“Earth to EZRA”

Travis Johns narrates his experience encountering and re-building the historic Rothenberg Moog



Travis Johns is a sound artist residing in Ithaca, NY, whose work includes performance, interactivity, installation, and printmaking, often incorporating eco/bio-based themes and electronic instruments of his own design.


To best frame this experience, potentially at the risk of waxing origin story here, I feel it’s probably best to add the disclaimer that a good portion of my formative upbringing was spent in the general cultural orbit of various leftist countercultural themes, trends and other hippy-twinged 60’s-era tropes that one would expect while growing up in the vicinity of Woodstock, New York. More specifically, with regard to the experience of rebuilding and/or restoring a relatively unknown, yet potentially culturally-significant electric organ, I feel compelled to reference the literary works of Tom Robbins, and even more specifically, his first novel Another Roadside Attraction, published circa 1971 – a novel very much engrained in such an upbringing. For those unaware, among the numerous nonsensical plot-points, the general premise is somewhere along the lines of the hijinks that ensue when the mummified corpse of Jesus Christ, through a strange series of events, ends up on display at a roadside zoo and hot dog stand in rural Washington state. Naturally, hilarity ensued, but at the same time, even though the impact of divine relic that directly contradicts nearly two millennia of dogmatic teachings at a Cascadian hot dog stand may be minimal in the grand scheme of things, the notion that this knowledge exists, even to a select, unlikely few is enough to move the needle of truth to uncharted territories. At the risk of quoting a trope more aligned with my generation, the Truth (capital “T), was indeed out there. 


At the time of writing this, approximately two months after the debut of this instrument, I feel that this is possibly one of the best analogies that I can muster for this experience – and in an abstract sense, the feeling experienced when first removing the lid on the crate that housed this beast was similar to the discovery of said aforementioned contradictory divine relic. Historically speaking, the general narrative of electronic music in the 20th century is that discounting a handful of oddities, much of the canon prior to the meddling of one R.A. Moog was largely delegated to state-sponsored laboratories, academies and a ragtag scattering of left-coast oddballs intent on some sort of chemically addled, transistor-aided cosmic navel-gazing – several of the latter ending up as the core of my composition teachers, go figure. Again, Woodstock. I digress – back to the history lesson. If we stick to the established canon, in a small town outside of Ithaca, NY sometime in the mid-1960’s, a graduate student from a certain research institution connected a piano keyboard to an assemblage of electronic test equipment and the rest, as they say, is history as the derivative hardware inspires a dramatic shift from experiments and laboratories to dancefloors, popular culture and some would even go as far as to argue, our hearts. 


BUT – similar to a fictionalized mummified corpse that by all literary accounts should have ascended into the biblical realm of his spiritual father sometime around 36 AD, what if the established historical narrative of 20th century electronic music was suddenly thrown into doubt with a single unboxing? As narrow-band as it seems, this was the level of shock I felt encountering this keyboard for the first time – well that and the string of expletives that one would expect to hear when staring down a 478-key instrument that directly contradicts said narrative. Naturally, I had to be a part of whatever was about to happen with this machine. The problem is, when staring down an esoteric, if not mythical but nonetheless sacred object, exactly how does one even begin – especially when you consider the notion that the original designers never managed to get it to work correctly in the first place? 

In the end, at the risk of blasphemy, I decided the best course of action would be to approach the project under the premise that in spite of esoterica, history and mythology, nothing was sacred – and if given the choice between creating an exact replica of an instrument that would only recreate the same issues encountered 50 years prior or push forward and develop something that would actually do what the designers intended, I choose the latter – after all, there’s been over a half-century of technological innovations between then and now to work with. 


Not to say these innovations provided a clear path forward – while society’s been blessed with numerous, wonderful technological advances, the field of microtonal organ design is woefully lacking. Eventually a solution was found by way of approximating the general electronic schema of string synthesizers one would most likely hear on a late 70’s disco track but with the circuitry modified for 31 divisions of the octave instead of the usual 12 – which, in theory meant just a little more work to account for the additional 19 notes… multiplied by seven octaves – when you put it that way, you’re almost able to convince yourself that things should be a walk in the park with just a little extra busy-work. 


…which is not how invention, engineering or instrument design works in the slightest. For a good second, the project seemed to be fated for the perpetual dance of two steps forward, one step back, which is still miraculous progress considering the circumstances. All I can say is that Cornell has an amazing community of engineers, programmers, woodworkers, astronomers, performers, journalists and filmmakers all willing to lend a hand out of sheer curiosity and determination to revive an instrument for no good reason other than to hear what it sounds like. Speaking of – what does it sound like, you ask? That’s a good question, especially when it comes to an instrument whose very name invokes the imitation of other sounds, both worldly and otherwise. While we deviated severely from the original schematics, all changes were done in a way that would still approximate the original intended tone of the instrument with one or two personal touches along the way. Nearing the end of the build, when Xak was taking it for a test drive, my wife mentioned that it was beginning to sound like an organ from the 1970’s – which lead to all of us laughing since in the end, that’s exactly what it was. 


In my opinion, the performance and the project as a whole was a rousing success – not just because we managed to somehow revive an esoteric instrument, or stage a concert of some pretty impressive music but because throughout it all, we managed to build  an enthusiastic community that grew exponentially as the project progressed – not to mention briefly grazing the national news cycles – potentially a first for any microtonal instrument. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been more than amused by the barrage of comments, both positive and negative about the project, which I could easily go to extreme lengths in defense and justification of exactly why and how we chose to proceed. However, as it’s only fair to address at least one elephant in the room, I’ll answer this one: 


Q: Why did we choose to debut an experimental organ in a bluegrass-twinged microtonal jam band? 


A: If you’re asking that question, you’ve obviously never been to Ithaca. 


Back to the metaphor. For those not into spoilers, it’s probably best to stop here. At the end of the novel, as hilarity continues to ensue, the Biblical corpse that ought not to exist meets its end by way of a high-altitude weather balloon and the implication that said holy remains disintegrated on reentry into the atmosphere – which in an abstract sense ends up mirroring the events as told in the original scripture. Meaning that even given the dramatic change of narrative, did the needle even move? In our case, I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe it did. Did we re-write history? Perhaps not – but did we add an interesting side note to the established narrative and make a few friends along the way? Absolutely. Will any of our wayward adventures in historical synthesizer recreation in a small town off the beaten path in central New York be something more than a musical roadside attraction of sorts in the grand narrative of sound? I suppose time will tell on that one. Either way, I’m glad I was a part of it and am beyond grateful everyone who joined us on the adventure. 


And what an adventure it was – from initial research to discover the origins of the instrument to implementing solutions to problems encountered in the original design, to the final assembly, not a minute went by where I wasn’t somehow actively involved in dreaming up solutions as challenges continued to present themselves. Not to say that I was alone in this task – my eternal gratitude goes to Cornell students (both now alumni) Christopher Rooney and J Nation for bringing their unique skillsets in programming and instrument design to this project. The same goes for my family, especially my uncle David Johns and wife Paulina Velazquez Solis for their support and woodworking skills, and most importantly, my daughter Ximena for her patience and understanding as our house was transformed into a workshop for microtonal organ restoration – and also for demonstrating that even on an instrument with as many keys and tonal possibilities as this, one is still able to play Mary had a little lamb, – an act that somehow managed to upset a large swath of the microtonal music community. In all, I’m proud of this accomplishment – and not just for the material satisfaction of a playable instrument, but also due to the general enthusiasm and community that this project created as it progressed. As it happens, Mary had a little lamb is also one of the earliest examples of recorded sound, by way of Thomas Edison in 1877. At the risk of waxing metaphorical, I can’t think of a better place to start what will hopefully be a new string of sonic adventures as new players and composers encounter this instrument. Thank you again to Xak and Elizabeth, as well as everyone else for your enthusiasm in bringing this project to life.