Step into the inner sanctum of Gershon Kingsley's recording studio in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, and one of the first things that jumps out at you — besides the flat screen — equipped Mac G4 and G5 computers — is a Moog Music Etherwave Theremin, signed in silver by Robert Moog himself.
“We did an interview here together after my 80th birthday,” Kingsley remembers with a youthful smile. “He talked about this concert he had at the Museum of Modern Art — it was the first time that four modular synthesizers appeared together [in 1968]. The only problem was, it was the '60s, so you only had one electric outlet in the whole museum. There must have been three or four thousand people there. It was completely jammed, but one girl there wanted to see a little better. She stood up on some books close to where the cord was, and when she moved — boom! Out!”
Snafus aside, Moog's MOMA debut had marked an eye-opening milestone for Kingsley. By 1968, the classically trained pianist had begun cultivating what would become a lifelong fascination with the Moog Modular. Kingsley purchased his first one that year for $3,500, and he would soon stage a four-Moog concert of his own at Carnegie Hall in 1970. He had been introduced to the instrument by Eric Siday — an early customer of Moog's who had composed various network “sound logos” in the '60s, as well as the famous percolating coffeepot TV commercial for Maxwell House.
“[Siday] showed me the synthesizer,” Kingsley recounts. “It looked like a telephone switchboard, but the sounds that came out of it — incredible! I said, ‘I have to meet Robert Moog. Where is he?’ He said, ‘He's in a little hamlet in northern New York State.’ I was actually sick when I went there because it was in the winter, and his atelier was down in the basement, so it was cold. He tried to explain to me the whole synthesizer, and I said to him, ‘Robert, you are the engineer; I am the composer.’ [Laughs.] ‘But it's so simple,’ he said. Yeah, simple for you!”
Kingsley had already spent much of his youth surmounting difficulty. At the age of 16, he fled Germany to live on a kibbutz in what was then Palestine — an experience that would guide his later work. In 1946, he arrived in America and finished his piano studies with night classes at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (now the California Institute of the Arts). By the mid-1950s, he had settled in New York and begun grinding out a living as a composer and arranger. He worked as a music producer for several plays on Broadway — including “The Entertainer,” starring Laurence Olivier — before he joined the Vanguard label in the early '60s as an arranger and orchestrator for various folk recordings, among them a collection of Yiddish folk songs by operatic tenor Jan Peerce.
In 1964, Kingsley met French composer Jean Jacques Perrey, whose work with the Ondioline, an early precursor to the monophonic synth, prompted Kingsley to suggest a collaborative project to Vanguard executives. The In Sound from Way Out (Vanguard, 1966) — a riot of sounds recorded, spliced and manipulated on a 3-track Ampex machine — was an unexpectedly huge hit. (Thirty years later, the Beastie Boys borrowed the title for an album of hip-hop instrumentals.)
Kaleidoscopic Vibrations (Vanguard, 1967) followed — the first of many Kingsley projects to feature the Moog; one song from the album, “Baroque Hoedown,” was licensed by the Disney theme parks in 1972 and still plays today. Kingsley soon went solo with Music to Moog By (Audio Fidelity, 1969), which generated the worldwide electronic pop hit “Pop Corn” (covered by the German group Hot Butter in the early '70s), as well as a cover of The Beatles' “Nowhere Man” and the song “Hey Hey,” which was sampled by RJD2 for The Horror EP (Def Jux, 2003). Gershwin: Alive & Well & Underground (Avco Embassy, 1970), a personal favorite of Bob Moog's, was an entirely Moog-based tribute to one of the giants of Broadway.
A sizable chunk of Kingsley's work from 1968 to 1974 is collected, along with more recent tracks (such as the techno-tinged “What Is Creativity?” and “The First Commandment,” recorded in the late '90s using Digidesign Pro Tools and Arturia Moog Modular V software), on the new double CD God Is a Moog (Reboot Stereophonic, 2005). The set includes the groundbreaking Jewish liturgy Shabbat for Today (Kingsley Sound, 1969), 1972's unreleased Maven on the Moog and the Passover-inspired The Fifth Cup (Kingsley Sound, 1974). As an introduction to Kingsley's eclectic and refreshingly irreverent vision, this is essential listening; The Fifth Cup's “Bitter Herbs” and “What Does It Take (The Ten Plagues)” alone capture a funky art-rock humor and slick musicianship that would have given even Frank Zappa a run for his money.
“I hope I always make my music honestly,” says Kingsley, who at age 83 continues to record and perform with unmitigated gusto. “When you're creative, especially in music, you tend to live on the periphery of humanity, but that doesn't bother me. I've always been sort of ‘in-between,’ you know?”
Gershon Kingsley can be reached through his Website atwww.kingsleysound.com.