By Joe Zobkiw
My introduction to this article about Moogfest 2017 in Durham, Thursday May 18th through Sunday May 21st, could pretty much be the same as my article of last year. Moogfest is a multi-day, music, art and technology festival. This year’s theme was protest and the aptly named Protest stage at Motorco was the central location in enforcing this theme.
This year was additionally exciting for me as I was not only a Moogfest-goer but also an artist. Myself and long-time collaborator, audio-artist, Halsey Burgund created an installation called Land Marking in the form of an iOS and Android app. Land Marking allows anyone in downtown Durham to share their thoughts by speaking or recording the audio around them to mark the location with a memory of exactly what was happening at that moment. As others listen to the audio stream and walk the city, an ambient music track (featuring Moog synthesizers of course) evolves and morph all the while mixing in the user-submitted audio from the area. Think of it as a geo-located audio diary that will live on well beyond Moogfest.
It ends up being an artist has its perks. We pretty much had access to endless Topo Chico which it ends up is really hard to chug when you are forced to because a venue wouldn’t allow outside food or drink.
So let’s recap my days at Moogfest 2017 – but let me say that what I did is about 5% of what can be done at any one time at Moogfest. I followed my own interests but there were so many more things going on. The schedule is insane!
Yes, Moogfest officially started on Thursday but Halsey and I went on Wednesday in order to do some last minute app testing and server tweaking. We walked the city to make sure everything worked properly and couldn’t have been happier with the results. One advantage of hanging out a day early was getting to see a lot of the setup happening. Putting on a multi-venue festival the size of this one is no easy task. In fact, we contacted Moogfest within a week of the last one ending and it pretty much took the entire year to get everything in place. Multiply that by the hundreds of artists involved and you have a job on your hands!
Thursday is a slow ramp-up at Moogfest. If I had to describe the days in general they are like wide-reaching (hour-long or more) TED Talks during the day and incredible concerts and performances at night. There is plenty else to do and explore as well but this is a good way to visualize the festival for someone who has never been. So, for us, Thursday started by walking around and checking out the Popup Factory and Modular Marketplace where you can play with many of the coolest synthesizers available today. We also dropped in on a talk or two.
Around dinner time we had an engagement on the Protest stage to give a 5-minute speech about Land Marking. After spending most of Wednesday night honing a speech and practicing, Halsey delivered it to the crowd who were at the stage early. As soon as the Pie Face Girls (a kick-ass powerful punk trio) finished their set we took our cue from the stage manager as the crew swapped platforms for the next performer. Someone asked for a Windows phone version, Halsey joked about having created a PalmOS version, and that was that.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat at Motorco (try the tuna slider!) we ended up at The Armory where we watched the band S U R V I V E perform. For those who live under a rock, two members of S U R V I V E compose the music to the Netflix show Stranger Things. The band was very reminiscent of Kraftwerk – four guys – all playing synthesizers – lined up on stage – simple drum beats – powerful sounds. All told they put on a great show and The Armory is simply an amazing (albeit simple) venue. After S U R V I V E, 808 State played a show on the same stage – another excellent performance.
Friday morning began watching an interview with Dave Smith, the man who created the Prophet 5 synthesizer and continues to create and sell synthesizers to this day. I managed to see him in the hall just before he went on and expressed my appreciation for his work. I asked if it was OK if I took a selfie, joking that he would be in it too. The interviewer, Michael Calore of Wired Magazine, then coined the term an “Usie.” We were both laughing when I took the pic so it’s a special photo. He is one of the pioneers.
Next was seeing Michael Stipe in conversation. He spoke about R.E.M., his art, his life and his installation at Moogfest. He is an extremely interesting artist. I’ve been an R.E.M. fan for years but was excited to see the depth that their frontman has outside of that role. His installation included a video of artist and friend Jeremy Ayers dancing to a particular beat that was then replaced with music composed specifically to his dancing. Normally the music comes first and the dancing follows, in this case the dancing informed the music. In discussing this, Stipe made a comment about flipping the paradigm but then corrected himself and struggled to find the word he was thinking of…not paradigm…he settled on “whatever I flipped I flipped it!” This generated a laugh from the crowd. The short tape loop of Ayers was played in the American Underground throughout the festival and was a touching homage to Stipe’s late friend.
After lunch, Halsey and I had an interview and photoshoot. I guess this is what artists do so we did it. It was fun. The photo shoot only took a few minutes. The interview was on a nice “MTV in the 80’s” type set with a couch, chairs, lots of little synthesizers and gadgets on the table in front of us and the shelves behind us. The interviewer sat off in the distance and we just responded to his questions and said some canned things akin to “I’m so-and-so and when I’m in Raleigh I read Raleigh & Company!” After the interview we found out the interviewer was one of the guys who compose the music for SpaceX launches. He gave us free tickets to Mars.
Usually before a band plays a big show at night they have an “in conversation” type event. The Carolina Theatre was packed for Animal Collective and Syrinx. It was an even bigger surprise to find out the moderator was comedian Hannibal Buress. I’ve seen him in some shows on TV but I have to say is pretty funny. Where else do you hear a 15 minute conversation about parrots and how one member of Animal Collective got bit – more than once. Some of the best lines, when John Mills-Cockell of Syrinx was talking about how he lent someone his ARP 2500 synthesizer back in the day Hannibal asked “Did you drop it off at his place or did he pick it up at your place?” Another question asked to the artists was “What’s your take on having sex to your own music?” Lastly, he talked about how Weird Al’s kids are probably SO over him. Hannibal really solidified his place as a moderator in my book. Funny, funny stuff!
After the conversation we checked out the live Stranger Things score which was essentially the two aforementioned members of S U R V I V E playing a Stranger Things-inspired live set. I don’t know why they always try to scare us but they have a very unique sound. Throughout the set one of the performers was eating popcorn – which was a nice light-hearted bit of humor for an otherwise serious scoring effort.
Last but not least, on Friday night was Animal Collective at the outdoor Protest stage at Motorco. What can I say – these guys kick some serious.
Did I mention it was hot these days? 90 degrees almost every day. Moogfest was hot too!
Saturday morning started out with watching Dave Smith and the guys from S U R V I V E messing around with two Prophet 6 synthesizers for an hour. It was a noise fest of epic proportions. Seeing the creator of an instrument and a few musicians who really know it go to town is a treat. At one point Dave called up Jason Lindner of jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslan’s band to add his synthesizer voice to the fun. For those who don’t know, Donny’s was the band who played on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert – it’s killer.
As I was roaming around the Modular Marketplace, I saw Daniel Troberg of Elektron, a musical instrument company I have pretty high respect for. We chatted for a minute and during the selfie he pulled from his bag and held up their unreleased Digitakt drum machine. We talked for a minute about the new machine and he continued his Moogfest adventure. It was a great surprise to see him there.
The afternoon ended with seeing a really great talk by two of the guys from music software company Izotope. They discussed how their audio software made use of machine learning in order to do some amazing feats of digital signal processing such as removing background noise from a recording of a voice. Really great technology that you can buy and use today.
Lastly, I alerted the authorities to a trash can fire and saved all of Moogfest right before Flying Lotus played at the Protest stage. Great visuals, great music. Although the festival did continue into Sunday, I was unable to attend so this was a great way to end Moogfest for me.
As you can see – Moogfest has so many angles. I met some amazing people from all over the world. You talk to them one day and then see them throughout the festival for little chats – it’s great to find other musicians and artists who appreciate technology and hang with them for the weekend. Moogfest 2017 may be over but 2018 is right around the corner. Don’t miss it!
Joe Zobkiw is a musician and software developer – follow him at @zobskewed