The Moog-Rothenberg Keyboard Lives On

Cornell University shared this video, documenting their work to reincarnate the one-of-a-kind Moog-Rothenberg Keyboard, a ‘long-lost’ artifact of electronic music history.

The original prototype was the result of a collaboration between electronic instruments pioneer Bob Moog and theorist David Rothenberg.

Here’s what they have to say about the instrument:

“Rothenberg was a musical and mathematical theorist interested in pattern perception, a concept that could be applied to diverse fields such as speech and accounting. He was particularly interested in exploring harmonic scales and how they were heard by humans.

Take, for example, the octave. On a traditional keyboard, an octave is a cycle of 12 tones. But the keyboard that Rothenberg wanted to build would have an octave composed of 31 tones.

Rothenberg’s keyboard was funded in part by a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, said Suhasini Sankaran, Rothenberg’s widow, who donated the instrument to Cornell. The military hired Rothenberg for work related to pattern recognition, a critical component of artificial intelligence today. He then hired Moog to build the instrument, which comprised a keyboard and an analog synthesizer with a bank of oscillators.

Moog was the ideal person for the job. As a doctoral student studying engineering physics at Cornell in the mid-1960s, he had invented the first commercial electronic musical instrument – known as the “Moog Synthesizer” – which would ultimately crop up in everything from progressive rock to disco and funk. After his studies, he moved to Trumansburg, a village outside of Ithaca, where he established his first synthesizer factory.

During their collaboration, Rothenberg and Moog were not always in perfect harmony. They disagreed about how the oscillators should be connected to the instrument; Rothenberg felt the oscillators should be synced, and Moog did not, Sankaran said.

“The instrument was useless for David’s purposes, or for anyone’s, because one could not compose on it,” Sankaran said.

So the effort was abandoned. Rothenberg gave away the bank of oscillators to a synthesizer museum, although he kept the keyboard in hopes of getting someone else to work on it. That never happened. Rothenberg died in 2018.”

Travis Johns, a composer and instrument builder who was a visiting lecturer in music at Cornell, led the project to turn the failed prototype into a working instrument.

“What surprised me the most while building this instrument was how it seemed to manifest its own voice, personality and characteristics over the course of construction,” Johns said. “At least on paper, things were pretty formulaic – press this button, make this sound. But by the time we started wiring keys, it’s like it took on a life of its own. Different timbres emerged, certain intervals seemed to develop particular characteristics, one note appeared louder than another – all things that, according to the schematics, shouldn’t be happening.”

Cornell has published a story on the project at their site.

Since the 60’s, there’s been a steady stream of exploration in the area of microtonal keyboards. One example is the Lumatone Isomorphic Keyboard, which is a generalized isomorphic keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch:

Other examples include the Starr Labs MicroZone and the Dualo du-touch ß Keyboard.

9 thoughts on “The Moog-Rothenberg Keyboard Lives On

  1. When will they learn that musicians don’t want goofy alternatives to a piano-style keyboard? Even things like the Roli Seaboard, that kind of looks like a piano keyboard, aren’t well received. Nothing that has been tried before actually caught on, or will likely catch on, to become more popular than the several century old piano keyboard.

    1. People make modern music on MPCs, modular synthesizers, Elektron grooveboxes, grid sequencers and computers.

      Traditional pianos are so worthless that, unless it’s a collector’s item, you can’t give them away on Craigslist.

    2. you typed this on a qwerty keyboard, which is objectively worse than other options, but it would take a state run effort and a particular birth year to ever get anyone to switch.

      there is a whole lot of micro-tonal focus, and narrative done, this video is a great example… to get the format out there. Isomorphic / Janko is a really great idea, our kids should never ever touch a piano roll that should be something laughed at in a natural history museum… For the time being there are musicians who want to play with micro tuning… but the truth is, we just need to give up what is objective ergonomic crap.

    3. To rephrase, you’re basically saying why even have another interface? We already the several hundred year old keyboard and because these other, at most, 30 year old interfaces aren’t as popular as the several hundred year old keyboard it means that these other interfaces hasn’t caught on.

  2. I hate how much people talk about instruments rather than just playing the damn thing! You can get more from a 10 second clip than an hour of this rambling… how they “feel” about the instrument.

  3. You can do 1/4 tones pretty easily on an Osmose, while enjoying the benefits of a more traditional keyboard. I’d encourage folks to check it out if they’ve not done so already.

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