We were lucky enough to travel to Durham, North Carolina and take part of the newly revamped Moogfest. Durham’s downtown became the seat for a fascinating display of music performances, art and sound installations, conversations, and workshops. Located in the heart of the Research Triangle, this new location fed off the changing face of North Carolina, one far more progressive and educated than recent news headlines make it out to be.
Two overriding themes presented before the start of the festival, Future Sound and Future Thought, signaled exactly what Moogfest hoped to accomplish. The fest presented this whole idea that we must discover, examine and own the changing role technology and electronics will play in our future life. This is something I appreciated simply by walking down Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District, headquarters for the Moogfest Modular Marketplace and official entry point for Moogfest goers.
Looking everywhere, I’d see remnants of a past that wasn’t sustainable. You’d be hard-pressed to realize this, but this district, and those buildings, were once the nexus of America’s cigarette manufacturing industry. Iconic American Tobacco Company brands like Lucky Strike and Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco mingled outside with much of what another iconic family, the Dukes, had cajoled to fruition. It was only with time that this industry floundered and decay started to set in, Durham itself seeming to give ironic significance to the phrase “Sold, American!” that the town made famous.
All of this makes what I saw last weekend so interesting. Step inside Moogfest and you’d find tech startups rivaling anything in Silicon Valley; step outside to the American Tobacco Campus for something far more curious. Where once there were pathways syphoning unknown chemicals to lord knows where, now you saw a clear stream of water feeding moments of tranquility and reflection. Alongside a large prominent lawn, cafes, shops and nature invited concertgoer and tourist alike to intermingle and have a conversation about all sorts of unknown, new things. Looking around at all this color: old, young, worker, synth nerd, drone rocker, man, woman, human, cyborg, all had a place in this promenade. As the experience continued at night, when the iconic Lucky Strike water tower lit up with Moogfest laser lights, you never lost sense of how unique this all was.
Durham putting stock in the value of intellect and creativity afforded them to have brilliant venues that companies like Moog can use, such as the Carolina Theatre, or The Armory, where remnants of the past were being repurposed for something entirely ahead of the curve. Now, people are coming back and rediscovering a city they feared lost.
One might not always get what exactly is being shown — my mind is still trying to process Robert Rich’s Sleep Concert — but one is afforded a place to respectfully discover and explore all sorts of ideas. Standing in front of The Armory’s massive subwoofer array, I came to one example.
On tape, Brisbane-born UV Boi’s hybrid of EDM, hip-hop, and soul feels decidedly mellow and melancholy, as much as one can be in this post-Drake world. Live, at The Armory, though, those subs were knocking out all the creaks from my joints, and UV Boi’s 808s were pounding some of the most unique “body” music I’ve ever experienced. It was hard music, for sure, but it was running through all the gamut of what “hard” meant. No matter where you came from, if you were in attendance, you had to feel something. Maybe your vocabulary wasn’t quite there to fully explain what this was, but you gave it time to spark some internal dialog. Perhaps if you had been there to hear Jlin turn Footwork inside-out just a few moments before, you might have been a bit better prepared.
One memory I’ll never forget is attending a Moogfest discussion on Afrofuturism by GZA. It was all heady stuff. For an hour or so, GZA was trying to explain why or how his own music came to being. What struck me was how he mentioned something to the effect that rappers must not forget to tie whatever growth they have as musicians with literacy itself. He worried that other rappers were forgetting the importance of developing a larger vocabulary from which to speak.
Stepping back, as we travelled to other venues, like Antenes’ phone switchboard synthesizer durational sound installation located right above Durham’s famous Loaf bakery, or visiting any of the varied geodesic domes filled with art dotting the city — some situated in clear view of monuments that will last beyond the festival — we got to see this musical vocabulary at work.
Moog’s Moogfest is presenting the potential of something deeply modern and affecting. How can we repurpose our past? No one fully understood what Robert Moog had created decades back when he introduced his synthesizer to the world. Now as the world is becoming more modular, as people discover it’s natural to add and modify expression, we need venues where people of all stripes can find their notch in the frequency range.
At the end of the day, how far removed is the icy new wave of Gary Numan, or the monolithic drone metal of Sunn o))), from the future pop of Grimes? Ask yourself: how much of this Moogfest is really about Moog itself? Loads of invited bands, designers, and vendors appeared with nary a Moog device in view. Step outside, head outside of downtown, and you’ll see a Durham still grappling with change. At the end of the day, not everyone has obtained the same amount of wealth from the spring of technology experienced here at Moogfest. However, the potential for change is here.
Given time and space, it seems that this thing we call “music” will always have a certain fluidness that will expand what we call “language.” Rather than run away from technology, Moog is trying to try to understand how important it is as a teaching tool in this conversation we’re having with ourselves. We might not get everything happening at Moogfest right away, but as it keeps coming back, Moogfest remains a great resource to discover new ideas and experiences you won’t find anywhere else, things that are helping explain our humanity as it matures into a new age.