Deantoni Parks / Photo by Caleb Smallwood
Moogfest was an experience that broadened my understanding of music, technology, humanity, and the many ways they intersect. I encountered new modes of thinking and gained a much deeper appreciation for all the many forms of art that were presented at the festival.
Here’s what happened:
I originally planned to start off the day with a synth-building workshop, but I got off to a late start by getting lost on the way to get my wristband, so I missed out on that. Instead, I wandered around downtown for a bit, and then found myself at the Moog Pop-up Factory.
Immediately after I opened the door, I was thrust into a galaxy of sound. To the left of the doorway, technicians were assembling the limited edition Subsequent 37 CV synthesizer that Moog unveiled during the run-up to the festival. Beyond that was a long table, which held, at the nearest end, a record player and a chart showing which instruments were used on which albums. The rest of the table held several stations with synths ready to play, along with diagrams showing the presets to replicate those tones.
I flirted with a few of the more traditional synths for a bit, but then I wandered over to an obscure-looking black box covered in a mass of knobs, switches and wires. I don’t know the first thing about modular synthesizers, but I put the headphones on and started up the sequencer, and I was amazed at how quickly it became intuitive. I started turning knobs and moving patch cables, and then the whole world fell away—it was just me and that little synthesizer making joyful noise until I realized that my next workshop would probably be starting soon. I made my way around the other side of the table, cut through the booth where they sold the instruments on display and did a brief sweep of the back room, which was equally full to the brim with gear. I had to tear myself away from the Earthquaker Devices booth, which featured nearly 30 pedals neatly arrayed and hooked up to an alpine white strat and matching jazz bass.
My next workshop was given by Dave Rossum, the co-founder of E-mu Systems, which were, along with Moog, one of the early innovators in analog synth design. He recounted many stories from his long career, which to hear him tell it was mostly shaped by a combination of brilliant minds, creative problem solving and sheer coincidence. His presentation was quite engaging—a perfect mix of humorous anecdotes and technical details. His explanation of the transition from analog to digital synthesis, in particular, was very informative and covered the issue in a very nuanced manner. The average musician will probably tell you that analog is better because it’s “warmer,” and typically it doesn’t get deeper than that. However, Rossum explained that even some of the analog synths they produced in the ‘70s incorporated some digital components, both for increased flexibility and reduced costs without sacrificing any of that warm analog tone.
What struck me the most about his presentation, though, was the amount of support and interconnectivity in the synth design world. One anecdote that exemplified this in particular was about a pair of young engineers who came to Rossum for advice on beginning their own start-up. He gladly obliged and wound up selling components to the company that would eventually become Digidesign, now known as the makers of Pro Tools.
His presentation was full of stories like this, which, personally, reflect on the music community as a whole, or at least the music community in its ideal form, when everyone supports each other and comes out better as a result.
After that, I headed over to Motorco for Pie Face Girls‘ set. On paper, their stripped down riot grrl punk would seem more suited to a grimy DIY space than a large outdoor festival stage, but they seemed just as at home under the stage lights as they are in a basement. The bassist and guitarist entered the stage inside large cake props bearing signs reading “Sweet” and “Revenge,” respectively, and launched into their set without a word. Their music represents a full frontal assault on patriarchy, toxic masculinity and other forms of oppression, and they held nothing back in their righteous salvo.
Pie Face Girls’ commitment to social justice extends far beyond their lyrics, as the members are very active in the community in raising awareness of women’s and LGBT issues. As they played, they projected footage of various women, queer folks and people of color on a large screen behind them. During a tuning break, Dani, the guitarist/frontwoman, addressed the crowd to say, “Let these people’s existence be an act of protest against Trump […] and anyone who represents the continued oppression of these communities.” They then ripped through the last two songs in their setlist to fervent applause.
After that set, I visited my parents for dinner and came back for Talib Kweli. My colleagues were all covering this set, so I will be brief. I had never been to a hip-hop show before, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The energy was incredible, as Kweli worked the crowd expertly. His social commentary was on point as well. He talked about how hip-hop brings people together as a community, and I definitely felt it. Afterwards, I hung out with some friends and colleagues on the patio, then dropped off our photographer extraordinaire Chris Deverell at his next location before heading out for the night.
My first item of the day was a workshop called Grassroots Musical Activism, which was a panel discussion with four people who are heavily involved in both the music and activist scenes in Durham: Shirlette Ammons, a musician, poet and participant in the Next Level artist exchange program; Pierce Freelon, a musician and founder of Blackspace; Laila Nur, a musician and community organizer; and PlayPlay, a musician, scholar and organizer.
They discussed the ways music and activism can intersect, from mantras in town hall meetings to DJing at protests. The underlying theme in all their anecdotes was music’s ability to bring people together as a community, despite differences in background.
It could be a simple thing, like Freelon’s story about a homeless man who joined a cypher he was hosting, or it could be profound, like Ammons’ reflections on her work with Serbian youth in Next Level. It could be concrete, like PlayPlay creating safe spaces for LGBT folks with Party Illegal, or it could be abstract, like how Nur’s music creates empathy by sharing her lived experience as a gay, black Muslim woman. In all its different forms, music is a powerful tool for change.
My next event was a durational sound installation, which was a collaborative work by The Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner. The performance took place in a large corner office, which had been emptied out save for a table at the front which held their gear and four PA towers arranged in a circle around the room. 3 of the four walls had projections of constantly shifting abstract patterns, like an iTunes visualizer on psilocybin. The audience was all seated on the floor, with one or two people lying on the carpet. I grabbed a choice spot with my back up against one of the subwoofers and let the bass vibrations wash over me.
To the average music listener, a continuous four-hour drone/ambient set might sound like torture, but this was my most anticipated performance of the festival, and it exceeded all my expectations. From the first glacially paced buildup, I was entranced.
As the crescendo continued, I began to lose myself in the static swells.
At about an hour in, they moved from the minor key they started in to the relative major while Zinner’s guitar explorations coalesced into something resembling a melodic line, and I felt for a moment an indescribable euphoria. The pulsing drones peeled away for a period of calm before beginning another crescendo, and the visuals took the form of a tunnel that seemed to pull me out of my body.
An hour later, after the second crescendo started to wind down, I went outside to smoke. When I came back, I was immediately drawn back into the liminal state the music created. This ethereal feeling continued through a couple more crescendos, until the sound guy passed them a note. They smiled at each other, and began the final decrescendo. After it was done, I stood around until I had processed what had happened enough to make my way back to the car and head homeward.
I quickly realized that signing up for a three-hour intensive writing workshop starting at 11 a.m. was not the best idea for someone with my sleep schedule. I arrived in Durham just in time for my next workshop, a conversation with several professors and grad students from Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology.
Each presenter gave a short rundown of a project they had been working on. The first project involved programming a xylophone-playing robot to read music and follow a conductor. The next was a demo of a piece of educational software that combined music and coding, as users could build songs out of “loops” that were actually blocks of code. The following presenter discussed the use of machine learning to have computers analyze music, with the goal of eventually having the computer generate its own songs. This was followed by a grad student who developed a toolkit that could generate sounds from any random dataset you plugged in. Next up was a video demonstration of a prosthetic arm that was built for a drummer who lost his forearm in a car accident. The final presentation was by another grad student who built a device that could read a musician’s brain waves and use them as a modulation effect for a synth. Overall, the conversation made me realize how much of an overlap there is between the STEM and music worlds: both involve creative problem solving, and both are run by a bunch of nerds.
I had a bit of time before my next workshop, so I went back to the pop-up factory and played around with some of the synths some more. This time, I got to test out the Werkstatt, an analog synth kit that was developed from the build-your-own-synth workshop. Once again, I was amazed by how intuitive the controls were, and I had fun with the “breadbox” that allowed you to add additional elements into the circuitry via a set of provided patch cables. I had been toying with the idea of starting a noise project, and the price was too good to pass up, so I got one for myself, and have had a blast teaching myself how to use it.
I then went to the workshop next door, which was about machine learning and its applications in music software. This was by far the most technical, as the two presenters went into great detail about the development process for several products they worked on at iZotope. One particularly interesting application was a feature that could automatically detect a song’s structure, making it easy for an engineer to navigate the song or apply different settings to different sections. They also developed a smart EQ, which provides a number of quick presets that can be selected by instrument, and then further tweaked as needed. Some of the technical details were a bit over my head, but it was very cool to learn about the process, and machine learning in general.
After another period of down time, I headed to Motorco to catch Pharmakon. It was already packed by the time I made my way inside, so I stood near the back. I had just enough room to see her take the stage and fire up the drum machine before she disappeared. A moment later, the crowd opened up a row down the middle, and then I saw her storming through, merely a foot away, shrieking inhumanly. The bass was a concussive blast, each hit like a blow to the face. Her set was a whirlwind of heavily distorted and delayed vocals over punishing power electronics.
From my vantage point, she was constantly disappearing and reappearing, one moment hanging from a PA speaker, the next behind her control station in the center stage. I’ve seen many incredibly heavy performances in my time, but this may well have been the most intense set I’ve experienced. The incessantly pounding bass broke me down a little more with each hit until it was over. I was surprised to see that it was only a half hour set when I checked the time, as it felt like it could have been at least twice as long.
Once again, I lit a cigarette to gather myself before the drive back.