“When I hit the stage, it be like a Tsunami” Mykki Blanco cried, bolting through the crowd and vaulting himself over the barrier, onto the speakers and then the stage, like an untamable orbit.

Stomping his way from the center of the crowd wearing black sneakers and a frilly baby-blue corset, Mykki forged a wide circle in his wake, exposing the pavement with yells and twirls as confrontational as they were instigating.

Mykki was set on creating a connection with the audience, but he was also demanding he be heard.

Four days later, industrial noise queen Pharmakon lept into the densely packed Motorco Music Hall, carving narrow, dark corridors through the crowd between inhuman, distorted screams and furiously pacing back and forth the length of the venue.

We — Lindsay Hogan and Alex Tebeleff — have been to many music festivals, of different sizes and scopes; so trust us, this level of avant-garde spectacle is not normal.

But Moogfest is not a normal festival.

The line between performer and audience at Moogfest is thin, razor-thin. Artists like Mykki Blanco and Pharmakon sever it entirely.

At Moogfest, everyone is a participant. Headliners give masterclasses and attend synth-building workshops, while CEOs and corporate partners involve themselves in cooperative knowledge sharing (rather than the ruthless, profit-driven competition typically exhibited by rival festival organizers):

For the modern artist and music lover, Moogfest, the 4-day music festival dubbed the “synthesis of music, art and technology,” represents an idyllic alternative to the structures of the modern music industry. It demonstrates how music can be paired with controversial discussion and challenging concepts, yet still captivate an audience.

If you work in music, tech, performance art, engineering, or activism and have ever doubted your ideas and expressions as too crazy or audacious, Moogfest is your 4-day affirmation.

***

Moogfest, founded by synth manufacturers Moog Music, falls somewhere between a festival and a conference; celebrating music and tech through talks, installations, classes, and performances. Now held in Durham, North Carolina, it resides at the nexus of sophisticated technology and collaborative corporate ideology — a collective that sounds potentially snobby, though stubbornly isn’t.

In fact, the synthesizer community is known for its openness, for both artists and businesses, as demonstrated by Moog’s legitimate enthusiasm to consistently feature and honor its competitors (Dave Smith the most obvious example at this year’s festival) and support the exploding modular synthesizer scene fueled by the many different companies manufacturing more portable and more inexpensive systems.

Unapologetically exploring past, present, and future developments in music technology, Moogfest willingly acknowledges that their company is just one part of a larger movement.

No place might be more indicative of Moog’s openness than the Modular Marketplace; the indoor bazaar of manufacturers, designers, and companies in the field of electronic music, and the technological centerpiece of the festival.

However, despite the overwhelming amount of impressive gear, the real gems of the Marketplace are the people behind it…

Two standout companies from this year’s festival were Make Noise and Steady State Fate, trailblazers in the boom of eurorack (small-format synth modules that can be combined to create individual set-ups). Both companies are taking classic designs and synthesis tools and rearranging them to create new “multi-functional” modules that don’t require multiple menus or computer screens to access their capabilities, thus allowing for new ways of thinking and new approaches to making music through modular synthesis.

Make Noise (started by former Moog employee Tony Rolando) displayed their hyped new module, the Morphagene:

The beauty of a module like the Morphogene is the infinite possibilities of input; there is no way to run out of new sounds to create. Its direct and intuitive approach to manipulating sound through digital tape-style sampling and microsound techniques means the user can manipulate everything from human voices to a recording of birds chirping.

Steady State Fate, on the other hand, shared a prototype of a new snare drum module (similar to their Entity kick drum module) that stood out as a creative — and particularly “modular” — approach to some classic synthesis tools. Like the Entity, it’s triggered like a drum module, with a built-in envelope, yet it also has the ability to add further modulation (which is particularly exciting for those out there trying to keep their eurorack system from expanding beyond a certain size, especially those of us who play live with portable systems looking to get as much functionality out of their system as possible).

For synth-heads, these products are most often experienced in online unboxing and tutorial videos or at boutique music stores, so to be given the ability to actually play around with new modules, keyboard interfaces, and synthesizers fosters some undeniable “kid in a candy store” moments. It’s a stimulating experience; to cut your teeth on something as fresh as the Morphogene with the company’s most knowledgeable and encouraging team members standing by.

One gets the sense that more than one Moogfest attendee walked away galvanized and inspired to make something new and different.

It’s that physical proximity and ease of communication between participants that’s the real beauty of Moogfest, giving attendees ample and unique opportunities to witness candid, insightful discussion or even pick creators’ brains during a personal conservation.

At one point, Make Noise’s Walker Farrell spoke about what makes the process of using modular synthesizers special. Speaking against the idea of using one manufacturer to make your system feel like a “single instrument, instead of a collection of diverse items,” Farrell expressed of the power of a modular synthesizer system as a way to get away from “the usual signal paths and ways of making sound” and an opportunity to “learn how each piece of a synthesizer works, and how they work together.” This approach allows artists to “use the synth more as a tool for composing rather than just a tool for making sounds and being part of the composition” by thinking about the modular synthesis from a compositionally creative perspective; a refreshing take on the subject compared to much of the gearworship that tends to be common in the synthesizer community, fueled by a seemingly infinite combination of brands and interchangeable instruments.

Farrell’s statements illuminate that it’s about what one does with the gear, not the gear itself.

If any one single artist at the festival best represented the ideal dynamic between gear and user, it was Suzanne Ciani.

Her name was one of the most frequently spoken at Moogfest, both as a performer and recipient of the annual Moog Innovation Award. She’s a legend and a pioneer in the field of synthesis and sound design, creating some of the most iconic commercial sounds of the 70s and 80s while simultaneously mastering the rare Buchla modular synthesizer system (a more experimental alternative to its Moog contemporary, in both sound and interface).

Her music and her contributions to the field of synthesis are unfortunately not in the mainstream consciousness. But at Moogfest, where dedication and innovation is paramount, Ciani is a titan.

Her Sunday afternoon discussion on the attitude and approach to performance on the Buchla system was one of the most inspiring talks at Moogfest. Prompted by creator Don Buchla’s ideas about his own system, Ciani told the audience she views the Buchla’s interface and control as an opportunity to find new ways of making sound, particularly in the context of improvised life performance. “When I play the Buchla I’m a different person,” she explained, describing a feeling like being a child when she’s behind the system.

She also spoke about spatial control, calling it “just one more parameter,” though in contrast to the rest of the performances at Moogfest (excluding the audio-visual installations) it’s clear Ciani highly valued the ability to move sound across the room, using four speakers in each corner of the room for quadraphonic sound movement to create sounds that flew across the room with a vivid presence.

Nevertheless, for all the wires and electronics, Ciani’s approach to music was one of the most humanizing at the festival.

As she explained in her talk:

Technology is an ever-changing fluid thing. But it does not think.
We think, and the ideas we come up with are what’s important.

Coincidentally, Ciani also spoke about how much she loved using the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 on her album Seven Waves, one of the most iconic designs by legend Dave Smith — who, like Ciani, was a celebrated presence throughout the festival weekend.

For those who aren’t synthesizer players, Dave’s company, Dave Smith Instruments, is probably Moog’s biggest competitor in the United States, though you certainly wouldn’t have guessed it from the way he was embraced by Moog President Mike Adams. The image of the two celebrating a tribute to Dave at the festival together gave an opportunity to reflect on what business relationships can look like when people create out of passion instead of greed.

“It’s great to be in an industry where your competitors are your friends,” Smith professed to the Modular Marketplace full of peers, admirers, and raised glasses.

***

The first thing most prospective attendees will notice is that Moogfest’s lineup isn’t exactly composed of the expected annual circuit of festival acts.

Habitually showcasing artists whose work is progressive, genre-defying, and provocative — and thus often ignored by the money-making giants in the music industry — Moogfest tenaciously highlights musicians whose sounds and performances challenge common notions of what music can sound like and who should be making it.

For example, artists like…

Elysia Crampton

Performances from artists like experimental electronic musician, Elysia Crampton were some of the highlights of the festival. And the ability to experience her show within hours of her talk with The Creative Independent‘s Editor-in-Chief Brandon Stosuy about how her Bolivian-American and indigenous roots informed her intentions and processes of creating music was a great example of the immersive and thought-provoking experiences at Moogfest.

Elysia’s performance was deconstructive. The set began with a reggaeton feel, which she quickly dissolved into experimental electronic noise by the end of the first song. Elements of a kind of broken salsa style also creeped in at various points throughout the set between more variations and approaches to noise, including through the use of a keytar, shrieking vocals, demonic laugh samples, and distorted grooves and melodies that at points had the crowd dancing, or just looking forward in intrigue and sometimes awe.

 

Mary Lattimore

Witnessing Mary Lattimore’s performance in Durham’s First Presbyterian Church was the perfect setting for her hybrid of inherently beautiful harp music with innovative looping and delay effects in real-time. The layers created in that process echoed through the walls of the church, where they would slowly devolve by the end into streams of sound-grains, or even percussive noise.

Mary’s use of extended technique on the harp, like rubbing the strings to create looping noise, added further texture to her set, and her uncommon use of reverse delay added effective variation to keep the ear engaged while transporting the mind with the innate tranquility of the harp.

 

Colin Wolfe

One of the most interesting talks at the festival was the open discussion between musician Colin Wolfe and Bandcamp Senior Editor Marcus Moore. Colin Wolfe has worked with the likes of Outkast, TLC, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, but is most famous for collaborating with Dr. Dre to co-produce the hip-hop classic The Chronic, and after revealing that he wasn’t actually a big fan of hip-hop at the time, Colin spoke about the unorthodox decisions and influences that lead him to incorporate the Moog into one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

Obsessed with the music of Parliament-Funkadelic, Colin and Dre’s other collaborators wanted to make a new expression of hip-hop that was “crazy, different, out-there.” Taking inspiration from P-Funk, they decided to use the Minimoog on their album (bought for $350 on the used market, compared to the current going price of $3,500 for a reissue), letting them tap into some of the sounds they heard on P-Funk’s albums, use them for further sonic exploration, and push themselves to bring the sound of psychedelic funk into a new context for the time.

 

Kill Alters, Container, Pharmakon, Wolf Eyes

The Saturday night lineup at Motorco Music Hall was a not-so-gentle reminder that confrontational music — music that does not comply with commercial norms — has an important place, a dedicated audience, and is often more impactful than mainstream “entertainment.”

Kill Alters is a band that is equally gripping and upsetting. Bonnie Baxter started the Kill Alters project to explore old recordings of her mother who relentlessly documented her own severe OCD and tourettes. The result is two artfully explorative and disturbing records, and a chaotically precise live set which floored the early-evening Moogfest crowd. Kill Alters pulled off a trance-like cacophony, similar to Moogfest headliners Animal Collective, but with more, edge, darkness, and psychotic substance. Baxter spat rapid-fire lyrics, moving dizzily around stage in front of the borderline techno beats provided by Nicos Kennedy and the outrageously tight, and appropriately intense, drumming of Hisham A. Bharoocha.

The tone of sensory overload carried into Container’s set, where he moved back and forth between raging industrial techno and punishing electronic noise; the kinetic high-point of the night.

For the unexpected listener, Container’s “techno,” fueled by synths, sequencers, and a trademark tape machine redefines what contemporary dance music can be. But in reality, the sonically confrontational tone felt like a return to the origins of dance music; unconventional music meant for countercultural misfits to get down to, and feel liberated.

Next, Pharmakon took the confrontational torch and ran with it. The beat-driven segment of the night had ended and the capacity venue plunged together into Pharmakon’s pulsating and disorienting catharsis. Her heavily filtered vocals are more reminiscent of a horror film than a musical performance, but the connection she manages to forge with the audience is vivid.

Last month, Pharmakon (Margaret Chardiet) described the live experience better than one could paraphrase:

Even before you start playing there’s a bunch of people standing in a room, all creating this energy towards the stage… And then when you start performing, you’re placing that energy out towards other people in the room, and then they’re placing it back to you based on your body movements and it’s like this exchange, you know, it’s a conversation.

Then, as one began to wonder how they had managed to emotionally withstand so much until this point in the night, Wolf Eyes took the stage and liquidated any last common conception of what music should be.

The “cool dads” of Detroit noise music seem to be the most self-aware when it comes to how punishing their music is: “It’s a long trip, but I think we’re gonna be alright” they interjected halfway through the set with a quasi-sarcastic, quasi-existential tone. But did it lighten the weight of their drone-heavy, hypnotic pyscho jazz? No, not the slightest.

The trio magnetized the room for over an hour and a half. Wolf Eyes has a stuporing swagger, as opposed to the frantic physicality of the previous acts. The simple rotation of a deep and bassy drone was paired with pedal-heavy guitar, sax, and clarinet that sounded more like the constant churn of hell than anything that belongs in a jazz club.

Occasionally dropping in were Nate Young’s slow, dry, spoken-word lyricism; dripping with nihilistic coolness:

I spent too much time outside/but it never seemed the same.
I spent too much time on an answer/Wanting to see if I’d ever grow old.

With Wolf Eyes it’s hard to know whether to snap your fingers or gnaw them off.

***

Even with these genre-shattering acts and brilliant performances, Moogfest asks more from both its artist and attendees.

The average festival wastes the opportunity of having a critical mass of talent in one place. Moogfest thrives on this. Instead of shying away from issues and challenges that impact music, Moogfest celebrates the convergence of technology and creativity by using the collective knowledge of both artists and participants to tackle inclusivity, racial justice, immigration and mass incarceration, just to name a few.

This atmosphere of collaboration is motivated not by personal gain, but by ideas and innovation. In his talk at Moogfest, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. summed up the creative tone of the festival:

I want to maintain that same curiosity about the world with an absolute optimism about the potential and possibility of the human spirit to rise about anything, combined with fury and outrage.

The sense of creativity, collaboration, and progressive dialogue was near-overwhelming. It manifested in a wide array of events, including a series of four-hour sound installation, countless artist-on-artist talks and panel discussions on everything from DIY circuitry to protest music to Neurological rehabilitation.

Haxan Cloak/Nick Zinner Durational sound installation

Electronic producer, The Haxan Cloak and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner’s performed a four hour durational sound installation that functioned as a conversation without words. Ambient electronics have been paired with experimental guitar before, but the unique beauty of this set were the subtleties and musical interaction between the two artists, as well as the intimate proximity that allowed the audience to watch their process and witness the different musical movements over the course of 4 hours. They managed to move through mediative buzzing, mournful electronic wails and otherworldly crescendos -and that was only in the 30 minutes I spent in the room.

 

Syrinx and Animal Collective in conversation with Hannibal Buress

The unlikely conversation between electronic veteran John Mills-Cockell of Syrinx, experimental pop group Animal Collective and comedian Hannibal Buress was maybe most memorable for the 10 minute, off the rails discussion on parrots or when he asked all the musicians if they had sex to their own music.

But between Hannibal’s derailing hijinx were a few artist-on-artist moments that exposed the need for inter-generational conversation. Cockell and Animal Collective shared their industry experience with sampling; exposing similar difficulties, hurdles, and financial burdens despite decades between their careers. Mills-Cockell discussed the early, lawless days of sampling, including how a piece his composition was used in the early Commodore 64 home computer without permission or payment. On the flip side, Animal Collective detailed their attempt to repurpose Stevie Wonder lyrics, a request that was denied flat-out by intermediary attorneys.

After conversations like this, where different generation of musicians come together, share knowledge and nerdy jokes, it seems bizarre that other festivals, even the big boys like Coachella and Bonnaroo don’t attempt to facilitate similar discussions.

 

Musical Activism and the Fight Against Mass Incarceration

Most inspiring was Moogfest’s ability to create dialogue at the intersection of music, activism, and social justice.

The discussion on Grassroots Musical Activism, for example, featured a handful of Durham artists whose work is inseparable from their politics and social causes (i.e. LGBTQ rights, feminism and Black Lives Matter). The artists went back and forth on music as a rallying point for a cause vs an inflammatory action, with panelist and singer/songwriter Laila Nur describing music as a deep level vibration, common to all humans, while poet and musician Shirlette Ammons countered the idealism behind connecting with others (read: Republicans in her state) through music by asking why marginalized people are expected to engage with those whose politics that are tangibly damaging to them.

Another challenging conversation at Moogfest was the state of mass incarceration in America and how music can (and is) being used to fight it. The panel discussed two sides of America’s epidemic of incarceration: preventing kids from getting locked up, and helping those who have been released from the system.

You have to hand it to a music festival that puts entertainment on the back burner in order to create collaborative dialogue and ask the hard questions.

***

From an incredibly diverse range of events, speakers and artists, Moogfest gave us a taste of a music world dominated by cooperation and originality.

Attendees saw another side of the music industry, or perhaps another industry altogether. We saw technological innovators who seek to improve their products under the guidance of artists. We saw companies that don’t shy away from working with each other, and in fact thrive on it. We saw young musicians who are trailblazing new sounds and genres. We saw old musicians who have carved sustainable and dynamic careers for themselves, instead of burning out on stardom. We saw sound designers who became artists, artist who became educators, and more creative engineers than I knew what to do with.

Moogfest presented its attendees and participants with an alternative; we as music makers, consumers and innovators can do better than what’s out there. And we can do it together.