Moogfest is the weirdest, most gloriously nerdy music festival in the entire world. For starters, it’s not just a music festival. The four-day event unites electronic music legends and cutting edge up-and-comers with some of the leading thinkers in science and technology. Interviews, lectures, and hands-on courses during the day with music of all kinds deep into the night. Moogfest isn’t just a festival to lose yourself in, it’s also a place to find yourself.
Staged in the heart of one of America’s fastest-growing tech centers, Durham, North Carolina, Moogfest, like many progressive institutions in the state, is a platform for protest. Love of science and the arts, free-thought, and expression are pillars of the entire production – as reflected in the immense diversity of talent and performances. Flying Lotus, Animal Collective, Talib Kweli, and 808 State paired with futurists, technoshamanists, and multidisciplinary creators of all sorts. Keynote speakers included Dr. Steven Goldfarb and Dr. Kate Shaw of the Large Hadron Collider and artist Joe Davis, a biological researcher from MIT, with a penchant for devising new ways to leave messages for extraterrestrials and future generations.
Zola Jesus unveiled new songs and along with KING and Jessy Lanza filled the sweltering nights with powerful female voices. Michael Stipe showcased his first new music since R.E.M. (a fun, slow build techno piece) as a part of his nightly video installation, “Jeremy Dance”. Animal Collective had a rare reunion with actor and mouth sound magician Michael Winslow who opened their set with a red hot guitar solo (sans guitar). Mykki Blanco exploded the stage with punk rock performance art and queer rage in the social battleground of his home state.
Flying Lotus commemorated the return of Twin Peaks by performing his recently-released remix live. Moor Mother and The AfroFuturist Affair‘s Rasheedah Phillips opened minds to representation and new ways of perceiving space and time via their work as the Black Quantum Futurism Collective. S U R V I V E played two concerts, dedicating one entirely to their score for Stranger Things, elevating their compositions into a visceral listening experience in the Carolina Theater.
The list goes on… but all the beautiful strangeness of Moogfest is too much to showcase and too in-depth to elaborate on in full. So, allow us to abbreviate and share our favorite unique experiences this year below….
Hannibal Buress Crashes Moogfest
On the opening night of Moogfest, Talib Kweli got an unexpected opening act. Comedian Hannibal Buress, completely unannounced, took the stage with a short set of tales about dabbling in drugs at festivals and took a census of substance usage from the crowd. (Everyone who cheered that they were on PCP were called out as liars). That kicked off Buress’ presence across the fest, but never where you’d expect him.
He got his solder on at a make-your-own synthesizer class, and led one of the most hilariously baffling conversations in Moogfest history: a discussion with Animal Collective and John Mills-Cockell, aka the lone remaining member of obscure ’70s experimental outfit, Syrinx. Syrinx are in the midst of a much-publicized rediscovery and reissuing of their work, so Mills-Cockell and Animal Collective having a meeting of the minds over their mutually avant-garde electronic performances and improvisations seems like a sound pairing. However, with Buress and DJ Tony Trimm in the mix, the direction of the talk turned into a beautifully surreal jam of its own.
For 15 minutes, Animal Collective and Syrinx shared stories of being bitten by parrots, the expense of parrots (Buress recommended tipping strippers with birds), Geologist (Brian Weitz) working at a parrot rental store (where he experienced parrot theft in a trench coat and getting snapped at by Jimmy Buffet at a private event), and the story of how a testimony from a parrot solved a murder. Other topics included Mills-Cockell’s series of disheartening experiences meeting his jazz heroes like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie as a young man and Animal Collective’s appreciation for “Weird Al” Yankovic and his ability to create musical time capsules with each album. “I’m proud of ‘Weird Al,’” offered Buress in his usual deadpan before asking, “What’s you guys’ take on having sex to your own music?” The verdict: They’ve never done it, not even unreleased tracks.
Buress also hosted a discussion with Flying Lotus and closed out the fest with a surprise stand-up show on Sunday night that opened doors to the general public and festival patron alike, albeit with a $10 entry fee.
Suzanne Ciani Builds Beats with Buchla
At Moogfest 2016, legendary woman of synth Suzanne Ciani participated in durationals and discussions honoring her mentor, Don Buchla. Buchla’s synthesizers, along with Moog’s, led the charge in pioneering electronic music and Ciani became a major player in showcasing just what was possible with the new instruments. She made a name for herself by developing digital accents for music and advertising, became the first solo female composer to score a major Hollywood film, and is a five-time Grammy nominee for her solo records. Now, at this year’s Moogfest, she joined Brian Eno, Keith Emerson, Devo, and other synth luminaries as a recipient of the Moog Innovation Award.
Ciani took to the stage at the Durham Armory where her Buchla belted out wild, quadrophonic audio to a packed house. The process was improvised and televised. A camera positioned over her console projected all her patching and tweaking behind her, while the surround sound traveled dynamically across the dancefloor. A long trance of mellow loops gave way to a train-like undulation that echoed around the parameter which shifted into a terrifying assault of haunting electronic dissonance. Hearing is easy, but experiencing music in 360 degrees another thing entirely – and being able to see a master at work at the same time is pure synthesist bliss.
Preparing Humanity for a Future Without Death
Photo by Ryan Ides
Moogfest’s science and technology presentations are always exciting and decidedly thought-provoking. Take, for example, prior Keynote speakers, such as futurist organization The Millennium Project’s Jerome C. Glenn in 2014, or last year’s presentation from Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius XM and a major figure in the cutting edge process of converting a human’s thoughts and personality into an artificial intelligence. This year’s deepest conversation on humanity’s challenges in the 21st century goes to Zoltan Istvan, the man who ran as the first transhumanist candidate in 2016 and is now (realistically) setting his sights on the California Governor’s seat.
His presidential campaign was staged more to raise awareness for transhumanism in general – the notion being that with our current major steps in technology, artificial intelligence, and life extension humanity is artificially evolving itself beyond what we’ve conventionally known as human; that it’s an inevitability and we should prepare for this future. Cliche sentence time: It sounds like science-fiction, but it’s not in the least.
Istvan kicked off the lecture by sharing his experience driving across the United States in a bus made to look like a giant coffin to deliver the Transhumanist’s Bill of Rights to the Capitol. The document is essentially a common sense outline of best practices to sustain a life of liberty and equality for all sentient beings in a world where the ability to end death is a reality. Along his cross-country journey, he spoke at schools and met up with leaders, had the bus break down constantly, and was escorted out of a megachurch at gunpoint.
The panel’s conversation evolved into a complex socio-political discourse on immortality and just how unprepared our country’s current government is to deal with this rapidly approaching storm of change. The Q&A got lively with the audience inquiring into the nuts and bolts of Istvan’s plans for a Universal Basic Income, how immorality will effect society from an economic perspective (best to end death and figure out the rest later), and elective cybernetic upgrades.
In this divisive and chaotic time we live in, even if you don’t agree with transhumanism’s core focus of living forever through science, it’s an extremely important conversation to have. Rampant change is on the horizon for the human condition, for better and for worse — we can either bury our collective heads in the sand, or engage with them head on.
Sublime Sounds in Hallowed Halls
In Europe, where centuries’ worth of abandoned churches are scattered across every city, having those acoustically and aesthetically marvelous spaces occupied for more … alternative congregations is a common occurrence. In the United States, not so much, and certainly not with the pedigree of artists performing at this year’s Moogfest.
The First Presbyterian Church of Durham opened its doors to festival crowds for a series of stellar performances on Friday and Saturday. Many of the acts focused on subverting and amplifying traditional instrumentation such as violinist Sudan Archives, Mary Lattimore filtering her grand harp, or French multi-instrumentalist, Colleen, creating loops by plucking a viola.
Colleen’s performance was particularly of note – it was her last for the foreseeable future with the instrumentation she’s become known for. Her next record, which she demoed an unnamed song from, is exclusively electronic, so she won’t be touring with her viola and drum. Perhaps for the best, at least in some climes. Durham’s heat didn’t sit well with the viola’s gut strings which led to frequent tuning between tracks. It didn’t, however, impede the quality of her work as she deftly built the tracks from her record Captain of None from scratch, layering string loops and whispery vocals into a lovely mesh of sound – a fitting pairing with the afternoon light beaming in through the stained glass.
She was followed by the debut of the all-new Syrinx. Original member John Mills-Cockell was joined by a drummer, saxophonist, and Durham’s Mallarmé Chamber Players for a triumphant revisiting of classics which hadn’t been performed in decades.
Gotye Pays Homage to an Electronic Music Maestro
Photo by Todd Turner
Gotye’s performance at Moogfest was hands-down the greatest show at the whole of the festival, and he didn’t play a single one of his own songs. Wally De Backer, aka Gotye, isn’t just a charming purveyor of pop tunes, he’s one of the most genuine music nerds you’ll ever meet. For the past decade he’s been geeking out over one artist in particular: the pioneering electronic composer Jean-Jacques Perry. Perry died last year, but not before De Backer met with his musical progenitor, studied under him, founded a record label just to release tracks of his that hadn’t seen the light of day, and formed a super group for performing Perry’s music live, The Ondioline Orchestra.
The music of Jean-Jacques Perry relied heavily on an obscure proto-synth called the Ondioline – a fascinating instrument with an equally fascinating history. The machines are now quite old, and quite rare, so De Backer teamed up with a restorer, thereminist/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer, former Psychedelic Furs member Joe McGinty, and members of the band Zammuto to bring the tracks to life and play them live with a complexity never heard before. Staged in the Carolina Theater’s Fletcher Hall, the performance was limited to restricted seating to ensure the concert would be as intimate as possible within the lavish confines. In addition to the usual seating, about 30 people were invited to sit on stage surrounding the band as they performed under a dim chandelier. Passion for Perry’s brilliance and his whimsical music bubbled up from the musicians, especially De Backer, who provided running commentary between songs – both Perry’s best-known tracks and many obscure numbers.
Following the concert, he hosted a discussion about Perry and the Ondioline, and later in the festival, as part of the late-night programming, De Backer returned to Fletcher Hall for perhaps the most niche moment of the entire weekend’s events. He sat alone at the foot of the stage with his laptop and discussed an unusual and ultra-rare Perry project called Prélude au Sommeil. It’s an album designed to cure insomnia, developed over years and sold only through doctors. De Backer simply brought the house lights down had everyone close their eyes, and played the best-known restoration of the record. Many left, but the few that remained experienced Prélude au Sommeil as it had never been heard before, with new tones revealed via the theater’s exceptional sound system. Afterwards, De Backer returned to the foot of the stage for a one-on one with his test subjects.
This is what Moogfest is all about – absolutely unique experiences and nerdery of the highest order.