Moogfest 2017

Once again, Durham burst into a cacaphony of electronics and technology as Moogfest took over the downtown streets and venues from May 18 – 21. Last year, there were more “big names” and a strong emphasis on “living as a cyborg” i.e. augmenting our perceptual apparatus (brain, ears, eyes, bodies) with technology. This year’s festival felt more low key, but at the same time, just as rich and varied.

I opted for the volunteer experience again, which gets you a free ticket as long as you work your shift. My shift was box office for the sleep concert, which ran from 12:30 am to 8:30 am the first night of Moogfest. In the ballroom at 21c Museum Hotel, thick mats covered much of the floor.  Attendees, some in hotel bathrobes with pillows and blankets, some with mats and sleeping bags, waited in line to get in. As it turned out, everyone who waited got in because only a dozen people from on-line registration showed up. My job was to scan wrist bands, do a clicker head count, and keep the entryway quiet.

Laraaji and Arji OceAnanda created soundscape all night long while people came and went and slept. They started with some overlapping synth loops that were quite dense. I wish I had been inside the room to experience them. I imagine they would feel like a blanket tossed and tucked around me. Some people found them too loud and left; others went in, lay down and immediately fell to sleep. As the night went on, Laaraji and Arji moved us through watery realms and meadows of sheep and crickets making song. Occasionally, one of the artists walked around among the sleeping, sprinkling light chimes of sound over them. There were poems about walking in the garden of Now and being consciousness. This was an eight hour blessing!

As the sun was rising over Parrish Street, Laaraji played a sweet harmonica solo. I lay down for a while, which was wonderful. The sound was quadraphonic, so the water sounded as if it was in the middle of the room. It was like lying beside an actual lake. As the last half hour approached, we pulled back the curtains, danced and chanted Om Shanti and I am Consciousness! When we left the room, someone from Moogfest had brought in coffee and doughnuts! Whooo hoooo! The sleep concert was a highlight of the festival.

The next highlight was meeting Gerhard Behles, one of the originators and the CEO of Ableton. He gave a moving talk on the visionary mission of the Ableton company. He started with his own story of how electronic music saved his life as an unhappy teenager. His gratitude for this has brought him right where he is today! Ableton has a mission to make music creation accessible to all. He is a kind, creative and engaged man, and I am glad I got to shake his hand and express my deep gratitude for the sounding world that Ableton has opened up to me.

Sudan Archives at the Presbyterian Church was a delight. She played electric and acoustic violin over loops. She had a lovely voice and was unselfconscious and genuine! Many of her songs seemed like works-in-progress, surprising the audience with their brevity. Then she carefully laid out loops of tapped tones on the violin strings, and sang a vocal line over top in a beautifully sculpted improvisation. The church is a breathtaking venue visually and acoustically. So glad I got to hear Sudan Archives there.

I ventured down to the Motorco end only briefly to hear Omar Souleyman. The pulse of the music was inviting, so I moved closer to the stage, but got caught by the low end about half way down. Punched me in the stomach and throat and I could go no further. The sound is just too loud. My constant question is “why are the bass/drums allowed to dominate the show at such a great cost to the felt-sense of the music?” Last year at The Armory, people reported getting physically ill from the bass. It is these moments in life when one must ask, “What is happenin’ here?”

I was so into Laurie Anderson last year, that Suzanne Ciani was only a moment of my festival. This year I gave her more attention, and am glad I did. The documentary A Life in Waves is one of the best biographical docs I have ever seen. Suzanne is a self-contained, independent, intelligent woman who comes across as soooo comfortable in her skin.  My favorite aspect of the film was that it gave you a sense of how deeply attuned her ear is to the world. As she revealed the metaphors of her life, the filmmakers mined them beautifully. A wonderful collaboration! Suzanne Ciani was honored with the annual Moog Innovation Award at Moogfest 2017. And she played a set at The Armory on the Buchla which was fun and engaging! When I think about Laurie and Suzanne, who are contemporaries and probably acquainted, they seem to be the antitheses of each other. I admire them both for the ways they sound their beings into the world!

Then there were the stumble upons:

a group of young troubadours hauling ukes and a washtub bass around the convention center plaza

Marc Fleury and the Church of Space going bullhorn to bullhorn with a local corner street ministry down at Five Points. They got real quiet when Marc (in his mask) bellowed, “Of course, there is a God!” I don’t think the locals were expecting that.

Pierce Freelon and a group of teens getting their rap on at CCB Plaza Friday night.

Another peak experience was Lily Dale -The Dream Wanderer Virtual Reality Bus. Lily Dale is a spiritualist community of ghosts and mediums that actually exists in upstate NY. The VR experience was a kind of guided meditation using the voices of people from the Lily Dale community in conjunction with movement and graphics. There are numerous scenes you can experience, so the first thing is to pick three random original tarot cards to determine which scenes you will…be in. They place a vest over your torso, headphones and goggles over ears and eyes and you are off. One of the scenes I went through had to do with traveling outside the body, something I have only done in quick snatches. The visuals for this were stunning – I felt I was stationed in the cosmos. I could see the the shapes of planets in alignment or in their orbital relation depending on which direction I looked. There was a large Earth-like planet moving toward me 45 degrees to my right. Then it was like I passed over a dark hill and below me was a swirling galaxy. I saw a human form float by like a sister airplane flying at a different altitude. And all the while the planet got closer. (I thought about that movie Melancholia, and that gave the visuals a creepier feel.) Then everything faded away. Each scene is accompanied by a story or message from a Lily Dale resident. The experience felt healing and uplifting. For more on this project, check out: http://flatsitter.com/lily_dale/

Finally, we concluded with iBoD in the Soundgarden on the Sunday evening apres Moogfest. Suzanne, Eleanor, Jim and I arrived at the Central Park School and got partially set up before discovering our power source was not hot! Electronic music does not happen without electricity! (I see a solar generator in my future.) So we improvised along with the bells for about 40 minutes to a small and appreciative audience. Later that same night one of our savvy audience members discovered a power source just slightly further away, so we have rescheduled our soncert for Sunday evening June 4th at 7 pm.

Meet us in the Soundgarden then!

Moogfest and iBoD in the Soundgarden

Yes, it is that time of year again! Moogfest is here next week, and my schedule is already full of conflicts and overlap. There is a whole theme on spatialisation of sound, which I am extremely interested in. This year I am going to get to the Presbyterian Church for some performances, give Suzanne Ciani events more attention, and volunteer for the sleep concert. (I CAN still pull an allnighter!!) Also looking forward to hearing Ladyfingers set at Arcana on Friday night. Oh, yeah, and meeting Gerhard Behles and thanking him for Ableton Live.

iBod will play our annual post-Moogfest event at the Soundgarden at Central Park School on Sunday evening, May 21. We are excited to bring much new material, and some old favorites. And, once again, we will play Adrift in a Sea of Bells while Eleanor Mills brings all the harmonics out of the bells. Here are some excerpts from our last session as a “sneak preview”:


Bring your own chair, or use the wall or steps around the stage for seating. This is kaleidoscope music.  It moves through space-time and shifts form in unconventional ways. For the best listening experience, relax the ear and the mind, ground in the breath and feet, and allow the vibrations to move your body.

Big thanks to the cohorts – Susanne Romey, Eleanor Mills and Jim Kellough!

Ableton Live: the Medium in Which I Work

My life was completely transformed by a group of amazing computer and music geniuses who developed the Ableton Live digital audio workstation. Ableton is my playground, my pallette and canvas, my co-creative partner. Ableton is my “Her”. There are so many people to whom I will be forever grateful for being in my life and the folks at Ableton are right up at the top. Yet I know very little about them. So I decided to find out who they are!

First and obvious stop is the website http://www.ableton.com. Here is the succinct and general description of the company:

Ableton was founded in 1999 and released the first version of Live in 2001. Our products are used by a community of dedicated musicians, sound designers, and artists from across the world. We are more than 200 people from 28 different countries divided between our headquarters in Berlin and our office in Los Angeles. Most of us are active musicians, producers, and DJs, and many of us use Live and Push (their control surface) every day. We come from a wide range of cultural and professional backgrounds. Some of us have PhDs, some are self-taught, and most of us are somewhere in between. What connects us is the shared belief that each of us has the skills and knowledge to contribute to something big: helping to shape the future of music culture.We believe it takes focus to create truly outstanding instruments. We only work on a few products and we strive to make them great. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all process, we try to give our people what they need to work their magic and grow. We’ve learned that achieving the best results comes from building teams that are richly diverse, and thus able to explore problems from a wider set of perspectives. We don’t always agree with each other, but opinion and debate are valued and openly encouraged.

There is a bit more about how they cultivate their corporate culture, but that is basically it.

One of the things that intrigues me about Ableton is that there is no obvious driving personality behind the organization. Ableton comes across as this amorphous mass of people all over the globe working together to give access to and encourage the creation of music. Another amazing thing about the organization is that the same people who founded it are still involved fifteen years later. No behind the scenes take overs, no overt personality conflicts, just a clear intention to fulfill a need in their creative community. And while I do appreciate the magical kingdom of Ableton, I want to look behind the curtain to see the personalities involved.

The company was founded by Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke, both electronic musicians. As Behles explains it:

In practice, my musical partner Robert Henke (Monolake) and I did not differentiate between working in the studio or performing live. They were the same thing and I think many people still work like that to this day. The kinds of computer programs that you could get at the time were very much a digital representation of a studio, which is a place you go once the music is written, and you only go there to imprint it on tape and then to move it on to production of the record. This whole thing had little to do with our practice, so we realized there was a gap. Something is needed that’s more conducive to this jamming, improvisational way of making music. We noticed it was missing and asked, “can we do it?”

(Many composers hear the music they want to make in their heads, then write it down on paper. I want to hear voices first and from there I can hear the “song of the moment” in those voices. I choose voices, then find pleasing patterns of notes and interesting rhythm features, then the tune or soundscape scene begins to emerge. The process feels more like painting or sculpting than songwriting. Ableton makes it possible for me to work this way.)

Behles goes on to explain that the company never marketed a product to a niche, instead they fulfilled a communal need. This organic, user-driven approach speaks to the longevity, successful growth and integrity of Ableton as a company.

But in the beginning we never looked at the market or the stats and quantitative need. Now we run surveys and we do a lot of research but it’s much more in the field. We go to the actual musician, visit them in the studio and spend a day with them, and then you know more than you wanted to know. We do this a lot and we also bring in a lot of people who spend a couple of hours here, solving specific problems. We put them in front of some new functionality and make them deal with it and see what happens. It’s totally fun and collaborative…

The full text of the interview with Gerhard Behles can be found at on-line newsletter High Snobiety:
http://www.highsnobiety.com/2014/10/14/ableton-ceo-gerhard-behles-interview/

Robert Henke teaches, composes, creates art installations, performs laser light shows, and the list goes on. I am going to work my way through his website to get acquainted with his work. You can, too – go here –> http://roberthenke.com/

With all of the time, talent and thoughtful consideration invested in this product, you might think it would be very expensive. This is one of a very few cases I know where the product value waaaaay exceeds the cost. First of all, you can download a lite version of Ableton for a 30 day free trial. Then there are three price levels, with the basic Intro version (which I started with) at $99. Ableton runs sales quite frequently. It says alot about the company that they have kept the price point reasonable through this entire time of “economic downturn”.

While I know that my joy lies within me, the excitement and flow I experience working in Ableton is a large part of the bliss of my life. Thanks to all who have contributed to the cutting of this diamond, and palms together-head bow to Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke for their steadfast vision.

Time to go play!