Moog’s most magical machine

TONTO is the National Music Centre’s storied new acquisition

When Robert Margouleff was producing the film Ciao! Manhattan in 1968 he needed some music so he bought a stock Moog 3C synthesizer. The engineer at the studio where it was housed was Malcolm Cecil and the first time the two met they started experimenting and recording with the Moog. Soon after their recordings attracted some attention and before long they were releasing albums. In the meantime they kept adding to the synthesizer and over the years the synthesizer grew to contain modules and parts made by several manufacturers. It came to be named TONTO an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” and it’s now housed in Calgary’s National Music Centre.

When Stevie Wonder first heard their recordings he wasted no time in paying TONTO a visit and immediately began recording with Margouleff and Cecil. At first Cecil who worked as a professional jazz musician earlier in life was instructed to play upright bass but unhappy with how the jazz bass sounded on the R&B songs Malcolm suggested the use of TONTO for the bass lines. It apparently worked because this led to Robert and Malcolm producing and playing on four Stevie Wonder albums — Music of My Mind Talking Book Innervisions and Fullfillingness’ First Finale . It also meant the Margouleff-Cecil-TONTO trio was hired to work on numerous R&B and soul albums by such groups as the Isley Brothers and Gil Scott-Heron. TONTO was also used as a prop for the filming of the 1974 box office flop/cult classic Phantom of the Paradise .

Over the years Margouleff and Cecil have been credited for their work on the albums of many celebrated artists most of which overshadow those written and recorded by the duo themselves. But they were the ones who spent the most time experimenting with the instrument tinkering with the electronics and coaxing more interesting sounds out of it. Their albums which had TONTO as the central feature are probably the best for gaining an understanding of what the instrument was actually capable of. Unfortunately there were only four of them:

• Caldera — A Moog Mass (1970)

Margouleff and Cecil used TONTO to simulate human voices singing Stabat Mater Dolorosa a 13th century Catholic hymn to Mary.

• Tonto’s Expanding Head Band — Zero Time (1971)

While reviewing these recordings Margouleff and Cecil were unsure whether it was music they were making even referring to a dictionary to confirm that their creation could be defined as such. One critic called it “a revolutionary piece of work that set out to explore the capabilities of the synthesizer with no regard for conceptions of pop success.”

• Tonto – It’s About Time (1974)

Sonically this is a wide-ranging album with a progressive slant but it was largely ignored.

• Malcolm Cecil – Radiance (1981)

As a break from the R&B work he’d been doing a lone Cecil wanted to showcase the softer side of TONTO and returned to using it for its original purpose: an orchestra of synthesizers. For years Cecil planned to use the music as a backing track for a series of Muslim faith-based Muhammad Ali lectures. The project was finally picking up steam in the late ’90s but was mothballed by his label after 9/11.