Written by Adam Keilbach
In an age where music festivals are trying to be more and more inclusive, awkwardly shoehorning in so many ideas and acts that they appeal to everyone and no one simultaneously, Moogfest is one festival that knows its audience and doesn’t need to pander. Its first time being held in the rising tech town of Durham, NC, Moogfest went about its 11th iteration with a clear goal in mind: to bring together those that understand the importance of music and technology, and how often the two influence and intersect with each other.
Not quite a festival in traditional terms, Moogfest offered a wide palate of daytime entertainment, interactive sound installations, insightful conversations, and synth building workshops billed as Future Thought. For instance, film buffs were treated to a showing of the indie horror movie It Follows, which preceded a Q&A session with the film’s composer, Rich Vreeland, AKA Disasterpeace. Ambient musicians Tim Hecker and Ben Frost gave incisive looks into their production techniques and pulled back the curtain on their enigmatic live shows. Musicians Reggie Watts, Mykki Blanco, and Janelle Monáe discussed the current and future state of Afrofuturism. Perhaps the most creative exhibition involved Robert Rich performing an 8 hour “sleep concert,” where those in attendance literally curled up on a series of beds laid out in a hotel ballroom in an attempt to, “sustain hypnogogic states in sleeping audiences.”
Even those on a budget were able to take advantage of the plethora of free programming during the day, like the fascinating installation Realiti – Inside The Music of Grimes, a unique partnership where Listen and Microsoft worked with Moogfest to create an immersive and evolving version of her Art Angels song “Realiti.” Microsoft Kinect sensors were placed in 4 different sections of the installation, and read how users interacted with a series of mesh nets. By pressing against the nets, the Kinects would respond by playing a certain musical element of “Realiti,” essentially giving people the opportunity to remix her song in a distinct way, creating a different version of the song every time.
Celebrating the life and impact of Robert Moog on not just the synthesizer but on music in general, Moogfest transformed every night into Future Sound, a tried and true expression of the diversity in music today. Synth pioneer Gary Numan performed a different album of his in its entirety each evening, with long lines stretching outside the entrance of whatever venue he was playing at on that particular night. Grouper performed a rare and intimate set that had me in tears within three songs, my eyes and ears awestruck by the painfully beautiful tones and textures contained in her ambient drones. Blood Orange, fronted by UK-born artist Dev Hynes, operated on the opposite end of the musical spectrum. He and his band put on an electric, Prince-esque show filled with sizzling sax riffs, funkified R&B, and throwback 80’s synth pop, peppering in a few new tracks from his upcoming record Freetown Sound. It was immensely hard to pick the best performance out of such an eclectic crowd. What other festival gives you the opportunity to witness art pop princess Grimes one night, and see fabled drone metal group sunn O))) cause demonic, sonic quakes the next, and at the same venue no less?
I would feel remissed if I didn’t also include two back-to-back stellar performances from Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter, both of whom were apart of the not-so-shortlist of standout female musicians present at Moogfest, a trend I hope continues into the upcoming years as the festival takes root in Durham. Both women displayed their hauntingly unique vocal styles in their own ways. Barwick, who just released her third album, Will, earlier this month, composed many of the elements of her songs utilizing a looping pedal to create vocal harmonies with herself, before adding lush piano chords as the icing on the ambient cake. Julia Holter very nearly topped Barwick with an impressive acoustic set based around the house piano at the venue (a church, which no doubt aided in the heavenly vibes). Holter played a medley of old and new tracks, including Loud City Song cuts “Running Through My Eyes” and “Horns Surrounding Me,” as well as Have You In My Wilderness single “Sea Calls Me Home,” where Holter sang the song’s infamous sax solo and jokingly urged the audience to “sing along.”
As a first time attendee to any music festival in general, I feel Moogfest may have set the bar too high for other festivals in terms of how to implement a multitude of ideas and have them all work together seamlessly. Despite having nonplussed reactions to some of the more experimental acts – Oneohtrix Point Never and Kode9, I’m looking at you – it’s the experience and opportunity to see these performances in such a setting that allows for a discussion and dissection of just what it is that makes this sort of music work (or not) that still made some of Moogfest’s scarce lowlights feel like a success in my eyes.
The sheer amount of music available at Moogfest was intimidating in the best possible way. Sure, sacrifices had to be made in the sake of scheduling conflicts – RIP to seeing HEALTH and Laurel Halo – but such decisions only made the performances I was able to attend that much more entertaining. I was happy to call Durham my home for those 4 days, and was pleased to see so many others like me, walking around wide-eyed, taking in all the sights and sounds; laughing, smiling, and dancing to one of the best experiences money can buy.