Moogfest 2016, which took place May 19 – 22 in Durham, was a mind-blowing and inspirational experience for me. Last Fall, while selling my old instructional drumming CDs to the now-defunct Nice Price Books, I was talking to the owner about my new love: electronic music. He said, “You must be super excited about Moogfest coming here!” “Oh, yeah”, I responded, knowing I should be excited but just not feeling it yet. A few years earlier I wanted to go to the festival in Asheville, NC when Brian Eno was featured. But then I read how you spend all this money on a ticket and might not be able to get in to see what you came to see. So I knew about how the tickets worked, and that it was a celebration of Bob Moog, a synthesizer pioneer. The Moog Factory is still a fixture in Asheville, but Moogfest was coming right to my front door.
I was still feeling ambivalent in April and Moogfest was 6 weeks away. One thing I had decided – I wanted to be involved musically – so I started planning a Post-Moogfest event for the final day after everything “official” was over. (See post: http://wp.me/p5yJTY-ci) Then a volunteer application came my way, I filled it out and attended my first volunteer meeting. I met Wilson, Hugh, Robin, Ilsa and several other sweet, friendly folks who were psyched for the event. Bianca Banks, the volunteer coordinator, gave us postcards and Moogfest stickers (everybody LOVES stickers) and a welcomed us to the Moogfest family. Sweet!
The only acts I knew in the line-up were Laurie Anderson and Sun Ra Arkestra. By this time, Sun Ra Arkestra had cancelled, so I started YouTubing the artists to get a taste of what they had to offer. I started with the women artists: Julianna Barwick, Grimes, Suzanne Ciani, Grouper, Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, Olivia Block, Paula Temple. I did not get very far in this exploration before Moogfest was upon me and I just had wing it.
The first day, I worked guest check-in with Michael Jones (or Jones Michael, his producer moniker: check out his Soundcloud – https://soundcloud.com/jonesmichael), Nico and several other young musicians who told me about groups they were excited to hear. Volunteering took 18.5 hours of the weekend, and got me free admission into the festival – way worth it. I learned that hospitality is not my skill set (My partner, Trudie said, “I could have told you that.”) I learned that there are lots of folks, young and old, poor and rich, out there creating vibrations in the form of music and sound. I learned that people who come to Moogfest are – for the most part – friendly, open and excited about the prospects of technology and music making.
Luckily, Jim Kellough recommended several performances to me on the first night that were fantastic. His first recommendation was Silver Apples, a staple of the NYC scene since the sixties. Silver Apples was an early electronic duo who played the soundtrack for the moonlanding as it was broadcast on a big screen in Central Park in 1969. Now Silver Apples is just Simeon (his drummer died in 2005) and he really rocks the synthesizers. Here is a picture of Simeon with The Soundman AKA Christopher Thurston at Motorco the night of his performance:
After this show, I headed over to see the best music of the whole weekend. Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals was inspired by the nature photography of Yuko Nonomora, and was only performed five times in Russell’s short life. The group, playing under the direction of Peter Gordon, was comprised of Russell’s collaborators and cohorts, including Peter Zummo, Rhys Chatham and Ernie Brooks. The piece was jazzy, funky and took the listeners on a fabulous journey. My favorite part was Peter Zummo dancing around the stage and gently clapping his hands whenever the trombone had a musical hiatus. Their performance left me curious to check out more of Russell’s work.
Moogfest is all about synthesized sound. So on Saturday, I headed down to The Carrack to hear Antenes, who crafts old phone operator switchboards into sequencers and synthesizers. She performed on her DIY synths for a half an hour and then did a presentation on how she came to create these particular instruments. I loved the deep sweeps and blips and bloops she carved out of various oscillating waveforms. Next stop was the Pop-Up Moog Factory, where employees were building actual Moog Synthesizers right before our eyes. The employees worked at four stations performing assemblies and passing them on to the next table. By midday Saturday, they had assembled 14 Minimoog Model Ds. The factory was full of a variety of synths hooked up to headphones so people could play and experiment to the ear brain’s delight. I had a fantastic several hours there, and left feeling like I really need a synth to add to my setup.
Then I checked out Critter and Guitari, who were in a geodesic dome tent outside the DPAC. These Booklyn-based musician entreprenuers have created adorable little synthesizers that are just my style. I enjoyed playing with the Moogs, but they are expensive and heavy. (Dang, I do not need anymore weight in my setup with a 12″ QSC K Speaker to haul around.) I enjoyed jamming with the guys , the other peeps, and the train that passed by. Their Organelle allows you to dial up a variety of sounds, play them polyphonically on a little wooden button keyboard, and tweak the sounds as you go. Neat! In my fantasy, they offer to give me one to play as a sponsor of ibod when we go on our sound sculpture tour. Wouldn’t it be nice…
I was anxious to get a good seat for Laurie Anderson’s Saturday afternoon performance, so got there waaaay early only to discover a long line snaking around The Carolina Theatre. I got in it only to discover the line was for a talk by Jaron Lanier, whose name I did not know. The guy in front of me did not know him either, but he figured “He is the keynote speaker, he must be good!” As it turned out- he was right! Jaron is a musician, virtual reality geek, author and incredible human being. He started his talk by playing the khene, a Laotian mouth organ, that he said is a “digital” instrument thousands of years old that could have inspired the invention of computers. Here is a YouTube video, where he plays this instrument in his own amazing way:
His message was wonderful and optimistic. He said we need to “will away” our obsesssion with war, combat and all things military. He advocates a movement toward kindness and beauty as guiding values in technological development. He asked VR game makers to use the technology to engender empathy. What I heard was – let us play games that engage our emerging polyvagal brain rather than continuuing to stir up our shriveling reptillian brain. Jaron Lanier is one gorgeous genius, and I was uplifted and inspired listening to him.
Next up was Laurie Anderson, who grabbed her electric violin, slung it over her shoulder and and filled Fletcher Hall with deep sweeping harmonics that made my heart pound. She moved toward the audience as she continued playing, looking right at us. This connecting more openly with the audience is a shift in her performance aesthetic from times I have seen her over the past twenty years. The next day, she talked about “seeing the audience” during her presentation/interview. While I enjoyed her performance, I was mesmerized by the retrospective talk about her work on Sunday. I love hearing and reading about artistic process. It is extremely intimate discourse, which is why many creatives are reluctant to share it. Laurie gave us a glimpse into her process over the years, and for that I will be forever grateful.
She spent a good bit of time talking about a recent work Habeas Corpus and how the piece evolved into an illumination of and a step toward healing the horrors and injustices of Guantanamo Bay. The work was presented in 2015 in NYC and is based on the experience of Mohammed el Gharani, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay. He was sold to the US at the age of fourteen, kept in solitary, subjected to torture, and finally released by a US District Court judge for lack of evidence. He was held for seven years. The performance installation included a plaster cast chair the size of the Lincoln Memorial. Mohammed’s full body image was projected via a live video feed from Chad, where he now resides. He sat in the chair and told his story. The audio was one way only to protect Mohammed from hearing any personal attacks from the American public – there was concern that those Americans still blinded by their own fear and ignorance might attend the installation to berate him. He had suffered enough at American hands already. The video feed was two way, so Mohammed could see the audience. The most moving thing Laurie shared with us was that many of the attendees came forward and mouthed “I am sorry” to Mohammed’s projected image. For more on Mohammed el Gharani and Habeas Corpus see this link:
Laurie Anderson echoed Jaron Lanier’s thought on the necessity for kindness, empathy and beauty as hallmarks of our creative relationship with technology. Both pointed toward the potential for technology to help us connect, see, listen to and understand each other even if we do not agree.
Laurie and Lou Reed, her husband who died of cancer in 2013, came up with three rules to live by which she shared with us: 1. Do not be afraid of anyone. 2. Have a good bullshit detector, and learn how to use it. 3. Be tender with life. Afterwards, I could only remember 1 and 2. That is because I have issues with tenderness. Tender feelings make me feel vulnerable. Gotta work on that.
There is lots more to write about, so many encounters and experiences packed into 4 days, 40 venues and nearly 300 speakers/performers/presenters. Moogfest was so much more than I ever expected – my world expanded several times over. And the best way to top it all off was to play with my cohorts before an exclusive and appreciative audience. Here is an excerpt from Adrift in a Sea of Bells, one of the pieces we performed in the soundgarden following Moogfest:
More…much more to come!