Regarding Prog

Keith Emerson

Recorded on March 12th, 2016

photo of Keith Emerson playing keyboards on stage

It’s impossible for me to think of Keith Emerson without thinking of his boundless virtuosity, his keyboard antics, and his mastery of the Moog Modular system and its inviting tangle of patch cords. I owe Emerson at least a part of my love for synthesizers. Even before I heard Wendy Carlos’s “Switched-On Bach”, I suspect that Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” was one of the first recordings I heard that used the Moog synthesizer.

It was still on the radio regularly when I was three or four, so I heard it long before I started memorizing band names and albums and song titles. I was aware of it, but only in the same way I was aware of the sky every day when I walked outside. It was just part of the environment.

Keith Emerson’s lead Moog part in the second half of the song was built on a group of oscillators generating square waves. The magical thing about a square wave (or any waveform) is that you can make one by adding up a series of harmonics (lower-amplitude sine waves of higher frequencies). As Wikipedia says:

The ideal square wave contains only components of odd-integer harmonic frequencies (of the form 2π(2k-1)f).

So a mathematically perfect square wave can never actually come out of a physical circuit. It can get close enough to sound right, though, and a square wave is often a built-in waveform option in synthesizers. They sound “hollow” to our ears, like you could roll around inside them. I believe that there’s something about the high and low voltages – and the implied (but unachievable) instantaneous transition between them – that pulled my young brain cells in and trapped some of them there for the last ~40+ years. Starting with “Lucky Man” and its lead part, my obsessions were sealed:

drawing of a square wave

I rediscovered ELP when they temporarily separated from Carl Palmer (who was playing with Asia at the time) and took up with Cozy Powell for one album in 1986. They did an interview on The Today Show, which I can’t find a clip for, that showed a few seconds from a live video for “Knife-Edge” back when Palmer was still with them. They absolutely shredded. My brother and I had never seen such a cool band, and we watched our videotape of that clip repeatedly. Here’s the full song:

With all the visibility of his towering Moog modules, I forget how great Emerson was on the Hammond organ. In that video, there may as well be a direct connection between the instrument and his brain. His fingers just don’t get in the way of whatever he needs to express.

I don’t know how I missed this, but in 2014, Moog Music came out with a new Emerson Modular System, a $150,000 recreation of Emerson’s own giant modular Moog. I hope it sells well, and I can only imagine the thunderous noise it makes. It’s nice to think that the thunderous noise from Keith Emerson’s work will keep beaming away from Earth in AM and FM analog radio waves for a long time.