Moogs, Moon Landings, and Music for Plants: Mort Garson at 99

Mort Garson
Mort Garson at his Moog Modular.
Photo courtesy of Sacred Bones Records.

Whether famous or nameless, one can only assume that most musicians vividly remember the day they happened upon their largest audience. For Mort Garson, it lined up with his 45th birthday.

In 1969, the composer and arranger was commissioned to write a six-minute piece of incidental synthesizer music that would serve as the soundtrack to the broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing on CBS News. That Friday afternoon at his birthday gathering, his friends congregated around the television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their proverbial giant leap—they were among an estimated 25 million viewers in America that tuned in.

"The only sounds that go along with space travel are electronic ones," Garson declared to the Los Angeles Times that summer. "The Apollo film shows different facets of the flight… [the music] has to carry the film along. It has to echo the sound of the blastoff and even the static you hear on the astronauts' report from space. People are used to hearing things from outer space, not just seeing them. I used a big, symphonic sound for the blastoff, some jazzy things for the zero-gravity game of catch, psychedelic music for a section that uses negatives and diffuse colors on shots taken inside the ship, and a pretty melody for the moon. After all, it's still a lovely moon."

Mort Garson's "Moon Journey", from the compilation "Journey to the Moon and Beyond" on Sacred Bones Records.

For years, the recording of Garson's electronic tone poem was thought to be lost and could only be heard through a low-quality YouTube clip. It wasn't until 2015 that music historian Andy Zax uncovered the master tape while reviewing the archive of poet, songwriter, and Garson collaborator Rod McKuen. Exactly 54 years on from its initial airing, and just in time for the composer's 99th birthday, the Moog-fueled "Moon Journey" has finally reentered our orbit. It's now the centerpiece of a new compilation, Journey to the Moon and Beyond, out today on Sacred Bones Records.

The collection is the latest in a series of retrospective releases of Garson's work overseen by the Brooklyn-based label, a sequence that began with the reissue of his 1976 LP Mother Earth's Plantasia. Recorded on a Moog Modular especially to help plants grow, the album was initially exclusively distributed as promotional material for Mother Earth Plant Boutique, a houseplant store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Although the record went out of print in the decades to follow, Plantasia earned its reputation as a cult classic among crate diggers, green thumbs, and sonic-minded stoners alike.

The tracklist of Journey to the Moon and Beyond provides plenty of proof of the versatility of Mort Garson's synthesizer music, which spans the soundtracks of blaxploitation films and National Geographic specials. Nevertheless, those credits alone barely scratch the surface of this early pioneer of electronic music's scope of work.

The son of Russian Jewish refugees, Garson was born in the seaport town of Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada. The family relocated to New York City during his childhood, where he would eventually study music at Juilliard. After serving in the army during World War II, he took a deeper plunge into the world of songwriting and arranging, eventually accruing co-write credits on singles by Cliff Richard and Brenda Lee. After scoring a #1 hit on the Hot 100 Billboard chart with the easy listening standard "Our Day Will Come"—originally recorded by R&B group Ruby and the Romantics—his family relocated to Los Angeles, where his clientele as an arranger would exponentially expand to include Doris Day, Mel Tormé, and Glen Campbell.

The 1967 collaborative concept album The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds was one of the first commercial recordings to feature the Moog Modular synthesizer. It featured music composed by Mort Garson, and performances from the members of the Wrecking Crew.

In 1967, a chance meeting with Robert Moog at the Audio Engineering Society Convention on Hollywood Boulevard led Garson down the rabbit hole of working with synthesizers. The first of these projects was The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds, a psychedelic concept album released by Elektra that sees Garson explore each of the astrological signs through a 12-track suite. Mr. Moog showed up to a session for the album at a time when he was unsure of his instrument's commercial potential. When he heard how the Moog Modular sounded against performances from the members of the ubiquitous Wrecking Crew studio collective, he was far more convinced.

"Our [West Coast] representative, Paul Beaver, produced the sounds, turning the knobs and hitting the keys," Moog recalled in a 2001 seminar conducted at Hofstra University. "If you get a hold of that album, the very first sound on it is 'ooooaaaahhh'—a big, slow glissando."

By the time that Garson completed the Apollo 11 commission, he had acquired a Moog of his own and he would churn out soundtracks and jingles along the lines of those that appear on Journey to the Moon. As he became more comfortable with its filters and voltage control and effectively introduced synthesized sound to mass media, he traded three-minute pop songs for album-length explorations of the occult. Under the alias Lucifer, he released the aptly-titled album Black Mass in 1971—a spooky, supernatural suite worlds away from the soft pop vocal groups he produced for in the previous decade.

As Garson began simmering sine waves into witches' brews, a former Hollywood screenwriter with a few Gilligan's Island and Green Acres episodes under his belt was preparing to open a plant boutique in the heart of Melrose Avenue. Joel Rapp and his wife Lynn opened Mother Earth Plant Boutique in 1970 at a time when health food stores and yoga studios were stretched out all over Santa Monica Boulevard. With an instant patron base of Rapp's Hollywood connections, the store became the film industry's one-stop shop for ferns and fiddle-leafs.

One catalyst that contributed to the 1970s houseplant boom was the 1973 nonfiction best-seller The Secret House of Plants, written by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. Among some questionable claims regarding unusual phenomena associated with plants—telepathy and lie detection among them—the authors suggested that music helped plants to grow. Inspired by Tompkins and Bird's botanical claims, Garson rose to the challenge of recording an album of plant music using the Moog.

Mort Garson's 1976 album Mother Earth's Plantasia.

Mother Earth's Plantasia was released in 1976 as an exclusive piece of promotional swag for the aforementioned store, stamped with the subtitle "warm earth music for plants… and the people who love them". According to Sacred Bones Records, shoppers at Sears in California would also allegedly receive a free copy of the album when they bought a Simmons mattress. Alongside some twee text in the liner notes describing each of the ten pieces, the original LP contained a "Hassle-Free Remedy Chart" that offered instructions on how to deal with problems new plant parents frequently encounter.

"As you lie back, surrounded by the Green members of your family, and listen to these melodies, you might be wondering—will talking to my plans or playing this music for them really help them to grow," Joel Rapp wrote. "Frankly, we do not know for sure that it will. However, we do know one thing—it couldn't possibly hurt." Even if listeners approach the album's aims of plant perception with skepticism, it's easy to hear why it's earned such a cult following amongst record collectors: the Moog's playfully lush arpeggios and warm pads cultivate a cozy environment ideal for domestic listening.

As Plantasia went out of print and was relegated to a dollar-bin discovery in the decades to follow, Garson entered a less prolific phase. In the 1980s, he composed the score for a West End musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life that was a fateful flop, and scored a handful of B-list action films that never met a wide audience. Be that as it may, Garson remained active until his death in San Francisco at the age of 83.

Thanks to the Sacred Bones reissue, plenty of marketed merchandise, and Millennial generation's fascination with houseplants, the universal appeal of Garson's most famous work has only continued to blossom. Flora aside, Plantasia is an inarguable touchstone in the timeline of recorded synthesizer music. According to the Moog team, it was the first album on the West Coast to be recorded entirely on their modular system, nearly a full decade after Wendy Carlos recorded her collection of Bach interpretations in her West Village apartment in NYC.

"I don't think anybody anybody can overstate the value of getting the music into the marketplace in the very clever and understated way that Mort did," Chris Geissler, Moog's former Modular Production Manager, once told Red Bull Music Academy. "We would talk about things like this and Bob would tear up, because he was so humbled that the thing he made would have that much of an impact." Though the details of the production process remain hazy, there's no doubt that Plantasia and Garson's oeuvre at large, showcased the inherent versatility of Bob Moog's instruments and paved the way for synthesists of all stripes. One only has to plant the seeds to watch them grow.

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