gent comes to mind.

We’ve all seen Gene Simmons from KISS spitting fire, drummers playing their solos on spinning platforms and Keith Emerson with his piano going end-to-end while playing a solo. But unless you saw Lois Lane, you never saw an entire drum kit go up in flames.

Bill was a drummer who wasn’t technically perfect. Keith Moon from The Who comes to mind as a comparison. Like Keith, Bill was a wild man and always entertaining. He would always be the guy who threw us a curve ball in the middle of the show and kept us all on our toes. And he had a smile that would always make you wonder what he was up to.

As for “ducking the fire,” that’s exactly what I did every show. As was typical in the day, the rest of us took a short break while Bill did his drum solo. He would solo for about five minutes or so and I would come back on stage early, in the dark, to do a few support things.

Our crew would drench Bill’s drum kit with lighter fluid, then light his sticks on fire. As he hit each drum and cymbal with his flaming sticks, it was my job to trigger the big boom sound effects on my modular Moog synthesizer that would shake the house. Because I had a large stack of keyboards between Bill and me, I would duck when he ignited his drum kit. Some might think that it was just a trick, but it was an extremely hot burst of flames that could singe your eyebrows off. I can only imagine how hot it was where Bill was sitting. So I would “duck the fire” behind my keyboard stack as every drum or cymbal in his large kit was ignited.

After the fire extinguishers put out the last of the fire, I’d follow up with my best DJ voice saying, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Phenomenal Billy Gent!” (Crowd roar…)

I will forever remember my good friend Bill. Always look for that person who doesn’t just keep it safe. They will not only move a project forward, but also inspire you to do the same. Thanks, Bill!
Billy Gent