Bach goes electric at Baroque at the Edge 2021, with synth ensemble Art of Moog - a quartet of synth-players who explore the electronic sound-world for baroque music first introduced to the world by Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach albums in the 1960s, but to which they bring the twin enhancements of new technology and live performance.
Art of Moog's co-founder Robin Bigwood sat down with us ahead of their digital 9 January concert to tell us how they re-imagine the music pioneered in the 1960s by Wendy Carlos, and what we can expect from their synth demonstration, broadcast on 8 January.
You started out your career as a harpsichordist; what drew you to into the world of electronic music?
My interest in electronic music predates my involvement with the harpsichord and period instrument world by quite a while actually – I was obsessed with it throughout my childhood. Some of my earliest music listening memories are of electronic artists like Tomita, Wendy Carlos, Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. I was then, and still am, a compulsive button-pusher and knob-twiddler, and I enjoy various aspects of instrument design just as much as performance itself. For me, that feels as relevant for a baroque harpsichord or organ as for a synthesizer – I don’t see any fundamental difference between them.
And what gave you the idea of forming a quartet of live synth-players?
An opportunity arose for a quirky late-night spot in Martin Feinstein’s 2018 Bach Weekend festival at King’s Place, in London. I was aware that year would be the 50th anniversary of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on Bach album and it seemed the perfect platform to do a kind of 21st-century tribute. But with a twist – to try and recreate a similar electronic sound-world, but do it all live, and only with ‘historically informed’ musicians. It was one of those moments when the planets aligned, and things moved very fast – in fact the date was confirmed (and possibly even publicised) before any of us owned enough synthesizers and other gear to actually perform it.
For anyone unfamiliar with the sound of Switched on Bach, can you give an idea of what your instruments are, and what kind of sounds we can expect to hear?
Our instruments are all electronic: modern analogue and digital synthesizers by Moog, Nord, Roland, Sequential and others. Three of us, the keyboard players, interact with them using normal piano-layout keyboards, but Annabel Knight plays hers via an ‘EWI’, an ‘electronic wind instrument’, that reads her finger patterns, breath pressure and other sensory inputs. In several vocal-based pieces we also use a vocoder, a kind of vocal synthesizer that takes pitch information from what is played, and articulation information from what is sung into a microphone. Using that, a single person can sing polyphonically, or across a vast pitch range, with entirely synthetic timbres. And although some of our synths are capable of emulating acoustic instruments, we don’t ever take that option – the sounds you’ll hear are unashamedly electronic and novel in nature; sometimes bright and strident, at others dark, misty and veiled, and often overtly expressive.
You’re playing all-Bach in your Baroque at the Edge concert; what makes his music suitable for the Art of Moog treatment?
It’s the same combination of features, I think, that makes it so satisfying on original or indeed modern classical instruments. First and foremost, the sheer forcefulness and stellar quality of the musical material, even in apparently less important accompanying parts, and the clarity of both texture and purpose. That, combined with an astonishing power to communicate emotion on the one hand, and a sort of mathematical other-worldliness on the other. Electronic timbres seem to work well for lots of Bach: they can be immensely varied in colour, and capable of great clarity of their own. Sometimes, I hope, they illuminate familiar pieces in interesting new ways.
Have you experimented with any other baroque composers, and if so, which ones have worked well?
Handel has been the subject of a few experiments: we want to explore much more of that repertoire in the future. There could also be potential, I think, elsewhere. Wendy Carlos made some treatments of Monteverdi in the 70s, and the jazz musician and synth-player Bob James looked at Rameau in the 80s. I’m not sure that 'straight' performances of these and other composers, using electronic instruments, are always very valid, artistically and aesthetically, or if they can ever rise above the 'novelty'. But we’re quite keen to find out.
Tell us a little about the other members of Art of Moog.
Annabel Knight, who I’ve mentioned already, is a multi-talented recorder player and flautist, playing baroque concertos one day and film/TV sessions the next, and she’s also a wonderful arranger and educator. Steven Devine is of course very well known as a solo harpsichordist, a fortepianist, and increasingly as a director, and works with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London Baroque, Classical Opera and others. Martin Perkins is similarly multi-talented: head of the early music department at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, an experienced harpsichordist and continuo player, a published researcher and editor, and general early instrument expert.
You and Annabel will be giving one of our live Zoom talks on Friday 8 January. Tell us a bit about what you’ll be doing.
The idea is to delve in to the wider world of synthesizers, to look at in some detail many of the instruments we use and hear what they can do, and perhaps think a bit more broadly about the rather niche half-century-old performance tradition we find ourselves a part of!
Which musicians, of any type, do you admire most?
I’m particularly drawn to composers and creators that find new modes of musical design and expression, especially using technology: in recent times I’ve been listening a lot to Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich and Jonny Greenwood’s various solo and collaborative projects. Also Anna Meredith, Alessandro Cortini, Brian Eno, Floating Points, earlier work like Subotnick, Cluster… In jazz it’s going to be Brad Mehldau, also Pat Metheny, Oscar Peterson. I think Pierre Hantaï’s harpsichord playing is wonderful. But in fact I admire pretty much any musician who is out there doing their thing, and taking risks, whatever style they’re working in.
What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
It has be JS Bach, of course. I’d even be content not to meet him but just sit in on a few organ practice sessions, rehearsals and performances. I get the distinct impression that in about a tenth of a second we’d all be thinking ‘Oh, I SEE!'
What interests do you have outside music?
Photography, cycling, mountaineering. I’m pretty terrible at the latter two, but enthusiasm for them seems to have continued undimmed across the decades.
How do you relax?
Any of the above. And making goalless explorations with modular synthesizers.
Tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know.
I’m learning the musical saw.
Simpsons or South Park?
South Park, obvs. Although one or two Homer one-liners will never be surpassed, in my view.
Art of Moog’s all-electronic Bach concert, ‘Bach’s Friends Electric’, will be released online on Saturday 9 January at 9.30pm. Tickets are bookable now.
Find out more in Art of Moog's pre-concert synthesizer demonstration which will released online on Friday 8 January at 4pm. Tickets available now.
Imagine if Vivaldi was a folk-fiddler, Purcell a protest-singer, or Bach a techno-geek ... Baroque at the Edge invites leading musicians from all genres to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them.
No rules, no boundaries – just Baroque music set loose.