Saturday, September 3, 2005

Friday, September 2, 2005

Robert Moog R. I. P.

Most of you may not recognise the name "Dr. Robert Moog," but you probably recognise the name of the device he invented--the "Moog syntesizer." Robert Moog died Sunday from an inoperable brain tumour at the age of 71.

Dr. Robert Moog was born in New York City. As a child he developed an interest in the theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments (most often used to make the creepy sounds in horror and sci-fi movies). While still a boy he built gadgets with his father. He would go onto Queens College and Columbia University. He built theremins to help pay his college tuition. He was still a doctoral student majoring in engineering physics at Cornell University when he developed the Moog synthesizer alongside composer Herb Deutsch. It was in late 1964 that R. A. Moog Co. first started selling the Moog synthesizer.

The Moog synthesizer was not the first synthesizer. Others were already on the market in 1964. What set the Moog apart was that it was lightwweight, small, and very versatile. By 1967 the Moog synthesizer would be used on a pop music album for the first time, that album was The Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.. It was used ont he songs "Daily, Nightly" and "Star Collector." It was with the album Switched-On Bach by keyboard artist Walter Carlos in 1968, however, that the Moog synthesizer gained widespread recognition. Soon many other artists would be using Moog synthesizers on their songs. The Beatles used it on their album Abbey Road and The Who used it on their album Who's Next. By the 1970s Moog synthesizers were used frequently in rock music. By the late Seventies and early Eighties there would even be an entire genre of pop music reliant on the synthesizer as its primarly instrument--"synthpop" or "technopop," which included such artists as Soft Cell and the Human League. In movies, the Moog synthesizer was used for the score for A Clockwork Orange.

Dr. Robert Moog considered himself foremost as an engineer or toolmaker. He simply build tools used by musicians. In some respects I think this may be an understatement. The name "Moog" became associated with synthesizers in the same way that "Steinway" became associated with pianos or "Les Paul" became asssociated with guitars. Indeed, Robert Moog's invention revolutionised the music industry. Not only could it be heard in many of the classic rock songs of the Seventies and Eighties, but it had a profound influence on progresive rock and funk. Its existence pretty much created the genres of synthpop and techno. More than many other men in the field of musical instruments, Dr. Robert Moog had a profound effect on modern music.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Brothers Grimm

With the release of The Brothers Grimm, some may expect director Terry Gilliam to have finally gone Hollywood. After all, the movie features two big name stars (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) and (for Gilliam, at least) a fairly big budget. But anyone who sees the film will soon realise that Gilliam, despite his stars and his budget, has not gone Hollywood. Indeed, The Brothers Grimm harkens back to his earlier films, such as Baron Munchausen and Brazil, with Gilliam's usual, unconventional filmmaking style.

The plot centres around Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, the two brothers famous for compiling German fairy tales (Jakob would also write the mammoth Deutsche Mythologie, one of the earliest works on Germanic mythology), before they became famous. This is hardly a biography of the two, as this is a total fantasy of what they life may have been like. In the movie the two brothers make a living by "battling" various "supernatural" menaces across the German countryside. They soon find themselves working for the French (who at the time occupied much of Germany under Napoleon) and investigating the disappearances of various young girls in a small German village. The plot unfolds wonderfully. Indeed, one of the strong points of the movie is its screenplay. The movie does not tip its hand too quickly when it comes to revealing the various mysteries of its plot, nor does it move too slowly. One of the best things about The Brothers Grimm is its pacing. But perhaps the best thing about the movie's screenplay is the way it toys with the fairy tales we all grew up with. Indeed, some of them are used in the most unexpected ways--the Gingerbread Man sequence being a perfect example (you'll never watch the two Shrek the same way again....). Indeed, the plot is based around of the best known fairy tales--see if you can guess which one.

The Brothers Grimm is greatly helped by its performances. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are both cast against type, with Damon as the more extroverted, rational Wilhelm and Ledger as the introverted, creative Jakob. Both are convincing in their roles, particularly Ledger whose Jakob has a tendency to believe that elements in his beloved folk tales are real. Kudos must also go to Lena Headey, as the resourceful Angelika, and Peter Stormare as highstrung Italian Cavaldi (one of Gilliam's typically off the wall characters).

Of course, the strongest point of The Brothers Grimm may well be Gilliam's direction. Gilliam puts his movie about as far as from the typical Hollywood blockbuster as he possibly can, with his usual unconventional style of filmmaking. There are the strange camera angles, incredible shots, oddball camera movements, and so on one might expect from a Terry Gilliam film. As might be expected, the movie has its share of over the top gags and strange characters. At the same time, however, there is nothing in this film that is self indulgent or unneccesary. Gilliam's strange shots and odd camera movements suit the movie's odd plot and atypical subject matter very well.

As stated earlier, this is one of Gilliam's movies with a bigger budget, and from the look of the movie, the money was invested quite well. The sets are huge and lavish. The costumes are intricate and detailed. Another one of The Brothers Grimm's strong points is its production design. This is a movie whose look is not only appealing, but suits the film very well.

The Brothers Grimm is obviously not going to be suited to every taste. Those who have little stomach for Gilliam's style of movie making probably will not like the film. But if one enjoys a movie with an original plot, off the wall direction, and a wonderfully skewed sense of humour, then this is the movie for him or her.