Moogfest: Techno-Optimism and the Wide, Wide World of Weird Music
"I have an antenna implanted into my head... It's a new sensory organ." A recap of Moogfest 2016.
A barefooted and smiling older man appeared stage right with a classical guitar. Singing a song in Catalan, he coolly moved up and down the aisles, presenting his feet to various audience members as, leaning so hard he nearly tumbled over. Then he did, laughing: “Oop!” As his song ended, Pau Riba took a seat on a stool atop a riser in the middle of the stage. It was as traditional as a performance could be: intimate, unamplified.
And then everything took a very sharp left turn: “I have an antenna implanted into my head… It’s a new sensory organ,” said Neil Harbisson as he took the stage. The host had what looked like a bedroom reading lamp arcing from the base of his skull over his head, dangling above his browridge. Harbisson is a cyborg. His antenna which has hung in place since he installed it in 2004, processes color and transposes it into bone-conducting resonation directly into his head. He and Riba were attempting what he called a “sonochromatic pedicure” to a giggling audience. “Each color has a light frequency that relates to a note. Each color has its own note,” Harbisson said. As Riba played, the cyborg painted his toenails various vibrant shades while a computer, connected to his implant via Bluetooth, translated those colors into tones that — at least the idea is they are supposed to — interwove with Riba’s instrument. “His nail sounds A now.”
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The exchange was as good of an introduction to the intent of Moogfest as one could expect. The four-day-long festival began in 2010 in its namesake’s home of Asheville before decamping to the small city of Durham, North Carolina (a source familiar with its internal history says disagreements between the fest’s promoters on its direction were partially responsible for the move). Loosely its purpose is to attempt at communal investigation of technology’s intimate relationship to the arts, and their near and far future together. It’s a festival where a performance honoring another synth pioneer, Don Buchla, is at capacity before its three-hour performance even begins — and those with little hope of getting in wait patiently anyway, just in case. (This likely had more than a little to do with the fact that yet another titan of tone, Morton Subnotnick, who is 83, sat in.)
Moogfest’s music aspect is designed — and succeeds brilliantly — at celebrating the many shades and shapes that electronics have provided to music. It’s now taken as rote that the once-derided bleeps and bloops of electronics are now as intrinsic to popular sound as anything, whether guitar or human voice. Gary Numan, in an interview to be posted separately, explained how he faced vehement opposition to his early synth-driven work by rock purists.
It was clear in the beautiful, complex and proggy explorations of Floating Points, whose set was served perfectly by an Earth-shakingly powerful — it could be felt from three blocks away — PA. Same for the dark, dramatic, near-ambient constructions of former Nine Inch Nails member Alessandro Cortini, and the sugary pummel of Grimes‘ power pop. It was no more clear than with Numan’s set, who was in striking form and had adapted his chunky synth-rock hits to a full band; no matter, the synth remained his music’s spine.
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One unexpected standout was producer Hanz, whose dark, brutalist footwork was like a series glass melodies buried under dropped bricks. Not as unexpectedly, a set by The Orb — the long-established duo of Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann — was an exultant throwback and update on pure rave.
If the music programming was celebratory, the days’ discussions and were decidedly utopian. A speech from Jaron Lanier, the highly respected technologist and creator of virtual reality, was a perfect encapsulation of how those who live and breathe, and are made wealthy by, technology approach the world. “He is literally the embodiment of what Moogfest is all about,” the introductory speaker said. In a digressive speech, punctuated by his infectious and childish laugh, Lanier was in every way the electro-optimist, sitting buddha-like on a chair mid-stage, his knee-length dreadlocks tumbling over his legs, toes wiggling constantly. Lanier wove through a brief history of musical instruments — playing a short piece on a Laotian instrument called the khene, which he said was the first instance of “digital information” because of its reliance on a series of valves that could be turned on and off. A stretch, Lanier admitted. It wouldn’t be the last. “Music is sex between us and the universe,” he said at one point. There was, as is common in that world, a patronizing air from the tech luminary, despite his being described as humble — after a joke, he chided amiably: “You didn’t laugh, so you didn’t really think that through.”
Lanier’s brilliance was obvious, as obvious as his tendency to de-emphasize the more difficult realities of the world. (“There’s this other framing of human history that’s less dismal.”) It’s an often unspoken problem at utopianistic gatherings and conferences: the feedback loop. The wealthy, respected and brilliant preach to their almost equally sharp choir. When the huddle breaks, however, the majority take off sprinting in different directions, going off to live their lives as they’re required to; through the daily drudgery of living a normal life.
This disconnect was very close; several Durham locals spoke of the poor areas located just outside of Moogfest’s perimeter. “Literally, five minutes that way,” one local said. Another said something similar, and pointed in the other direction. There was no plan made public for how Durham would spend the influx of cash that the event would bring it, but it would be a reasonable assumption that it would be directed to further revivifying its tourist friendly downtown area. (A request for comment from the city’s executive secretary wasn’t returned at press time.)
“It’s a weird time to be alive,” said one attendee, just before Martine Rothblatt delivered a speech extolling what she sees as the inevitability of consciousness’ full subsumation by technology. And in a way, she’s correct. We live in a fundamentally transitive age, and it is self-evidently causing some uncomfortable existential anxiety. We need to step back and recognize we are living through a change as epochal and profound as any in history. It’s both meat grinder and chrysalis.