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Alan Ball: A 'Six Feet Under' Postmortem

Six Feet Under, rest in peace. The HBO series, which aired its final episode Sunday, followed the Fisher family and its funeral home business for five seasons. It received two Golden Globe awards and six Emmys. Alan Ball, creator and executive producer, reflects on his show about death.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on August 23, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 23, 2005: Interview with Alan Ball; Interview with Robert Moog; Review of the album “Song X: Twentieth Anniversary.”


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Alan Ball discusses "Six Feet Under" and his future

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I'm one of the fans of HBO's "Six Feet Under" who really miss the characters
now that the series has ended. We invited back the creator of the series,
Alan Ball, to talk with us about bringing the series to a close. He wrote and
directed the final episode. He also wrote the screenplay for "American

Before we go any further, a couple of disclaimers. If you're waiting to watch
a tape of the final episode and don't want to know what happens, you might
want to tape this interview and hold off listening until after you've watched
the conclusion. And if you've never watched the show, well, I apologize if
the interview is a little `insie.'

Alan Ball has described "Six Feet Under" as a show about life in the face of
death and about a family who, because of their work running a funeral home, is
surrounded by death. At the conclusion of the final episode, the extended
family begins to emerge from their grief over Nate's death. Here they are,
sitting around the table toasting him.

(Soundbite of "Six Feet Under")

Unidentified Character #1: I just remember--I don't know--I was in seventh
grade, I think. Nate was probably a junior in high school. And he had
started that new wave band with Sam Hoviak(ph) and Tom Wheeler(ph). Do you

Unidentified Character #2: I do.

Unidentified Character #1: And he had the worst hair, I mean, like really
big, bad '80s hair with all this spray and lacquer in it. And I was sitting
next to him at dinner and I saw something move, and it was a spider.

Unidentified Character #3: No!

Unidentified Character #1: It had spun a web in his hair. I swear.

Unidentified Character #4: I see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Character #1: And I didn't say anything because I knew how cool
he was trying to be. And I wanted him to be that cool. I wanted him to be
the coolest brother anybody had ever had.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Character #5: To Nate.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Character #6: To Nate.

Unidentified Character #7: To Nate.

Unidentified Character #8: To Nate.

Unidentified Character #9: To Nate.

Unidentified Character #10: To my first-born.

Unidentified Character #11: To Uncle Nate.

Unidentified Character #12: Yeah. To Uncle Nate.

Unidentified Character #13: Can you say `To Daddy'?

Unidentified Character #14: To Daddy.

Unidentified Character #15: To Nate.

GROSS: Alan Ball, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Well, how do you feel now that
it's all over?

Mr. ALAN BALL ("Six Feet Under"): I feel a great sense of relief. I feel
like I've been through a grieving process of my own. I feel like actually
making the final four to five episodes of the show was kind of like a real
excursion into grief, and the final episode was sort of coming out on the
other side. And, you know, looking back, I sort of realize I guess that was
my intent. My process is not quite so conscious, but I think now that's
probably what the show itself was trying to do, to...

GROSS: What, to put us all through the grieving process?

Mr. BALL: Or not so much to put people through it, but to go through it
itself almost, you know what I mean? I mean, I'm kind of crazy. I do look at
the show as a living entity that has its own will, that sometimes I--my job is
to just really get out of the way of that and not try to form it into

GROSS: Now I kept thinking--I mean, I would really spending a lot of time
coming up with alternate endings. The ending where like everybody's lives is
totally screwed up, everybody's...

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: ...completely damaged. And then like the happier version. And I...

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: ...was wondering, like, how messy the ending was going to be and how
much trouble there would be for the characters, and with the exception of Nate
dying, things resolved pretty nicely. Why did you want to resolve things
with--you know, with reasonably happy endings for everybody?

Mr. BALL: Well, because I feel like the final stage of grief--and if
anything, I've sort of looked at the show as a meditation on grief. The final
stage of grief is coming out of it and sort of re-connecting with life. I
don't, for a minute, believe that these people moved forward and their lives
were without drama and without conflict and without pain, without struggle.
We just didn't see that.

But certainly, you look at what happens and, you know, certainly, you know, I
think David is devastated by the death of Keith. It wasn't as clear in the
final montage, but Brenda had two husbands after Nate. I mean, I don't think
those relationships were easy. I don't necessarily think Ruth and George
lived happily ever after. And Claire, you know, came back to her mother's
funeral when she was in her mid-40s and reconnected with Ted. Who knows what
happened in those years up till then? Were there other marriages?

GROSS: Oh, is that how they get reconnected? OK.

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

GROSS: It all goes by so quickly in that closing collage...

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I could hardly keep up. OK. So...

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: ...well--yeah.

Mr. BALL: But I feel like at the moment when Claire leaves to go off to
the--you know, into her new life, that's where those people are at that time,
but in ter--I don't think in term--I never felt like, OK, everything's tied up
in a nice little package.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BALL: I just felt like, well, they've come out of the--they've started to
come out of the tunnel of Nate's death, and she's leaving and something new is
starting, and that's the end of this show. But...

GROSS: The Web site actually has obituaries for the main characters...

Mr. BALL: Yes.

GROSS: ...which kind of details some of the things that happened to them
later in life, in their lives past the end of the series. Can you talk a
little bit about the process of sitting down alone or with other members of
the writing staff to figure out what the final fate of the characters was
going to be and to even write lives past the end of the series for them?

Mr. BALL: Well, we reconvened back in August, I guess about a year ago, to
start figuring out what the final season was going to be, and within the first
week, somebody had pitched--I wish I could remember, because I felt like it
was such a great idea, that we actually see the deaths of all the characters.
And so it just felt so organically appropriate to the show, and there was a
lot of conflict in the room about whether Nate should or shouldn't die. And I
was open to him not dying, but I'm very instinctive, and I just went, `Pitch
me something that is as effective or as--you know, works as organically and
fits within--and is what would be the final chapter of this if it were a big
long novel. Pitch it to me.' And nobody was able to. So once--I didn't--we
didn't want to kill Nate in the very last episode. We wanted to see the
family deal with the grief and the loss and see how Nate's life, now that it
was actually finished, at least in this plain, how it would affect those who
loved him and those whom he loved.

GROSS: Before Nate dies, he and his wife Brenda are fighting all the time,
and then Nate starts to fall in love with Maggie, who's the daughter of his
mother's estranged husband.

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: And he dies of this, like, brain condition that he has just after he
and Maggie have sex for the first and only time. Why did you and the writers
want him to die at such a morally messy moment?

Mr. BALL: Well, personally--I can't speak for the other writers--but I think
one of the things that appealed to us throughout the production of the show is
things that were morally messy, because to me, that seems to be so much more
of what life is about than this facsimile of life that we see depicted on
television, which is always about these very clear-cut moral choices and these
very clearly defined heroes and villains and this world in which people really
do sort of figure things out and live these really manageable lives. Now I
don't know if I'm so far out of the mainstream that that just doesn't make
sense to me or if it doesn't actually make sense to most people.

GROSS: In your mind, if Nate had lived, would he and Maggie have become
lovers? Would that have been the true love in his life or do you think that
would have ended, too, and...

Mr. BALL: In my mind, I'm not sure that had he lived, he and Brenda really
would have split up. I think he was feeling something very deeply and
passionately at that moment, and he expressed it and then he died, and there's
something really deeply tragic in that, which I'm drawn towards in terms of
drama, in terms of telling a story. I mean, I think had he left Brenda and
gone with Maggie, I think she would have had a real hard time living up to
what he saw in her. I think possibly had he stayed with Brenda, it might have
been the thing that really brought them together and they were able to move
forward and actually into a new and different place. It may have just been a
placeholder, and then later, something else would have happened on both their
parts. I mean, Brenda was in sort of a better place at the time when the
series ended, but she certainly had her own streak of confusion that could
have led her to different places.

GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball. He's the creator of "Six Feet Under," and he
wrote and directed the final episode.

Now Brenda and her brother, Billy, are very close, but he actually seems to be
truly in love with her during part of the series. And she has to, like,
physically rebuff him at some point. But in I think it's like next to the
last episode, there's a...

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: ...sequence where they actually start to physically touch in a sexual

Mr. BALL: Yes.

GROSS: And I was so relieved when Brenda wakes up and it's just a dream.

Mr. BALL: (Laughs)

GROSS: And everyone I spoke to about that scene said exactly the same thing:
`I'm so glad it was just a dream.'

Mr. BALL: Right.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what went on in the writers' room
about that scene and whether to do it and so on?

Mr. BALL: Well, there were actually people in the writers' room saying,
`Brenda and Billy just really--we just need to get them together and just let
them be together.' And, of course, there were people in the writers' room who
were pitching at the season four that there actually was a nuclear holocaust
and that...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. BALL: ...season five took place in a nuclear wasteland. So I said, `No,
I don't think that's going to be a satisfying experience for our audience, and
I also don't think it's right for the show.' These two saved each other's
lives growing up with these kind of mythically horrible, Greek tragedy
monsters of parents that they have. And so Craig Wright, a very talented
writer, was the writer who that episode was assigned to. And we knew we
wanted it to go on so long that you actually got really physically
uncomfortable and you thought, `Oh, my God, this is really happening' before
she woke up from the dream.

And Craig went off to write his first episode, and he brought it back. And I
remember I read the episode and the line where Billy goes, `This is what your
penis would look like if you were a boy.' And I had this moment of revulsion,
and I thought, `I'm not sure we can go there.' But every other writer at that
table said, `We have to go there.' That's what's so exciting about this
moment--is because you really do see the truth of what is there on some
subconscious level about their--you know, part of that weird attraction
between them that was formed when they were children, with these wildly
sexually inappropriate parents and friends acting out all around them, is that
they felt like they were each other. And I said, `OK. You know, I'll trust
you. I'll trust you guys on this.'

GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, the creator of "Six Feet Under." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, the creator of HBO's "Six Feet Under." He
wrote and directed the final episode, which was shown Sunday.

Have you gone to many funerals since "Six Feet Under" started?

Mr. BALL: I haven't. I actually--I mean, certainly people I know have died.
I--but because of my schedule, I haven't been able to attend. And, also, I
avoid funerals. Funerals are very painful experiences for me because the
first funeral I ever went to was--it was for my great-aunt, and my mother
started weeping. And I realized I had never seen my mother cry--says a lot
about my family, which also sort of explains where the Fishers come from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: And then shortly after that it was my sister's funeral, which just
was a deeply, deeply horrible, traumatic, surreal experience for me. And not
long after that, my grandfather died. And there were six grandsons, and
somebody thought it would be a really great idea for the grandsons to serve as
pallbearers. And I just--I have a thing with funerals. I don't--it's a
deeply, deeply painful experience for me to go. And I'm sort of ashamed to
admit that I haven't been to a funeral since "Six Feet Under" started.

GROSS: Do you explain all this to people who expect you to come?

Mr. BALL: I don't. I don't think I've explained it to them that way. I just
say, you know, `I can't make it because I'm working,' but, you know, I'll send
flowers or donations or whatever, and I certainly communicate with the
survivors. But I've never been able to actually make it to the actual
service. And, you know, each character on "Six Feet Under" has a little thing
about them that is just really not likeable and not admirable, and I guess
this is one of mine.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that, you know, the first time you saw your
mother cry was at your grandparent's funeral. And is your mother--and you
said that's where the Fisher family comes from. Was your mother much like
Ruth in any way?

Mr. BALL: In some ways. Ultimately Ruth became her own character and her own
creation. My mom is very different from her. She's much--she's got a much
more wicked sense of humor. She's more earthy; she's earthier. She never was
repressed in quite the same way. But certainly there are bits and pieces of
my family and myself in all of these characters, as is true for all the other
writers as well.

GROSS: I want to clear up a plot point that confuses me and I know confuses
some other people. Do you, as the creator of this series, know for sure who
Maya's father is? Was it Nate, or was it...

Mr. BALL: Do I know for sure...

GROSS: Or was it Lisa's brother-in-law? Yeah.

Mr. BALL: ...who her biological father is?

GROSS: Biological father, yes.

Mr. BALL: No, no, I don't. And I also don't really know what happened
between Hoyt and Lisa when she died. I don't really know exactly what went on
there, and that--part of what we wanted to dramatize is: What about those
things that you never really know?--because I think, you know, part of what
consciousness and society and certainly, you know, our modern consumer,
media-driven society has done is it's given us the idea that there are answers
to everything and that you can know everything. And what gets ironed out by
that kind of concept is mystery, you know. And I think, at the risk of
sounding really stupid, you know, there's a lot--there is so much that we will
never be able to comprehend; that we don't even have the senses to comprehend.
And I think part of living a spiritual life is being OK with not knowing
answers that you can't get.

Was Maya Nate's biological daughter? We don't really know. Was she his
daughter? Yes. He was her father. Ultimately whether or not his DNA is in
that child is not as important as did he love her to the best of his ability
and see her as his child and make her welfare something more important than
his own?

GROSS: Was it hard to keep the ending a secret?

Mr. BALL: Yes.

GROSS: What did you do to make sure it stayed a secret?

Mr. BALL: Well, you know, everybody in the series was told, `This is really
important. It's really important that this is a secret and that we keep it a
secret.' All of our scripts were numbered, so that if somehow we could trace
the script, that the person would get in trouble. I don't know what kind of
trouble they could actually get into. At some point we even went as far as to
leak some purposely false spoilers onto the Internet. But even so, you know,
some information found its way into the Internet if you knew where to
look--people--you know, on some obscure site, which my assistant looked up. I
don't--I tend to avoid those sites because they're just too confusing to me.
They had it nailed that Nate dies in Episode 9 and that in the final episode
you see everybody's death. And I sort of went, `Well, you know, I hope not
everybody goes to that Web site,' and, fortunately, I don't think that many
people do.

GROSS: Very devious of you to have misled the public with false information
on the Internet.

Mr. BALL: Well, that's because there was some stuff getting out during season
three, and we actually went so far in season three as to--and we figured out
that where it was coming from was when pages of the script were faxed to
casting directors' offices or agents' offices...


Mr. BALL: ...that people were getting bits and pieces and posting that on the
Internet. So we actually went so far as to fax false pages. We would fax the
actual scenes that were being auditioned, but then in the next scene it would
say--you would see--or in the scene prior to it, on the first half of the page
before the actual scene started, we would say things like, you know, `Ruth
collapses and is rushed to the hospital,' or Ruth would turn to somebody and
go, `How can I be pregnant at this age?' or something like that.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. BALL: Just because you don't want it to get out there 'cause you don't
want it--I mean, certainly a big appeal, I think, of the show was that it
didn't take you where you expected it to take you, hopefully, in the way that
life does that. So, I mean, I felt like we had to be devious.

GROSS: So what's next for you? What are you working on now?

Mr. BALL: Well, interestingly, I just got back from Dartmouth College in New
Hampshire, where I was doing a workshop of a new play that I've written with
the New York Theatre Workshop, first play I've written in 10 years. And we
worked on it for about a week with some great actors, a terrific director, Jo
Bonney, and did a reading of it in front of an audience, and it went very,
very well, so I'm definitely going to pursue that.

I'm also in the process of adapting a novel, a novel called "Towelhead," by
Alicia Erian, a novel that was published last year. It's a great, great
story, and I want to finish the screenplay by the end of September in the
hopes of directing it sometime next year. And I'm in the process of finishing
up a deal with HBO to develop some new TV. So...

GROSS: Oh, good. Good.

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Alan Ball, thank you for "Six Feet Under." I'm sorry...

Mr. BALL: My pleasure. I...

GROSS:'s over. I'm really glad you did it.

Mr. BALL: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. And I love talking to you.
I really enjoy talking to you.

GROSS: Alan Ball created the series "Six Feet Under" and was its executive
producer. He wrote and directed the final episode. I'm Terry Gross, and this

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Help. I have done it again. I have been here
many times before. I hurt myself again today. And the worst part is there's
no one else to blame.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Robert Moog, the
creator of the Moog synthesizer. He died Sunday at the age of 71. Also,
Kevin Whitehead reviews a new expanded and remixed version of a 20-year-old
collaboration between Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Robert Moog discusses inventing the Moog synthesizer,
and demonstrates the Minimoog and theremin

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Robert Moog, the creator of the first music synthesizer, died Sunday at the
age of 71 of an inoperable brain tumor. Electronic music is pervasive now,
but it was a new concept in the mid-'60s when Moog created the Moog
synthesizer. It didn't take long for other people to manufacture their own
versions of the instrument. The synthesizer caught on in all forms of music,
from the avant-garde to rock, pop and novelty. This medley has just a few

(Soundbite of medley of songs)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I like to see you ...(unintelligible). I like
to ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: Well, we heard from Sun Ra, Wendy Carlos from "Switched-On Bach," Todd
Rundgren from a Thelonious Monk tribute album, and Stevie Wonder.

Robert Moog lived in Asheville, North Carolina, where his company manufactures
Moogs and theremins, the eerie-sounding instrument that has been used in many
science-fiction films. When I spoke with Robert Moog in 2000, he brought a
Minimoog to the studio and gave a demonstration.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. ROBERT MOOG (Inventor, Moog Synthesizer): OK. So here's a plain sound
(plays steady note). This is a pure electronic pitch. Now I will frequency
modulate it. By that I mean that I will vary the pitch of its tone
periodically (plays wavering note). So most people would say that was a
different sound than just this (plays steady note). Now I can speed up and
slow down the modulation (plays wavering note) or make it a different shape
(plays wavering note). Here's what we call a square wave. It makes the tone
sound like a trill (plays rapidly trilling notes).

So that's just one example of how we can use one electronic circuit to
periodically or even aperiodically change the operation of another one, and
make musically interesting sounds in the booth in the process.

GROSS: Now, you know, regular instruments, acoustic instruments, operate
through physically doing something to the instrument. You pound it, you press
it, strum it, bow it, blow air into it. Compare that with the principles of
an electronic music instrument like the Moog.

Mr. MOOG: The energy to make the sound is there. It comes out of the wall.
So the sound...

GROSS: Electricity.

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: And so your knobs allow you to just change the shape of the sound

Mr. MOOG: Yes. And...

GROSS: ...the amplitude, the shape of it.

Mr. MOOG: Yeah. And we can increase the complexity of the sound; for
instance (plays tone) there's one tone. Now we can add a second tone (plays
tones). Here's one (plays tone); the other (plays tone); together (plays
several tones). They form a richer third tone. So we can add sounds and
waveforms together. We can even use one waveform to shape what we hear from
another circuit, and we can also filter out the overtones, the harmonics, that
are made by these waveforms.

GROSS: You want to give me an example of that?

Mr. MOOG: Yeah. Here's (plays note). Let's get a brighter sound (plays
note). There (plays note). This is called a low-pass filter. Originally it
was a technical term, but musicians these days, at least ones who plug in,
understand what that means. So I'll close the filter, and we'll cut out first
the higher overtones and then all of them (plays and modulates note).

Now when I vary the filter slowly like that, you can hear what's happening,
that the sound is getting more mellow and less bright as I turn down the knob
here labeled `cutoff frequency.' But if instead of my turning the knob I use
a waveform that goes up and then down every time I hit a key, we'll get a
sound like this (plays modulated note). Now that opening and closing of the
filter was done not by me, but by the envelope generator. Now I'll make it
faster and you'll see what effect that has on the sound (plays note twice),
and still faster (plays note twice). Now that happened so fast, if I had to
do that with my hand I couldn't possibly, because my hand can't move that
fast. But electronics can move that fast.

So now I have a different sort of sound. I have a plucked-stringlike sort of
sound (plays several notes) because I've set up a sound here that's bright and
with lots of harmonics at the beginning, and then within, say, I don't know--a
30 or 40,000th of a second, it dies down and our ear identifies that as a
stringlike sound.

GROSS: Are there records from the '60s, when you were first--and in the early
'70s--when the Moog was first catching on, that you think sound almost
embarrassingly dated today?

Mr. MOOG: (Laughs) Well, you know, the first use of a Moog synthesizer on the
West Coast sounds embarrassingly dated. It's a record called "Zodiac Cosmic

GROSS: How can that not sound dated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOOG: Well, what happened is--this was in 1967, and we were wondering
whether we could stay in business because, you know, we weren't making any
money and nobody understood our products. We were invited to exhibit our new
synthesizers out at the Audio Engineering Society on the West Coast. So at
that exhibit, we were then invited to bring this one instrument that nobody
had ever seen out there to a recording session of "Zodiac Cosmic Sounds." And
the synthesizer was used to make some distinctly novel electronic effects, one
of which begins the album.

But what the album is--it starts off with very conventional-sounding Hollywood
movie music: bum, ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-bum,
ba-ba-bum. And then with a low organ tone, the narrator comes on. He had a
voice as deep as crude oil, and he said, `Nine times the color red explodes
like heated blood. The battle's on.' Then, ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,
ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-bum, like that. The producers at the time were
very impressed with themselves about how `in' this was and how hip and how
many they were going to sell. Now when you play it, people just break out

GROSS: So it's the bum-ba-bums that you were doing on the synthesizer?

Mr. MOOG: No. They were done more or less conventionally.

GROSS: Where did the synthesizer come in?

Mr. MOOG: The synthesizer came in making--just drop-in sounds. Let's see if
I can set one up. The Minimoog is really not big enough to do all the sounds
that we did, but let's, for instance, start with one sound (plays sound), play
another sound (plays several sounds), OK? That's about a whole tone apart
(plays several sounds). I'll add a third sound (plays several sounds). OK.
OK. Now that's the general sort of sound that they liked (plays sounds), and
we just glide up a little bit here (makes sounds glide up the scale)--that
sort of sound.

GROSS: Great. Yeah.

Mr. MOOG: Now with the large synthesizer that we had back then at the studio
in Los Angeles, you could glide more slowly. You could add more frequencies.
You could make a sound that was fairly striking for those times.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Robert Moog. He died Sunday
at the age of 71. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I'll chill the air. I will chill the air. I
will chill the air.

GROSS: Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer, died Sunday at the
age of 71. We're listening back to an interview I recorded with him in 2000.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: What are the early records, the first records that you think really
helped the Moog synthesizer catch on?

Mr. MOOG: The biggie was "Switched-On Bach." In light of that, everything
else pales. "Switched-On Bach" came out at the end of 1968. I can remember
playing a cut from it at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York
City about a month in advance of its release, and I can remember all those
cynical experienced recording engineers listening to this and being so
overjoyed that a piece of work so innovative and of such high quality was
being done that they gave Carlos a standing ovation.

GROSS: Did you like "Switched-On Bach"?

Mr. MOOG: Oh, yes. Yes. In fact, I visited Carlos several times. Well,
Carlos and his associates were working on the piece, and I was just bowled
over. Every time I came, something new was there to be heard.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear some music from "Switched-On Bach"? And it
was Walter Carlos back then...

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: ...wasn't it? Yeah. So this is Walter Carlos at the Moog

(Soundbite of "Switched-On Bach")

GROSS: That's Walter Carlos playing "Switched-On Bach," the record that
helped really establish commercially the Moog synthesizer. My guest is Robert
Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer and the related synthesizers that
he's since created. He's a pioneer of electronic instruments.

When you created the first Moog synthesizer, was it out of an interest in
electronics or music or both?

Mr. MOOG: I had been building electronic musical instruments since I was a
kid. It was always a hobby of mine, and I always approached it as an
electronics person, you know, somebody who liked to work with a soldering iron
and a pair of pliers who also had some musical training. By the time I got to
building synthesizers, I had, you know, perhaps 20 years' experience building
electronic musical instruments.

GROSS: Well, I know you built theremins, and we'll get to that in a couple of
minutes. What else did you build?

Mr. MOOG: Back in the '40s and early '50s, building simple electronic
projects was a popular hobby for many people. Back then, you could buy, you
know, a few parts with tubes and build something on your kitchen table, and it
would actually work. So there were magazines describing all sorts of hobby
projects, and I can remember building one-note organs, two-note organs,
radios, phonograph, you know, amplifiers, and that was my life. That's what I
did back then. Other kids went out and beat each other up or played baseball,
and I built electronics.

GROSS: I think your father was an amateur radio operator.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, he was. He was a professional engineer. He worked for
Consolidated Edison in New York City. And...

GROSS: That's the electric company.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, it is. And he worked for them all his life, and he was also
an amateur radio operator.

GROSS: So this is ham radio?

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: So did you think your father's ham radio stuff had an impact on you?

Mr. MOOG: Why, sure. He was the one who taught me how to do electronics. He
taught me how to use a soldering iron. My father had a very complete hobby
basement, with machine tools and all sorts of electronic stuff. I used to
love to go down and just be with him and work with him.

GROSS: It was a real guy thing for you?

Mr. MOOG: I think so, yeah. Yeah. It was a dad-and-son thing especially.

GROSS: Did Mom ever go down to the basement?

Mr. MOOG: No. No, my mom had the rest of the house.

GROSS: Now before you started inventing your own instruments, you built
theremins. So let's start with what a theremin is. You've brought one with

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: I imagine this is one that you've built.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, it is. Well, it's one that my company built.

GROSS: Right. That's good enough.

Mr. MOOG: Well, close enough.

GROSS: Give us a taste of the basic sound of the theremin. Our listeners
will recognize it from lots of science-fiction movies.

Mr. MOOG: OK, let me describe what I'm doing. I'm not touching the
instrument when I'm playing it now; I'm moving my hands around it to control
the volume and the pitch of the sound. But I'll just make a very quick sound,
and then maybe later I can actually try and play a melody.

(Soundbite of theremin)

Mr. MOOG: So when you wave your hands around a theremin, that's the sort of
sound you get. It's not particularly musical, but it certainly sounds
different from a piano or even a synthesizer. A theremin is an electronic
musical instrument with two metal antennas. One is a vertical rod on the
right-hand side of the instrument. The closer you get your right hand to that
rod, the higher the pitch goes. So if you imagine a violin string in the air
between your shoulder and the pitch antenna, and by moving my hand along that
string, you can imagine the sort of gestures I make.

GROSS: But it's an imaginary string.

Mr. MOOG: It's an imaginary string; I'm not touching anything when I play.
On the left hand of the instrument, there is a loop, a metal loop, which
controls the volume. And the closer I get my hand to that loop, the softer
the sound gets. So my gestures consist of moving my right hand back and forth
from my right shoulder to the pitch antenna to make the notes and moving my
left hand up and down, as if I'm conducting an imaginary orchestra out there
to control the volume and articulate the sound.

GROSS: Well, would you play us a science-fiction effect on the theremin? You
could even play something from one of the movies that the theremin--scores
that the theremin was used in.

Mr. MOOG: A science-fiction effect. I'll try.

(Soundbite of theremin)

GROSS: And did you get that little vibrato by wiggling your hand back and

Mr. MOOG: Yes. I moved my right hand from my wrist rapidly back and forth
just as a violinist does.

GROSS: Would you like to leave us with some music on the Moog synthesizer?

Mr. MOOG: Let's see.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Well, that's some music. I don't know how much, but it's some.

GROSS: Robert Moog, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so

Mr. MOOG: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to have the opportunity.

GROSS: Robert Moog, recorded in 2000. He died of a brain tumor Sunday. He
was 71.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new remixed and expanded
edition of the 20-year-old collaboration between Pat Metheny and Ornette
Coleman. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Expanded and remixed 20th-anniversary version of "Song X"
by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman

In 1985, guitarist and Grammy magnate Pat Metheny and maverick alto
saxophonist Ornette Coleman jammed for three weeks and then made the album
"Song X." They both liked the music they recorded, but afterwards Metheny had
second thoughts about the material that did or didn't make it onto the album.
Now he's produced an expanded and remixed version. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead liked it then and likes it now.

(Soundbite of "The Good Life")


"The Good Life" by Ornette Coleman, with a little help on the arrangement from
Pat Metheny. Back in the '80s, a collaboration between avant-garde icon
Coleman and the king of breezy fusion guitars surprised some folks. But both
are lyrical players with a highly personal voice, and Ornette was already
warming to the orchestral potential of electric guitar. Metheny had been all
of 12 when he first heard and loved Ornette's music. Coleman's saxophone
style directly influenced the guitarist's breathlike phrasing and
ever-changing dynamics.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Both musicians hail from the Southwest--Coleman from Ft. Worth and
Metheny from outside Kansas City--and both had played a lot with bassist
Charlie Haden, also from Missouri. It was Haden's idea to bring them together
in the first place. His loping time fits their Big Sky sense of space.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: A few years before, Metheny had recorded a prelude to this date,
the album "80/81" with the very Ornette-y tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and
the ace rhythm section of Charlie Haden and drummer Jack Dejohnette. Haden
and Dejohnette came back for "Song X" alongside Ornette's drummer of choice,
Denardo Coleman, also on electronic percussion. Double drummers can make the
rhythm boil, and there are a couple of extraordinarily dense episodes where
saxophone and guitar synthesizer converge like a swarm of bees.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Pat Metheny is known for playing accessible jazz you may hear
while cruising the produce aisle or waiting on hold, but like most guitarists,
he gets raunchy, too, and "Song X" has plenty of that. Even so, the expanded
20th-anniversary edition is a bit more rounded, a little less in-your-face
than the original. Metheny's given the program a mostly improved remix,
toning down some of his more extreme special effects.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The bigger news is that the 2005 edition tacked six previously
unheard pieces onto the beginning of the show, softening the overall effect
without draining its vitality. The catchy tunes are mostly Ornette's, but for
two of his added numbers, Metheny had written out chord changes for them to
improvise over. Coleman's famous for avoiding fixed chord sequences, but he
easily bends to them here without changing his style an iota.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The original "Song X" proved too weird for many Pat Metheny fans,
but popular taste can shift a lot in 20 years. In jazz, avant-garde practices
often burrow their way into the mainstream about two generations later. So
the timing may be right for this slightly gentler edition of "Song X."
There's a lot of wild playing and some very pretty tunes.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for He reviewed "Song X:
Twentieth Anniversary" featuring Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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