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A talk with Gil Trythall, creator of 'Country Moog'

A talk with Gil Trythall, creator of 'Country Moog'

When Walter Carlos’ Switched on Bach was released in 1968, the Moog synthesizer was still in its infancy. But the novelty of hearing hallowed classical pieces reduced to space-age kitsch proved to be the latest fad in an era of technical mischief, and the record was an enormous success, prompting a thousand imitations. Hilarious items like Everything You Always Wanted to Hear on the Moog (But Were Afraid to Ask), Switched on Rock, and The Plastic Cow Goes Mooooog! still pop up infrequently at yard sales and thrift stores, a reminder of how far one good idea can be stretched.

Unlikely as it seems, two of the most innovative and entertaining forays into Moogery originated in Nashville. Country Moog: Switched on Nashville and its follow-up, Nashville Gold, were the work of one Dr. Gil Trythall, a Peabody professor, electronics guru, and classical music scholar. Though his academic credentials were impeccable (he received a master’s degree in composition at Northwestern and his doctorate from Cornell), the albums are a thrilling journey into cartoon lunacy, in which country standards like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Harper Valley PTA” are rendered nearly unrecognizable: Fiddles, mandolins, pedal steel guitars, and banjos are all hilariously reborn as synthesized bleeps and squibbles. To this day, I’ve heard very few records that evoke such jaw-dropping wonder as this one, and its wild creativity sets it apart from many of the far tamer Moog outings that once flooded the market.

Although the album has been out of print for years, I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of Country Moog one Christmas from Grimey’s record store, and immediately became fascinated by this brilliant slab of local history. The picture on the rear cover showed a bookish man in spectacles, and the bio was brief, which only made me want to know more about Gil Trythall and exactly how he wound up creating this strange musical hybrid.

More curious still, I wondered, where is he now? Thanks to the Internet, I managed to locate him—in Brazil, of all places, where he’s currently teaching music and designing software. It turns out that Trythall has been anything but dormant through the years, but he was gracious enough to take some time to reminisce about the past and ponder the curious endurance of Country Moog.

You taught for a while at Peabody College. Is that what initially brought you to Nashville?

My first wife Jean and I came to Nashville in summer 1964. Nashville is a great town for musicians, stimulating and fun. We loved it! Peabody was a first-class music school, one of the best in the South for many years, and the students were excellent.... I also conducted the student orchestra, which included students from Vanderbilt and Belmont, and the Nashville Symphony commissioned and premiered several of my orchestral works as well. The most ambitious perhaps was “Chroma 1,” which combined slide projections, orchestra, and tape synthesis.

What first raised your interest in electronic music? Did you have specific influences?

I had always been interested in electronics. When the first electronic music studios began in Europe and America at the end of the ’50s, I bought all the LPs that were available. My greatest influences were Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Milton Babbitt. I started an electronic music studio in my office at Peabody in 1965, maybe the first [electronic music studio] in the South. I had two war-surplus oscillators, a primitive drum machine which I built, a passive mixer, and a tape splicer.

I would record pitches and keep about three feet of tape for each tone of the chromatic scale hung on the wall in my office. Then, when I needed a middle C or [another note], I would literally get it “off the wall.” It was a good day when I spliced together seven seconds of music. I used to work with my shoes off so that I could feel a dropped piece of tape before I stepped on it and ruined it.

The challenge was to make music out of this, but it was fun. And people were interested. Things got even more interesting when I started to work in multimedia with Don Evans, an artist-teacher at Vanderbilt. Our first collaboration was “The Programmatic Sensorium.” Don did the film and slide projections, and I composed the music. Audiences were enthusiastic, and we received good coverage, not always positive, but we were “bad boys,” art revolutionaries. As you can imagine, we were having fun.

Your two country Moog albums are fairly legendary. How did they come about?

In 1968] the Peabody School of Music received a federal grant for departmental improvement, and we established an electronic music studio with a room of its own, a Moog III synthesizer (the big one), and two stereo tape recorders, all interconnected. We had a real studio at last.

One day a newcomer to Nashville, guitarist Rick Powell, appeared at Peabody. Rick had some backers and was starting a recording studio and an indie label in Brentwood, Athena Records [also home to Nashville’s legendary all-girl garage combo the Feminine Complex]. Did I want to make a record for them? He wanted an album of 100-percent synthesized country music. He would produce, choose the tunes, and I went down to the Ernest Tubb record shop and bought the 45s that I was to cover.

How did you go about recording the songs?

The Moog in those days could only play one note at a time. Chords were impossible except for certain tricks that I won’t go into. Therefore, the arrangements had to be polyphonic or contrapuntal [i.e., combining simultaneous melodies].

Rick borrowed an early vacuum-tube eight-track for me (a huge monster with very warm sound) and I went to work in the studio, copying lines by ear, arranging, synthesizing, recording. The first album took about four months. I would work late at night, till 3 or 4 in the morning, go home and sleep a little, get up and teach—then after supper, resume work. A really big job, but fun.

[After the record came out,] I received fan mail from all over the world. Unfortunately, Rick’s label and probably the distributor [Sound Dimension] collapsed. I don’t think this was Rick’s fault. I didn’t lose any money; I made a little, but I learned a lot—did some appearances on WSM, met Ralph Emery—and it was all fun!

You also went on to publish several books.

I really learned the Moog when I did the two Moog albums. You can goof around with strange electronic sounds easily, but when you are synthesizing the sound of real acoustic instruments, the problem is much more complicated. This knowledge resulted in the book Principles and Practice of Electronic Music (1973).

Country Moog reinforced my sense of importance of the art of counterpoint for arranging. The multiple tracks, each with its own musical line, sounded so good together, and were such fun to write! This resulted in two textbooks: 16th-Century Counterpoint and 18th-Century Counterpoint, published by McGraw Hill. These remain in print. I am proud that many schools use these as counterpoint texts.

What brought you to South America?

A Brazilian friend, Marcos Moraes, invited me to Brazil as a visiting professor at the Universidade Federal do Espiritu Santo, in Vitoria, Brazil. I am assisting in the foundation of a new department of music education.

You’ve also been designing software.

The software is outlined at my Web site, http://www.musicstudy.com. These are self-instruction programs for ear training and music theory.

Have there ever been reissues of the Moog albums, or are there any in the works?

There was a recent Moog compilation album [Electronic Toys, on the Normal label, a collection of outlandish Moog pieces from the ’60s and ’70s] that included “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” They have never sent me a copy or any royalties....

How do you explain the continuing interest in Country Moog?

It blends the vitality of country music, an experimental electronic instrument, and arranging with two, three, and four voice counterpoints in one album. I think that unusual combination plays a significant part in its success. Even today, I get an occasional e-mail from Country Moog fans. But as they say, it’s a good thing I didn’t quit my day job!

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