So this was my 4th year at the (now) Durham-based festival that bills itself as celebrating “Future Sound/Future Thought.” Each year the festival seems to suffer some whispered rumors about major management, planning, and booking upheavals, and reported glitches, whispers made in the interim between the Monday following the fest to the Wednesday the following year before it starts. Moogfest ultimately always pulls off an entertaining and idea-provoking immersive experience when the day one comes. The behind-the-scenes drama seems to have little impact on attendees other than a little bonus sturm-und-drang while waiting for the year to pass between fests. But I love this festival. If you are on the fence about coming, do. My city is amazing and the festival atmosphere is charged with intellectual and inquisitive electrons. Attending Moogfest is like taking a smart bath.
There were some administrative glitches: last year’s high tech, chipped bands returned to simple cloth ones in 2019 and there was no festival app, making venue and scheduling management frustrating. You were instead given a paper schedule with small print and the nostalgic “filling station map” fold. The website was not interactive as it had been in the past, where you could click on an artist’s name and go to the biographical description. In previous years you could sort by venue and by artist, making hitting your personal interests easier. Not this year.
So, a few basics about the festival. There are 2 main hubs of activity: the American Tobacco Campus (ATC), a gorgeous reclaimed cigarette factory complex, and Durham's Carolina Theatre (CTD). Both have multiple performance and meeting spaces. In addition, clubs, churches, smaller performance and meeting venues have been pressed into service. This year, a gorgeous new performance space, the Durham Fruit & Produce Company, was added to the mix. The Moog pop-up factory and Guitar Center music store were at ATC, along with free outdoor performances in The Cage, an open air enclosure. There are always free events at Moogfest--last year a record fair and a Ralph Stedman exhibit (I attended a Skype Conference interview with him last year that was weird, wonderful, and endearing) as well as Saturday outdoor performances open to all. Moving to April meant for perfect temperatures and our trademark Carolina Blue skies--on most days.
And about Future Sound/Future Thought. Moogfest is loosely described as about Future Thought by day, featuring a series of workshops for engineers and speakers on music, futurism, culture, politics, technology, privacy, and their interplay. Keynotes this year were Martin Gore of Depeche Mode and Daniel Miller of Mute Records in Conversation and Investigative Reporter Jason Leopold and Questlove discussing "Hacking the Truth" about their divergent disciplines' search for that elusive virtue. Quest subbed for Thomas Dolby, hospitalized the day before for a nasty kidney infection. There are performances in the day as well, but the real serious getting down is a night, the Future Sounds component of the festival.
But what are the moments I most remember from Moogfest 2019?
I’ll start by saying this festival celebrates the history of electronic music and honors its major figures and elders as one of its continuing, strongest organizing threads and one of the best things they do. This year, I basically stalked Patrick Gleeson, who worked with the men behind the brand names in getting machines that would allow him to tour with Herbie Hancock’s jazz septet in the early 70s. He worked with Don Buchla, who told him to go to hell when he wanted a keyboard to play live, Bob Moog (Gleeson was his 11th customer), and Alan R Pearlman, whose ARP machine ended up being perfect for touring with Herbie. Imagine, if you are not yet suitably impressed, imagine needing a car and calling Henry Ford, the Dodge Brothers, and Walter Chrysler to see what they each can cook up for you to drive to work.
Gleeson may be best known to those of you in Zubland as the co-engineer of Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! (see SGS 030 Devo/Satisfaction). A quick trip to Wikipedia will tell you just how key he was in the world of music of all kinds in the past 50 years. His performance Thursday night in the big hall of the CTD was riveting, performed via Ableton Live on a laptop. I also saw him play a few pieces in the Meyer immersive spacial sound venue, The Armory, including a piece from the Jazz Criminal album, which he composed with collaborator Jim Lang, who was also on hand in our small demo listening party. The room was set up with 16 independent speaker channels and the sound engineer pushed sounds around the room, live, as by his side Gleeson manned the Ableton system. This was so beyond quad sound—it is a truly gob-smacking experience.
Just a little on this year’s Meyer system—it was less showy than last year’s spacial system, that had spinning, glowing speaker arrays throughout the room. Less flash this year, visually, but the sound was mouth-dropping. The Armory room is unusual in that it is a bit like a ballroom/gymnasium with a parquet floor and a balcony ringing the room—I guess to view the dance marathons, etc, going on below. The smaller array speakers are positioned overhead, suspended around the balcony, the sound permeating the space. It was really something.
Patrick Gleeson presented a fantastic historical talk on Sunday morning. I was sure I’d be able to catch him and talk Devo. I mean, who is going to get up on Sunday morning on the last day of a four-day fest? The talk was billed as a career-spanning discussion of his life in electronic music, “From Buchla Box to Ableton Live.” I forgot this is Moogfest, as I scurried to grab one of the few remaining seats in a packed theater. Attendees of Moogfest are hardcore and of course this talk was in demand.
What followed was a mesmerizing, interactive discussion of the evolution of these instruments, Gleeson's work with Herbie Hancock, and finally the compositional role of AI. He told the audience members they would probably have a role as curators over AI scores for TV and movies. He had a career in the 80s and 90s composing film and TV scores himself and seemed to think trite, obvious AI scores were about what the industry deserved.
Finally, Gleeson told a great story about being at NAMM where they had his old Moog 3. “Would you like to play it?” they asked, eagerly hoping they’d reunited old lovers. “NO! I’ve suffered enough!” was his reply. He has returned to live performance in recent years, in part energized by the apt tool he has found in the Ableton. I’ve seen Suzanne Ciani wrangle the Buchla, like some enchanted old timey telephone operator, and heard her talk about how she can’t imagine a more perfect instrument for what she does. I think they are probably both right.
Well, I didn’t get my Devo discussion in for all the fawning fanboys during and after the presentation. Me being a 9th level introvert had nothing to do with it, I’m sure (rolls eyes at self).
Next time I’ll talk about talking smack about Clem Burke, the drummer from Blondie…
--Adrienne Meddock (@ CTD + wristband)