Moogfest 2017: where creativity and technology meet
Where can you find musicians, engineers, artists, social activists, gearheads, scientists, and music lovers all mingling together? Moogfest. This year’s festival honoring the legacy of Robert “Bob” Moog was held May 18-21 in Durham, NC. Spread out over multiple venues in downtown Durham, there were live performances, panels, art installations, workshops, and much more. So much to choose from that every attendee’s experience differed greatly, but follow along as I recap mine.
Though the festivities kicked off on a Thursday, I was unable to attend until Friday. I spent some time orienting myself then headed to The Carolina Theatre for a session with Michael Stipe to discuss his audiovisual piece, Jeremy Dance, installed in the American Underground campus during Moogfest. For the work, Stipe filmed the late artist Jeremy Ayers dancing to a basic track, later replaced with Stipe’s first solo composition. In a wide ranging talk, Stipe discussed meeting Ayers as a teen and his friendship with him.
“He taught me how to dress,” recalled Stipe. “He taught me how to dance.” Stipe called his relationship with music difficult and says he feels he’s viewed now as “a pop star who started making sculpture.”
Afterwards, I dropped in on durational audio performance by The Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner. I had never heard that term before, but much like ambient, the concept seems to be long form, atmospheric, and continuously evolving music. Not for short attention spans.
The transhumanism theme was evident in the presentation I attended next. A lecture on genome engineering by Charlie Gersbach, Ph.D., a professor at Duke University. Dr. Gersbach gave an overview of genome engineering, in particular, current research aiming to treat genetic diseases. He also speculated on what the future may hold, as well as addressing some of the legal, safety, and ethical considerations.
Next I checked out the Dream Wanderer, a repurposed transit shuttle. The Dream Wanderer serves as a mobile virtual reality gallery for the arts collective FLATSITTER. The current work it houses, Lily Dale, is based on interviews with mediums and spiritualists who are residents of the town of Lily Dale, NY. There are twenty possible vignettes, of which three are chosen by tarot cards, set to these interviews. Two of the cards I drew led to tranquil, relaxing scenes, but the third I found slightly unsettling in a fascinating kind of way. Very surreal.
The artist I was most looking forward to was Zola Jesus. I’ve been a fan for a few years, but had yet to see her perform live. I was not disappointed. Going on at the outdoor stage at Motorco Park shortly before sunset and backed by a violinist and guitarist, she seemed to use her entire body to reinforce her vocals. In bare feet, she sometimes glided gracefully across stage, at others, jerking spasmodically as if in anguish, and crouched on the speakers in front of stage. One member of the audience described the set as “hypnotic and mesmerizing.”
Taking a short walk over to Motorco Music Hall proper, next up was Tasha the Amazon. When it comes to hip-hop, I generally prefer 80s and 90s artists to contemporary ones, but on the advice of a friend, I decided to give Tasha a listen and she won me over. An exuberant performer, she radiated charisma and confidence. In spite of being overdressed for the Durham heat and humidity, she bantered with the audience and bounded about the stage to the point I was getting tired just watching her.
For the night’s finale, I headed to the Durham Armory to see a DJ set by legendary producer Derrick May. As one of the founders of Detroit techno, May has been producing music for three decades and he showed he still knows how to make people move their feet. The party was still going strong when I finally left, exhausted, about 1 AM to turn in for the night.
On Saturday, I took a hike over to the American Tobacco Campus and my first stop was at the Moog Pop-Up Factory. Moog moved production of a new synth, the SUBSEQUENT 37 CV to Moogfest and the first units were being assembled right in front of us. The Moog employees took the gawking in good humor and didn’t seem to be too bothered by the attention. Moog also had plenty of their gear on hand to play with.
Nearby the three finalists for Moog’s Circuit-Bending Challenge were on display. This year’s challenge was to take a battery powered device and alter it to produce new sounds for less than $70. One finalist was a heavily modified Yamaha keyboard, another a violin using parts from a Stylophone and voice changing toy and the eventual winner, a sequencer using cassette decks and a Nintendo Zapper.
Next: off to the Modular Marketplace where all kinds of goodies were on sale. New gear from major manufacturers like Roland, custom gear from small shops, one off unique creations and even some classic vintage gear all available for purchase. I managed to get out with my wallet temporarily intact and headed outside.
There was quite a bit of programming aimed toward the kids. I caught part of performance aimed at the younger set with McQueen Adams, Nanny Cantaloupe, and DJ Lance Rock before heading off to the Durham Arts Council PSI Theatre for a presentation by Marc Fleury of the Church of Space. The best description I can come up with is theoretical physics meets theology. Frankly, most of it went over my head, but it was nice and cool in the theater so I stuck around.
Back into the light and heat for two more outdoor shows at the American Tobacco Campus. First, one of my favorite turntablists, Peanut Butter Wolf, followed by human sound effects machine Michael Winslow.
I wasn’t familiar with any of the artist’s performing Saturday so I picked out four that I thought would be the most interesting. First at Motorco Music Hall, Kill Alters. Hyperkinetic would be my word here. Full of nervous energy. At the Pinhook, Noveller recovered quickly from a broken string early on to wow the crowd with lush, atmospheric guitar. Back to Motorco for what proved to be my favorite of the night, Pharmakon. I found her set to be an intense experience, as she prowled the stage and frequently jumped down to perform from the midst of the audience, so much intimate intensity. Finally, Wolf Eyes closed the night. They reminded me of early experimental industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle, but some of the spoken word vocals gave it a beatnik vibe.
Sunday was a short day. To the market to spend some money, then a talk on crate digging by Peanut Butter Wolf and Greg Belson. I found Peanut Butter Wolf’s comments on sampling to be particularly interesting. Since the first lawsuits in the early 90s over sampling, intellectual property laws still haven’t been updated and he feels sampling should be treated in a manner similar to an artist covering a song.
Finally I ended my day by visiting one more art installation. SuperCollider, by composer Scott Lindroth uses the scripting language of the same name with Arduino processor to control mallets which strike pieces of scrap metal. Using a mathematical model to simulate fireflies how fireflies synchronize their flashes, the piece gradually brings the mallets into matching rhythmic patterns. I found this one fascinating and could have watched it all day, but it was time to head for home.
Overall my experience was extremely positive. Staff and volunteers were nothing less than polite and helpful. Sound quality was consistently excellent across all venues. The only issues I noted were of the minor technical variety and quickly rectified.
Moogfest by the numbers
1: Number of people I heard pronounce Moog as moo + g.
2: Number of people who recognized the Beauty Queen Autopsy shirt I was wearing, which is 2 more than have ever recognized it before.
7.9: Total distance, in miles, I walked.
82:Total number of live performances this year.
35,000: Price, in dollars, of a Moog IIIc synthesizer.
See full gallery of the fest here!
If I had to sum up Moogfest in one word, it would be eclectic. Not only the programming, but the participants and attendees as well. A diverse crowd full of interesting people celebrating technology without losing sight of the human spirit behind it. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Bob Moog.