Earlier this month Moog Music announced that it would recreate three of the sophisticated modular-synth systems that made the company famous in the 70s. System 55, System 35, and Model 15, as they’re rather prosaically known, are straight-up battleships compared to most modern synths—enormous and heavy, with intimidatingly cryptic interfaces and solid walnut cabinets.
They’re also going to be very expensive. The 55 units of System 55 that Moog plans to build will cost $35,000 apiece; System 35 will be $22,000 a pop, with only 35 copies made; and the smaller Model 15 will run you $10,000 for one of its 150 iterations. “The modules are built from the original circuit board films,” says the company’s PR, “by hand-stuffing and hand-soldering components to circuit boards. . . . The front panels are photo-etched aluminum . . . to maintain the classic and durable look of vintage Moog modules.”
And since we’re talking about vintage synths and nostalgia, what better choice for today’s 12 O’Clock Track than a 45-year-old Moog rendition of the Stabat Mater, a 13th-century Catholic hymn to Mary that meditates on her suffering during Jesus’s crucifixion.
This setting of the hymn is by Italian Baroque composer Antonio Caldara, written around 1725, while he was serving as music master to the imperial court in Vienna, a position he held until his death in 1736.
Caldara: A Moog Mass was released by the Kama Sutra label in 1970, and many people on the Internet now assume it to be the work of a group named Caldera, in part because some editions of the LP misspell the composer’s name that way. (And a “caldera,” of course, is a huge basin formed by the collapse of overlying land into an emptied magma chamber after a volcanic eruption. This would admittedly be a cool thing to name a band.)
The ensemble on this recording doesn’t have a name, but its key members are Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, soon to become known as UK electronic duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band; they’re perhaps best remembered for their extensive collaborations with Stevie Wonder. “Tonto” refers to the massive integrated battery of analog synths they used in the project, christened the Original New Timbral Orchestra—according to Wikipedia, it fills a “semicircle of huge curving wooden cabinets, 20 feet in diameter and six feet tall,” and it’s still the largest instrument of its kind ever built.
Cecil delivers the spoken English verses at the beginning of each of the seven movements of the Stabat Mater. Radical vocal treatments and speech-synthesis techniques make this stately, melancholy music feel almost otherworldly, underscoring the elaborate stylization of its grief. The cello blends surprisingly well with the Moogs; the harpischord, not so much.
Finally, here’s a video Moog released in conjunction with the announcement about its modular systems. The three synths in question were first introduced in 1973, so none appears on the Moog Mass.