Gershon Kingsley, Moog-loving composer, dies at 97

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Gershon Kingsley, Moog-loving composer, dies at 97
Gershon Kingsley at the keyboard of a Moog synthesizer in New York in 1972. Kingsley, a composer who brought electronic sounds into popular music and wrote the enduring instrumental hit “Pop Corn,” died on Dec. 10, 2019, at his home in Manhattan. He was 97. Jack Manning/The New York Times.

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Gershon Kingsley, a composer who brought electronic sounds into popular music and wrote the enduring instrumental hit “Pop Corn,” died Dec. 10 at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.

His daughter Alisse Kingsley confirmed his death.

In the 1960s, Kingsley was an early convert to the Moog synthesizer. He used it to create music for commercials and to orchestrate perky melodies — most notably “Pop Corn,” an instrumental originally released on Kingsley’s 1969 album “Music to Moog By” that became a bestseller and was remade (usually renamed “Popcorn”) in hundreds of versions: by Kraftwerk, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Aphex Twin and the Muppets.

A 1972 version of “Popcorn” by Hot Butter made the song an international hit, and a 2005 remake for the animated character Crazy Frog became a major hit in Europe.

In a prolific career, Kingsley wrote a concerto for four Moogs, as well as musicals, operas, oratorios, cantatas, movie soundtracks and a rock version of Jewish Sabbath services. Kingsley’s music was also heard widely without his name attached. His racing, seven-second synthesizer crescendo has accompanied the logo of the Boston public television station WGBH since 1971.

Gershon Kingsley was born Goetz Gustav Ksinski on Oct. 28, 1922, in Bochum, Westfalia, Germany. His father, Max Ksinski, was a carpet dealer and pianist; his mother, Marie Christina, was a homemaker and a Catholic who converted to her husband’s Judaism.

He grew up in Berlin but in 1938, a few days before Kristallnacht, he fled to what was then Palestine and later became Israel. (His parents reached the United States via Cuba.) He farmed on a kibbutz and served in the British colonial army in Palestine. He also taught himself to play piano and attended the Jerusalem Conservatory.

In 1946, he came to the United States and studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (now the California Institute of the Arts). He worked as a musical director for Los Angeles synagogues and a conductor for summer stock theater in Sacramento, California. He chose the name Gershon after the son of Moses, Gershom, which translates as “stranger there.”

He moved to New York in 1956 and became a conductor for Broadway and off-Broadway theater. He was the musical director for Sir Laurence Olivier in “The Entertainer,” for Josephine Baker concerts at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway, for a 1964 revival of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” for the Robert Joffrey Ballet and for a television special with Lotte Lenya, “The World of Kurt Weill.”

Kingsley grew interested in electronic music while working as a staff arranger for Vanguard Records in the mid-1960s, accompanying Buffy Sainte-Marie, tenor Jan Peerce and others.

French musician Jean-Jacques Perrey introduced Kingsley to music made by splicing together synthesized tones recorded on tape, from an early electronic instrument, the Ondioline. Around the same time, Kingsley encountered the early Moog synthesizer, which he recalled, in an interview for the 1993 book by RE/Search Publications, “Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1,” as “this strange contraption that looked like an elephant switchboard and made sounds I’d never heard before.”

He met Robert Moog, the Moog’s inventor, who tried to explain its circuitry to him. In the RE/Search book, he recalled, “I remember saying, ‘Mr. Moog, I’m a musician, not a scientist,’” to which Moog replied: “Don’t you understand? This is the future!”

He bought one with his savings — a major investment of $3,500, the equivalent of nearly $25,000 now — but he soon recouped it by composing music and sounds for commercials.

Collaborating as Perrey-Kingsley, Kingsley and Perrey made albums beginning with “The In Sound from Way Out!” in 1966. (The Beastie Boys reused that album title for their 1996 album of instrumentals; they also had Kingsley record a new, hip-hop-flavored version of “Popcorn.” )

Perrey-Kingsley’s 1967 album “Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Spotlight on the Moog” included “Baroque Hoedown,” mixing harpsichord and synthesizers, which has been heard daily at Disneyland since 1972, backing the Main Street Electrical Parade.

After the duo went separate ways, Kingsley further embraced the Moog. His 1969 album, “Music to Moog By,” included his first version of “Pop Corn.”

Although the early Moog was an unwieldy studio instrument, Kingsley formed the First Moog Quartet for live performances: four Moog players backed by a four-piece band and singers. Their 1970 debut at Carnegie Hall, with Robert Moog in attendance, was a multimedia production with films and dancers, offering arrangements of Bach and Beatles material along with Kingsley’s own music.

Reviews were decidedly mixed or worse. Peter G. Davis in The New York Times wrote, “Both arrangements and the original material by Mr. Kingsley were threadbare of musical substance. When they were audible, the four Moogs sounded rather like calliopes on a merry-go-round.”

But Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, asked Kingsley to write a piece for Moog quartet and orchestra. The Pops concert was televised, and “Concerto for Moog” drew broad interest. The First Moog Quartet toured on its own and performed with orchestras in the early 1970s. Hot Butter, which made the 1972 hit version of “Popcorn,” was formed by Stan Free, a member of the First Moog Quartet.

Kingsley was urged by his record company to write follow-ups to “Popcorn,” and he came up with other tracks named after food, like “Sauerkraut” and “Cold Duck,” which became a minor hit in France. “The Moog is an instrument with a sense of humor,” he told The New York Times in 1972.

But Kingsley composed far more than zippy novelty tunes. His music straddled popular, classical and avant-garde styles, from jazz, rock, electronic dance music and new age to Baroque music, minimalism and sonic experiments.

Although Kingsley described himself as an atheist, many of his larger works were devoted to Jewish spirituality and culture and to Holocaust remembrance.

In 1969 he wrote a rock version of the Jewish Sabbath service, “Shabbat for Today,” that was taken up by congregations worldwide. The New York Philharmonic performed Kingsley’s 1971 oratorio, “What Is Man?,” which was based on the Talmud and called for singers, orchestra, electric guitar and two Moogs. “The Fifth Cup,” a Passover rock opera from 1974, featured folk singer Theodore Bikel.

A theatrical concert work based on poetry from the Holocaust, “Voices from the Shadow,” had its premiere in 1998 at Lincoln Center in New York City. He wrote “Selma,” a song cycle based on the Holocaust poetry of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, and a 2006 compilation album, “God Is a Moog,” gathered decades of his spiritually themed music — including “Is There Only One?,” questioning monotheism in a mix of cantorial singing and Gregorian chants.

In 2008, he composed “Raoul,” an opera based on the life of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary.

Kingsley was married four times. His fourth wife, Lillian Bozinoff-Kingsley, died in 2018. Beside his daughter Alisse, he is survived by another daughter, Melinda Kingsley LaPlaca, and a grandson..)

In 1992, Kingsley marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World with two works: the musical “Cristobal,” performed at New York’s Union Square Theater; and the opera “Tierra,” performed at the Gasteig Concert Hall in Munich.

Kingsley also composed meditative new age music in the 1980s and 1990s, with albums including “Much Silence” and “Anima.” Well into the 2010s, Kingsley also continued to release more music on SoundCloud: lighthearted pop tracks, chamber music, textural experiments, improvisations.

As long as he continued to make music, he told his family, “I’m not ready to decompose just yet.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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