Decades after Herb Deutsch heard a melody as he tapped the dirt ground with a stick, he transformed the music world by helping invent a portable synthesizer embraced by performers, from Bach lovers to The Beatles.
The composer and Hofstra University professor often spoke through his music. And in the pursuit of new sounds, the Moog synthesizer was born in the summer of 1964 during a collaboration with Robert Moog, an engineer who made electronic instruments. At the time, synthesizers were monstrous sized, and Deutsch asked Moog to make a portable, refined version, with keyboard attached.
Still in use today, the Moog synthesizer can be heard in Michael Jackson’s "Thriller," Donna Summer’s "I Feel Love” and The Beatles’ "Abbey Road" album. Billy Joel has played the Minimoog in concerts.
“It is the thing that I think the whole music world would understand as being both an approach to music and a complete solution at the same time,” Deutsch said in a 2018 video with Moog Music, which makes the synthesizer.
The Massapequa resident, who grew philosophical about the synthesizer not carrying his name, died of heart failure Dec. 9 at age 90.
Born to make music
As a composer, he released several albums showcasing his view of music as “sound organized in time.” When a church bomb planted by Klansmen killed four Alabama girls in 1963, Deutsch wove radio recordings of people’s reactions with a Middle Ages chant to reflect the coming of Christmas and a "Frère Jacques" nursery rhyme to plead for action from “Jacques” — President John F. Kennedy.
“He was musically omnivorous,” said Bob Lord, chief executive of Parma Recordings, Deutsch’s record label. “He had this almost childlike sense of playfulness, just curiosity. He would really just go where his ears led him, and I think that’s what made him so unique.”
Born in Baldwin, Deutsch spoke of poor beginnings with parents who tried making a living raising chickens. He was 3 when he heard musical notes from tapping on the family garage’s dirt floor. Terrified something crazy was happening, he ran crying to his mother. Months later, she got him piano lessons.
“I have never since doubted that I needed to make music in any manner,” he told Parma Recordings.
His most unusual work was performed in 1964 at a sculptor’s studio, with the percussionist banging on a sculpture of cut and welded car bumpers.
During dinner after this concert, the professor enlisted Moog’s help. They had known each other just a month, after Deutsch bought one of Moog’s theremins, an electronic instrument.
“At the time Herb was relying mostly on splicing tape to create new sounds and textures but found this technique very limiting,” said Michelle Moog-Koussa, who runs her father’s foundation.
But the legacy most cherished by Deutsch was as a professor instilling musical passion to younger generations, family and friends said. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Hofstra in 1956, and after further studies, he launched a 50-plus-year career at the university, serving twice as chairman of the music department. He founded the Electronic Music Studios, the Jazz Ensemble and several new degree programs, adored by students, according to several accounts.
David Goldberg remembers planning to drop out of Hofstra in 1987 for his full-time dream job when Deutsch became his adviser and tailored a plan that allowed him to stay in school.
“I left that meeting thinking this guy really cares about me,” said Goldberg, of Port Washington. “He always had a smile on his face every time I saw him.”
Hofstra, which gave Deutsch a $200 grant in 1964 to construct the synthesizer, honored him in 2010 with a display featuring his invention. By then, he had several awards, including about 15 from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Deutsch retired in 2018 but continued with the Long Island Composers Alliance, which he co-founded in 1972 to perform new works by local composers.
Kindness a trademark
During the family’s Thanksgiving gathering this past November, two weeks before his death, he could still improvise a jazz accompaniment on one piano while a stepson played on another.
“I think the playing was his way of communicating, because in the last few weeks, it was harder for him to talk but not hard for him to play,” said stepson Daniel Rogge of Seattle.
Deutsch is survived by his wife, Nancy; and children, Lisbeth Mitchell of Huntington Station, Edmund Deutsch of Bayport, Daniel Rogge of Seattle, Cheryl Sterling of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and Adam Blau of Los Angeles. His first wife, Margaret, died in 1996.
Services were held Dec. 16 at Gutterman’s Funeral Home in Woodbury. He was cremated but is commemorated with a headstone at Calverton National Cemetery due to his short Army service.
His family asks donations be made to ASPCA and the Bob Moog Foundation.