It’s how people are measured in a sense, but the formula is unfortunately flawed in modern society. The public tends to focus on one moment in a person’s life and assumes the rest is moot, or occasionally takes said moment and splits a life into before and after. Yet, true legacy can only be defined by looking at the whole body of work.
John Donald Robb, former dean at the University of New Mexico’s College of Fine Arts, holds an impressive oeuvre, which includes his part in the synthesizer revolution.
The summer of 1965 was a trying year in the United States. Troops were deployed to Vietnam followed by a slew of demonstrations, and the Civil Rights movement was heightened with the assassination of Malcolm X and Bloody Sunday.
With the help of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, it was also a year that helped change music forever. Robb became a catalyst in the shift after a three-week summer stint in Trumansburg, New York, hosted by Bob Moog.
Path of passion
Robb was an established attorney in New York, but his love for music and study of composition developed into more than just a hobby. At the age of 49, Robb decided to exit the law field to become head of the University of New Mexico’s music department. He served his role as dean from 1942-1957.
After his death in 1989, a trust in his name was established.
“He and his wife were very influential in the community,” said Jim Bonnell, secretary of the John Donald Robb Music Trust. “Probably the main thing that Robb did was become very interested in the Indigenous music of New Mexico, particularly the folk music of the Hispanic community.”
Robb grew up in Minnesota and took cello and piano lessons as a youth. He held degrees from the University of Minnesota and Yale University, and received his legal training at Harvard Law School. He spent time as a biology teacher in China, an artillery officer in World War I, a candidate for Congress and an author.
Despite his heralded academic and professional achievements, he eventually decided to follow the path of music.
“I’ve been on this board since 1999, and one of the reasons I remain is because we just keep picking up rocks and uncovering new things about him,” Bonnell said. “It’s sort of trite, but he really was like a Renaissance man.”
Robb founded the University of New Mexico Symphony and was its first conductor. He recorded over 3,000 traditional folk songs and dances, and produced symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber music, choral works and operas, which have been performed by more than 16 symphony orchestras in the western hemisphere.
In 1965, he again pivoted down another path.
“He became very interested in electronic music,” Bonnell said. “He was fascinated by the ability of it to make different sounds.”
Robb’s sound began to shift, and though it was hard to accept at first, it just strengthened his legacy, for he was an adaptable visionary.
The Moog revolution
Bob Moog created the Moog synthesizer in 1965, the first commercial synthesizer. He was an engineer and a pioneer of electronic music.
The recently published “Switched On: Bob Moog and the Synthesizer Revolution” by Albert Glinsky explores the life of the engineer and his lasting impact.
“What I was trying to do in the book is hit points, especially that people wouldn’t know about,” Glinsky said.
“Switched On” is a riveting account not just of the development of the synthesizer, but also a journey of the man. It intimately immerses readers into the life of the determined trailblazer and the subsequent struggles affiliated with creation and change.
“It’s amazing that he did what he did,” he said. “He was kind of a mad scientist sometimes and wanted to just pursue something to the nth degree.”
Glinsky is an established American composer himself, whose orchestral works have been performed at iconic venues such as Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center, and he has been the recipient of multiple awards and grants. Though Glinsky’s compositions can be considered more classical, he has worked with electronic music, but admits they are “different worlds.”
“I was trying to express, kind of, an alienation, a sense of the electronics, taking us into another kind of realm,” he said. “There’s so many synth sounds … it’s almost endless.”
There’s enough technical stuff in the book that so people who don’t know anything about either synth or electronic music can still enjoy it, but he wanted to capture the intensity of developing an industry-bending product as well.
One of the first composers to purchase the Moog synthesizer was Robb.
“He’s considered one of the early adopters of the Moog synth before people really knew what you could do with it,” Glinsky said about Robb. “He really was definitely a pioneer for sure.”
Glinsky called Robb the oldest attendee at Moog’s seminar.
“I think it shows an incredible curiosity on his part, to have gone all the way across the country … where Bob had set up his little factory and actually joined this seminar,” he said. “I think he really wanted to look at a whole new sort of paradigm for how music is created, which is really pretty amazing.”
Robb utilized the synthesizer to great success, producing the LP “Electronic Music From Razor Blades to Moog” in 1970. A year before, the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra presented his “Transmutation for Orchestra and Electronic Instrument.”
Back in 2013, Robb’s Moog synthesizer was restored and a demonstration followed. The university and trust are working on ways to reintroduce the instrument as an educational tool. The synthesizer is a device that thrives on imagination and experiment, and will continue to be used in music.
Glinsky said about Moog, “In the postlude, I talk about … how the company survives to this day, and that’s his legacy.”
One legacy helped form another.
Robb is recognized as one of the pioneers of electronic music. He saw the synthesizer’s potential as something that could change music moving forward. Musician Brian Kehew said Robb “was very aware of that shift.”
He said, “What’s cool about it is J.D. Robb is such a great, weird character, because he’s this big man, former lawyer, who studies Native chant and Native folk songs, but also really hip and ahead of the curve with electronics.”
Kehew has worked with a plethora of famed acts and is an author and researcher. He has been heavily involved in the use and study of synthesizers, He also released two albums, “The Moog Cookbook” and “Ye Olde Space Bande,” which re-created well-known songs using vintage synthesizers.
Being around music and working with stars for decades, Kehew understands the value of industry progression and adaptation, and recognizes the significant contributions from stage to studio to academics.
“It takes one person’s vision and one person’s change,” he said about Robb. “I think it might have been really bold of him to think that way, and just not care what people think.”
Openness to everything
Bonnell said, “As listeners, I think every time we have an encounter with music, we always first draw on our own background, but for me, the important thing is to keep learning and discovery.”
Legacy is stronger than the mightiest of bitter opinions and contentment; it represents significance and impact. It’s what pushes society forward.
Robb, as well as Moog, were never content, and they helped change music forever.