Photo by: Reginald Stack
Electronic music festival Moogfest welcomes an exciting roster to Durham, North Carolina for its 11th edition. Among the 150 artists are Animal Collective, Flying Lotus, Mykki Blanco, Talib Kweli, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Simian Mobile Disco, and Gotye. The schedule is packed from May 18th to 21st, with workshops, conversations, film screenings, live scorings, installations, and presentations by instrument creators. Within the festival melee is also a current of social evolution, exemplified by themes like Black Quantum Futurism, focusing on emerging African American voices; Protest, reacting to the 2016 election results; Transhumanism, centering on biotechnology; and Techno-Shamanism, which connects electronic music with ritualistic practices. Providing spaces and voices for social reform alters the festival’s vibe from an endless dance party to a cerebral vehicle for often-marginalized ideas, making it an important instalment to the spring/summer festival circuit.
This year’s most compelling talent is synthesizer pioneer Suzanne Ciani. The first female recipient of the prestigious 2017 Moog Innovation Award, Ciani is placed in the company of past winners like Brian Eno, Gary Numan, Devo, and Thomas Dolby. Her work is displayed in several configurations, the most affecting being her quadrophonic Buchla set of evolving synths at The Armory. Ciani is also the participant in an hourlong moderated conversation about her legacy and subject of the feature-length documentary A Life in Waves, screening at Moogfest.
Durham is an absolute joy in the middle of May. The weather hovers in the seventies and the venues are just a quick walk away – perfect for working off those summertime beers. Durham is known for its food trucks, which are strategically placed to provide much-needed fuel throughout the day and into the wee hours.
Moogfest organizers have understood the importance of a venue’s context to strengthen each act. Talks and workshops occur during the day, and electronic artists are painstakingly positioned into the evening venue that will most make them shine. This is best exemplified by stages like the First Presbyterian Church that hosts gentle electronic sounds like the drone guitar work of Marisa Anderson, harpist Mary Lattimore, and violinist-vocalist Sudan Archives. Indie club Motorco features inside and outside events, where outside at Motorco Park, rap legend Talib Kweli, singer-producer Jessy Lanza, and DJ Premier satiate the hip hop audience. The intimate Motorco Music Hall allows attendees to melt their faces to the confrontational assault of Pharmakon and Tasha the Amazon, or be lulled by Mndsgn’s ambient grooves.
The Armory is the festival’s focal techno site. House veterans 808 State kick off the festival with their Thursday night set, a clear highlight. The stage is also occupied by Berghain resident Function and Detroit producers Derrick May and K-Hand. Switching it up, Stranger Things soundtrack composers Survive slow the vibe with their warm ambient washes, and Gaika rouses everyone with a blistering grime/dubstep set that is all overwhelming bass and piercing screams. Head to dive bar Pinhook for pleasant surprises like Mumdance’s UK riddim or Pye Corner Audio and Not Waving’s synthwave. California crew Modular on the Spot hosts a picnic with a three-hour lineup of modular artists, a fitting musical end to a packed four days.
Moogfest provides an insane variety around the stage acts in order to stave off the inevitable overexposure that comes from four straight days of electronic music. The workshops provide an easy entrance point for those exploring the creation of electronic music – many geared toward children – and a beefy modular marketplace gives a way for those of us infected with gearlust to update their studio setup and connect with others in the DIY community. Conversations with industry heads like Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits, Flying Lotus, and Dr. Dre collaborator Colin Wolfe provide insider insight into studio production processes. The socially-aware events add another layer to an already gargantuan schedule. Workshops titled “Prototyping Utopia,” “Witchcraft & Code,” and “Science is Fiction” point towards cultural destabilization, a place to challenge conceptions and hear perspectives from peripheral populations. And then there’s the eclectic Church of Space, offering a crash course on quantum physics, complete with lab-coated lecturers. Joking that his comedy competition was zero at the festival, comedian Hannibal Buress announces a surprise evening show for anyone still hanging around town.
Though anchored by its concert architecture, Moogfest presents much more than just music; it also supplies mental enrichment in the form of discussions and workshops. The festival pass clearly provides an incredible value for the sheer number of events. With Moogfest’s incredible array of musicians, electronic or otherwise, there’s no way anyone could be bored here. The variety of acts ensures everyone will find something they like – including a few new favorites.