Keith Emerson: The Keyboard Innovator


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By Austin Weimer

Progressive keyboard legend and founder of The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Keith Emerson, passed away Thursday, March 10. His accomplishments have been invaluable to rock and roll history.

In 1969, the synthesizer company Moog Music created the Emerson Moog Modular System (EMMS), a towering collection of various oscillators and channel rack synthesizers. The massive amount of channels and sound manipulation possibilities sets the system apart from its predecessors. A five-console panel with twenty-two channels per console is roughly ten feet tall and weighs 550 pounds. At the time, most systems only incorporated two consoles with minimal connections. To most, the EMMS connections look random, like an array of red and green spaghetti. But a single 61-key controller at the base of the stack controls the entire system. Using this giant stack of sound devices, Emerson went on to match the extravagance of his instrument with his performance.


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The most iconic and defining performances of progressive rock history are from the 1970s era of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Albums like Tarkus, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, and Works Volumes 1 & 2 represent the full range of the EMMS system. The band derived their complex arrangements and over the top instrumentation from their classical backgrounds. For example, Emerson’s composing influences include the great jazz composer Dave Brubeck. Emerson modified “Blue Rondo à la Turk” from the original 9/8 time signature into a 4/4 version, and this adaptation took the piece to an entirely new level of excitement, particularly in its delivery. In a sparkling rhinestone cowboy outfit, Emerson tilted his entire organ as he madly swiped his hands across the keys in perfect rhythm. On other occasions, Emerson stuck daggers into the keys of his Hammond organ and dumped a bucket of ping-pong balls into his piano. Perhaps the most memorable theatrics occurred during the California Jam 1974 performance when Emerson played a solo while strapped to a spinning piano fifty feet in the air.

An astronomical number of modern music composers use equipment and techniques created by Emerson. The classic sine wave oscillator sound evolved from the progressive rock genre and traveled into modern metal, hip-hop, EDM, and jazz-fusion. Artists like Flying Lotus and Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess take influence directly from Emerson’s initial synthesizer sound designs.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, while successful, faced strong criticism from classic rock fans about their eccentric performances. Emerson welcomed the criticism, but it left him too fearful of disappointing his fans later in life. Depression due to neuron damage slowly deteriorated Emerson’s ability to play, leading to his suicide. Former band member Carl Palmer will be honoring Emerson with a tribute concert on June 26 at Olympia Theater in Miami. The multimedia performance aims to commemorate his lifetime of unimaginable achievements. Emerson’s sound will invariably live in modern music as it evolves further.

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