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Uncanny Synthesis: Moogfest 2018 Festival Review

on May 21, 2018, 7:17pm

The Festival of the Future? Put simply, Moogfest is a festival unlike any other. One part TED Talk, one part that record you discovered in college that blew your mind; the event’s dual focus of Future Thought and Future Sound has made it a beacon for discerning artists and festivalgoers alike.

During the day, theatres, classrooms, and workspaces are filled with lectures and workshops led by artificial intelligence scientists, synthesizer engineers, musicians, and even galvanizing social figures like this year’s headlining keynote speaker, Chelsea Manning. By night, the tech incubator town of Durham, North Carolina, becomes a cyberpunk music festival – robot-accompanied bands, A Clockwork Orange-esque montages, stages resplendent in synths and patch cables – each venue showcasing a multitude of genres, all unified by the artists’ devotion to pushing the envelope.

Moogfest is a truly unique voice in the world of music events and the convention circuit. It’s tailor-made for a crowd whose idea of consciousness expansion is hinged around hard sciences in addition to the optional (and likely) inclusion of substances and metaphysics. But what makes Moogfest special is also what makes its continued existence an uphill battle. It’s disruptive. It’s different. If it survives, it just might set the pace for the future of boutique festivals and broaden the name “Moog” to be more than a beloved synth brand: a stamp of musically-driven, thought-leading excellence.

Shabazz Palaces at Moogfest 2018

Shabazz Palaces – Photo by Cap Blackard

Static in the Line: This year, Moogfest almost died. The festival’s past headliners have included the likes of M83, Moby, Brian Eno, Animal Collective, Giorgio Moroder, MIA, Big Boi, Laurie Anderson, and Pet Shop Boys, to name but a random few from the dizzying roster of alumni. 2018’s headliners included KRS-ONE, Kelela, Jon Hopkins, and Mouse on Mars (accompanied by music-playing robots). No slouch in talent, but not the massive draws that one would suspect. Suffice it to say that things didn’t go as planned behind the scenes.

In the midst of assembling this year’s festivities, irreconcilable differences cropped up between the previous production company and Moog Music. Enter UG Strategies, the new team behind the event and saviors of Moogfest. We spoke with Parag Bhandari, UG Strategies Founder/ CEO, who elaborated on the challenge of keeping the show alive. “We had just enough time to make sure the festival survived,” says Bhandari, “programming was intact, artists, venues, and local community partners were taken care of. The marketing took a hit, but we made sure the event was done right and done well.”

And it was done VERY well. Moogfest 2018 will be a year to remember. A smaller year, true, but an even more boutique year than normal, where Moogfest’s impeccable curation of talent thrived. Every year, attendees could always guarantee that they’d walk away having discovered new music and concepts. This year was that on overdrive: up-and-coming artists on the verge of breaking out, cult legends primed for reemergence – unforgettable, eclectic experiences all around.

Suzanne Ciani performing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at Moogfest 2018

Suzanne Ciani – Photo by Bryan Pittard

The Spatial Scoring of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: The Diva of the Diode, Suzanne Ciani, returned to Moogfest, bringing with her a newly scored soundtrack to the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The haunting classic was utterly transformed by Ciani, who performed her signature Buchla synthesizer alongside field-recording artist Layne and student electronic musicians from the Berklee College of Music. Caligari is an already dreamlike work, but Ciani and co. powerfully amplified the dreaminess and darkness of the film into a twinkling nightmare.

The dynamism of the new composition was further enhanced by the Meyer Sound-provided spatial speaker system, which flung notes around the performance space and ensured that when violence occurred onscreen, the sound attacked you. Ciani conjured arpeggiated motifs that morphed and transformed in representation: a ticking clock becomes a limping man, becomes a murder. It’s an experience we’d gladly tell you to seek out, but unless something changes, this was the first and the last time that her Caligari score will be performed. Just one of the many exclusive experiences that defines Moogfest.

Midori Tadaka at Moogfest 2018

Midori Tadaka – Photo by Brian Livingstone

Striking a Different Cord: Synthesizers might be the front-facing facet of Moogfest, but the festival’s ultimate musical focus is simply doing things differently. Case in point: two of the most jaw-dropping performances were on marimba and cello.

Master percussionist Midori Takada brought sharply focused incantations and an arsenal of unexpected tools to Fletcher Hall. Her performance read more as sonic theater than a traditional set, moving seamlessly from one phase into the next while conjuring an unprecedented breadth of sound from the drums and cymbals scattered around the stage. Hypnotically slow, achingly subtle tones would give way to blasts of sound rendered with tremendous precision. Her rhythms crept into your bones and followed you out of the theater.

Meanwhile, at the traditional rock bar Motorco, Helen Money enhanced her cello. Over the course of the performance, she fluidly moved from classically minded (but still novel) melodies to harsh industrial noise. The juxtaposition was just as crazy to hear as it was to see: slow and deliberate playing, followed by rapid, angry strikes — plucking, bowing, and distorting her way as if possessed — further punctuating her contrasting styles. Then she’d switch from the bow to a guitar pick while her boot connected to one of her wide array of effects pedals, the sonic landscape morphing again into something new.

Madame Gandhi at Moogfest 2018

Madame Gandhi – Photo by Cap Blackard

Feminist Utopia Project: Moogfest has long positioned itself as a powerful force for representation. This dedication was further emphasized in the wake of North Carolina’s trans-exclusionary bathroom bill, when the festival effectively became a weekend-long counter-protest, synthesizing love in all its forms. This year’s lineup further showcased their dedication to highlighting a broad spectrum of artists – with a first wave of artist announcements that made headlines for featuring largely female, non-binary, and transgender creators.

Unfortunately, the phrasing of that initial announcement was poorly chosen – a move made by the prior production company. What was perceived as a gimmicky cash-in on representation cost the event Caroline Polachek, but those who remained brought down the house and ensured that the weekend was a celebration of diverse perspectives and diverse sound.

Tess Roby at Moogfest 2018

Tess Roby – Photo by Cap Blackard

Madame Gandhi took to the skins and motion-mapping midi controllers, heralding a female future. The newest face from Italians Do It Better, Tess Roby, made her live debut in the States and offered up the most ethereal set of the festival. TORRES both performed a glorious spooky rock show and held a special event where she made a paleo breakfast for dinner. LCD Soundsystem’s Gavin Rayna Russom did it all: unleashing her electronic wizardry, holding a meet-and-greet at the local LGBTQ community center, participating in a #MeToo discussion panel, and screening her film No More White Presidents. Those are but a few examples in what was a weekend jam-packed with astounding, underrepresented voices.

Chelsea Manning at Moogfest 2018

Chelsea Manning & Aminatou Sow – Photo by Cap Blackard

Chelsea Manning on EDM and the Emotional Depth of Emoji: Manning’s appearance at Moogfest marks the one-year anniversary of her release from prison after being pardoned by President Obama. It’s been a whirlwind year, and not surprisingly, she doesn’t feel settled. Listening to whatever music she wants, whenever and as often as she wants, is still novel. In addition to the hardships of prison and her ongoing battle for the right to undergo gender transition therein, the classic EDM fan’s lone musical escape was terrestrial radio … in Kansas. Manning would build her life around a station that played late-night DJ sets – the best escape she could get.

She once had aspirations of being a DJ herself (discarded names included Blueberry and The Black Sun) but only got as far as third name down on a local bar lineup. Now she flirts with the idea of getting back to music and coding software, if running for Senator doesn’t get in the way. But as Manning herself said, “Creativity, politics, and art go hand in hand.”

On her socials, Manning is a prolific emoji user – a sometimes derided trait that she defends with eloquence. She sees emoji as a new component of language, powerfully altering the meaning of a statement by punctuating it with a clearer more succinct, “emotional depth.” Of course, as an evolving visual language in the hands of outside forces, emoji are far from perfect. There’s no trans flag after all. But even still, Manning called emoji “enhanced poetry,” and after a slight pause curtly adds, “I mean that.”

In the spirit of Moogfest she spoke about the power of art in dangerous times, reminding the audience that morale is considered a military resource. Therefor, though it can seem frivolous to engage with art when fascism is on the rise, it’s critically important. Motivation, inspiration, and, in Manning’s case, playing a really intense drum and bass track, are what’s needed to persevere against the opposition.

Author and Punisher at Moogfest 2018

Author and Punisher – Photo by Cap Blackard

Electric Rituals: A good performance isn’t something you simply see or hear, it’s something you experience… and Moogfest cultivates profound sound-induced experiences. First and foremost: this is a music festival put on by a revered instrument manufacturer, so it’s going to sound amazing. Prepare yourself for a baptism of decibels – be they sublime like Jon Hopkins playing the gorgeous, nearly century old Fletcher Hall, or harrowing like Yves Tumor’s brain-melting static or Author & Punisher’s literal industrial music strobing through the spatial sound of The Armory (also used to great effect by the decidedly more uplifting Shabazz Palaces).

Maybe you prefer meditative experiences. In that case, head to the Tim Burton-esque 21c Museum Hotel (yes, a literal fusion of the two built into an old bank building) to sit in a darkened marble and wood hall for multi-hour durational performances. Highlights included Wes Borland shaking off any Limp Bizkit preconceptions as he carved out a luscious and mysterious cavern of sound, and Sun O)))’s Stephen O’Malley and vocalist Deradoorian’s sublime tonal bath.

Lawrence Rothman at Moogfest 2018

Lawrence Rothman – Photo by Jonathan West

Are raves your church? Dance the night away at Durham Fruit Company, and soak in that burnt-out warehouse vibe with DJ sets from Little Boots and Honey Dijon. What about actual church? The First Presbyterian Church played host to Lawrence Rothman’s Tear for Fears-leaning, dream pop. Their music would’ve had a transcendent effect most anywhere, but the church’s large acoustic space enveloped the crowd. And it wasn’t just stellar music; there was much to be said about presentation. Lights and projections dynamically painted the vaulted ceiling and the facets of the architecture: heavy blues, fiery reds, punctuating each track with extra theatricality. Rothman would’ve always been striking, but in this venue, their multiple personality fueled lyrics soared to emotional heights.

ONO and Psychic TV at Moogfest 2018

ONO and Psychic TV – Photos by Cap Blackard

Some of these musical rituals were even more truly ritual in nature. Chicago experimental legends ONO brought their kinetic gospel to preach the dissolution of binary paradigms. The gloriously diverse band, fronted by the enigmatic Travis, shifted throughout their performance like a calamitous chameleon until finally donning a floofy gown, scraping chains against a trashcan lid, and singing about the inevitable darkness that creeps into any dreamhouse. The likewise-revered ceremonial performers Psychic TV led a psychedelic mass of rock ‘n’ roll union. The band’s pandrogyne lead performer, Genesis P-Orridge, was the subject of a film that screened earlier in the day, Bight of the Twin, exploring P-Orridge’s loss of their spiritual and surgical twin, Lady Jaye, and a journey into African Vodoun to reunite. These performances and narratives spun a powerful web of harmonious transformations throughout the weekend, celebrating unchained expression and its healing effect on an increasingly polarized world.

Make Noise 0-Coast at Moogfest 2018

Make Noise – Photo by Bryan Pittard

Adventures in Synthesis: Moogfest’s day workshops are a veritable playground for any electronic enthusiast. Come explore the restoration of an original theremin, built by Mr. Theremin himself! Get hands-on with a class where you can build your own synth, or go deep down a synthesis rabbit hole with industry-leading engineers.

For example, the beloved synth module makers Make Noise celebrated their 10-year anniversary, and to mark the occasion, founder and self-taught engineer Tony Rolando was joined by his growing team of modular enthusiasts to share their stories and their gear. Rolando presented his design philosophy of using more intuitive metaphors in lieu of classic synth jargon (e.g. “contour” instead of “envelope”) and his penchant for creating problems to inspire creativity — instead of inventing solutions.

Walker Farrell led participants in hands-on workshops explaining the basics of synthesis with the 0-Coast, a single-voice, patchable synth that straddles East and West synthesis philosophy with additive and subtractive components. Eric Cheslak, co-founder of the synth pop-up concert movement Modular on the Spot, demonstrated the Morphagene: a microsound manipulation module with inspiration from Curtis Roads and the early tape music techniques used by Subotnik and Stockhausen.

Moog Marketplace Moogfest 2018

Moog Marketplace – Photo by Cap Blackard

Building the Future: Now that Moogfest has fought valiantly and lived to fight another day, we can expect BIG things in the future from Moog Music and UG Strategies. “The work to build Moogfest out has begun,” says Bhandari. “I’m excited to make next year’s 15th anniversary the beginning of a bold new era.”

With Bhandari’s passion paving the way, the scope of Moogfest knows no bounds. “Interesting, original content is the key thing for fests to survive,” he explains. “We want to make Moogfest a global platform for innovation and artist development.”

Yes, international plans are already in the works, and the scope of the festival is much more than an annual event — it could shape the very development of the town it takes place in.

“Durham as a city is about to explode. It’s actively transforming itself into something exciting and new, and with Moogfest and Durham working together, we can cultivate the town’s musical identity and make that a part of its continued growth.”

If everything goes according to plan, not only will next year’s event be one for the record books, but perhaps also the dawn of a musical sci-tech utopia.

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