Rick Wakeman on synths and creativity

We asked legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman whether Beethoven would have used a Moog...
15 December 2020

Interview with 

Rick Wakeman


A modular synthesiser.


Beethoven was a pioneer in his use of instrumentation, bringing new repertoires to the grand piano. So Chris Smith asked legendary keyboardist and member of Yes, Rick Wakeman - also a musical pioneer himself on the synthesiser - whether he's a Beethoven fan...

Rick - Yes, I am a huge Beethoven fan. I mean it was very interesting listening to that: it brought to mind that it's not just the notation that makes somebody unique or clever; sound is incredibly important, which has played a major part in all music as new instruments get developed. And people forget Beethoven broke rules. In the 9th symphony for example he used a choir. Pretty much unheard of in a symphony; you just didn't have choirs. It reminded me then of my orchestration professor at the Royal College, the late Philip Cannon, who always said to me, "right, we're going to spend the first year learning the rules, and then go ahead and break them. But you can't break them unless you understand them." Beethoven was a genius at that. Absolute genius.

Chris - Well you broke lots of rules in your time, didn't you? Curries on stage, playing with paint rollers...

Rick - Yeah! I mean, I had fun with... one of the things that I always wanted to do was... in my initial days of the Royal College, popular music and - to put it into one sort of box - classical music were miles apart. And I didn't understand that. And I always felt that composers like Beethoven, and coming further forward to Wagner, if they'd have had the joy of electricity and Moog synthesisers and other instruments, they would have thrown them in the orchestra. Because right up until the beginning of the 20th century, when a new orchestral instrument came along or an instrument came along, it was thrown into the orchestra as they developed as well. But it seemed that when electricity helped the likes of Bob Moog and all the weird instruments that they made electronically, nobody ever wanted to put them into the orchestra. And I always felt that people like Wagner certainly would have done; and Beethoven actually would have done as well, would have thought, "well, this is fantastic! We'll have some of this." So I thought, "well if they're not around to do it, I'll have a go." But it was really hard, because to try and get the classical world to understand what I was trying to get at, and trying to get the popular world, the rock world, trying to understand what I was trying to get at, was quite difficult. And I think the secret is not just creativity in notation on how you put pieces together - although that certainly does... you can recognise somebody's style, I don't think you can recognise their creativity, I think you can recognise their style - but it's also their use of sounds. And certainly in this day and age, there is nothing almost that you can't do.

Chris - Do you think that the 1960s and 70s were a watershed moment, then? It was a new era in music when these amazing machines, as they were at the time, came along, like Bob Moog's synthesiser, and Mellotrons and things, which... I mean, you took that to David Bowie and played on Space Oddity with that, I think you had to learn to play differently because it was such an unreliable machine, wasn't it?

Rick - It was incredibly unreliable. Like most technology, when it first appears it has has lots of gremlins. But I think the major watershed moment, as far as electronic music, came when Bob Moog, Dr. Bob Moog built his first Moog synthesiser.

Chris - Because he wasn't keen on the word synthesiser, was he, to start with? He said he wanted to call it something else, and in the end he acquiesced and said, "okay, we'll call this a synthesiser".

Rick - Yeah. He always felt that a synthesiser as trying to create something that already existed; which was not true, he was creating an instrument with its own right and sound. That was very typical Bob. It's like if you asked him, "do you pronounce your name M-oog or M-ohg," he'd go, "whatever you want". But he was a wonderful bumbling old professor, I loved him to bits, we were great, great friends. He had three daughters and I could never remember their names, so they became known as Minimoog 1, Minimoog 2, and Minimoog 3!

Chris - I was just going to say, talking of creativity: what do you think the future holds, taking this amazing technology we now have? What do you think the future holds for us in terms of music, and do you think computers can give Beethoven a run for his money, or do you think that someone like you is always going to be able to push the envelope?

Rick - I think there's a simple answer: you should make the technology work for you, not you work for the technology. So if you're writing a piece of musical or thinking of one, and it needs the technology to make it work, use it. If it doesn't, don't use it just for the sake of it being there.


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