We check out Moogfest, a festival to celebrate the legacy of a sonic pioneer

Our intrepid US Editor Saxe Coulson recently travelled to Durham, NC for Moogfest – an annual multi-day event that honours the remarkable vision of Robert Moog and his amazing inventions that changed the course of music, and celebrates Bob Moog’s legacy as a sonic pioneer.

In 1934, Bob Moog was born in New York City and 20 years later he and his father began building and selling Theremins in 1954. 7 years following, Bob Moog sold around 1,000 Theremin kits through Walter Sear who later went on to make porno flicks and Grade Z movies after having sold Moog’s Theremins and tubas in 1961. Two years later Bob Moog would take inspiration from Herbert A. Deutsch to construct the first Moog Modular synthesizer.

In his spare time, he had built two voltage-controlled oscillators and two voltage-controlled amplifiers, and some kind of controller that could turn the sounds on and off and change the pitch and modulation. When Herbert heard what these could do, he was astonished. At the end of the session the basics of a modular analog synthesizer were created. Then in 1964, Bob Moog demonstrated hand-made Moog Modular prototypes at the Audio Engineering Society convention and began to take orders.

Moogfest - Tplace Installation by Oliver Sholder

R.A. Moog Company was later born in 1967 and the Moog Modular Synthesizers I, II, and III were established. Then in 1968, Wendy Carlos’ ‘Switched-On Bach’ album was recorded entirely with a custom-made Moog Modular synthesizer. Then in 1970 Bill Waytena purchased R.A. Moog, Inc and the Minimoog was introduced at AES having gone through four different models before finally producing the Model D. The company was then relocated to Buffalo, NY in 1971 and in 1972 was officially named Moog Music, Inc. and the first time the Minimoog was introduced into a musical arena, musicians were flabbergasted.

In 1969, avantgarde jazz musician Sun Ra was loaned a Minimoog prototype B by Bob Moog after having been shown a prototype of the modular Moog. Sun Ra took the prototype on tour and later on the Minimoog started being used by Rick Wakeman of Yes. Then in the early to mid-1970s the legendary Stevie Wonder collaborated with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff on a series of albums that were recorded by TONTO, the world’s first and largest multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer. This was based on Moog Series III components combined with additional modules.

Then in 1974, the electronic duo, Kraftwerk recorded their album Autobahn using a variety of synthesizers including the Minimoog and then Giorgio Moroder developed disco music by utilizing the Moog synthesizer in the 1975 Donna Summer hit, “Love to Love You Baby”. The use of the Moog synthesizer allowed for Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in 1977 and the Moog bassline in the song combined with the syn-drum created the hi-NRG category of disco music.

Moogfest - Moogfactory High School Kids by Ryan Sides

In 2004, to celebrate the legacy of Robert Moog and the 50th anniversary of the Moog synthesizer, David Olivier contacted Charles Carlini to talk about producing an event that highlighted the involvement of Moog Music in electronic music. A free clinic with Bob Moog and Keith Emerson was then held at Manny’s Music store on May 17th, 2004 and the first Moogfest took place at B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square. It then later moved to Asheville, NC from 2012 to 2014 and this year was held in Durham, NC.

We embarked on a day-long journey from New York to check out Moogfest and upon arrival, we took note of the sheer magnitude of the festival and a number of different venues. The venues were all within walking distance and the festival was located throughout Duke University’s campus in various performance and art centres as well as lecture halls, bars, and nightclubs. Although we arrived a day late and in the evening, there was still a massive array of activities and events to check out.

Moogfest - Bob Moses - Carlos G

When first checking in, we noticed the food trucks lined along the sidewalk and an interactive sound installation powered by Microsoft’s Kinectic technology. Nets were set up to where you would simply touch the net and hear samples from the Canadian producer, Grimes. We then quickly headed to the outdoor Motorco Park to catch Bob Moses play a live set with an added drummer. The crowd was dense with a small stage allowing for festivalgoers to enjoy a great listening experience from the duo.

Next, we headed to the Armory which was a massive venue with extremely high ceilings and magnificent acoustics. The stage was lined with tables from end to end filled with a myriad of equipment including modular synthesizers, CDJs, turntables, keyboards, and who knows what else. Heiroglyphic first took to the modular synthesizer on the far left end of the table playing a diverse arrangement of minimal Techno before Bicep played their first ever fully live set to a very energetic crowd. Robert Hood followed with hard pounding Techno that had the entire crowd moving to the same beat on the same wavelength. Was absolutely phenomenal.

Moogfest - Heiroglyphic Being by Eric Waters

We then went over to see the legendary GZA perform at the Motorco Music Hall which was packed allowing the genius to flow flawlessly putting forth some lines that blew us away before heading back to The Armory to see The Black Madonna perform the last set of the night. The diversity of the crowd and sheer knowledge of electronic music was truly astonishing. Everyone was there for the love of music and to celebrate everything that Bob Moog created as if they didn’t have any other care in the world. Every single artist we witnessed, meticulously and methodically curated their sets knowing that trained ears were in attendance.

We all know the party doesn’t stop when the festival ends and this was no exception. We quickly found the after party which happened to be Airbnb that acted as an event space? We weren’t asking any questions and wanted to continue the party into the wee hours of the morning. The local DJs played nothing but Techno music to the diverse crowd of partygoers who were from places such Maryland, DC, Florida, and even Chile. Alcohol was plentiful and provided to everyone at no charge and an outdoor area with a bonfire was out back. Was quite the experience.

Moogfest - Modular Marketplace by Carlos G

On day two of Moogfest, we headed over to the Modular Marketplace to check out the numerous modular synthesizers being exhibited and debuted. Each and everyone had a distinct sound with an infinite number of variations. Some were dedicated for live production whereas some were dedicated to experimental sounds. A few were solely used to produce house and techno music and some even had very recognizable sounds to them that very well could be and have been incorporated into sample packs, keyboards, and drum machines. The 25 companies allowed for us to talk to sound designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs to connect and interact with musicians and producers.

Various software applications were also on display such as Audulus and Bitwig Studios as well as a visual analog controller that also had the ability to be controlled remotely from your phone and sync with Ableton. The number of cool sounds that could be created as well as the diverse range of effects was absolutely mindboggling. Next door was the synth factory and numerous synths, controllers, keyboards, and various other devices on display. Engineers donned aprons as they built modular synths in front of your eyes.

Moogfest - Reggie Watts by Rodney Boles

We also happened to run into comedian and musician, Reggie Watts ahead of his performance under the water tower. He got on the microphone in front of a crowd of nearly 1000 people and started beatboxing and recording his voice and then looping it back. Then it started pouring down rain right after he finished awing the crowd. We then took cover from the rain and walked into a recreation centre where giant inflatable balls were being played with by young children that sounded each time you hit it. This was also where you could purchase old vinyl records from the likes of Gary Numan and other innovative musicians and artists. We then took more cover from the rain before a rainbow appeared and the sun started shining again.

We headed back towards Motorco Park to meet up with some friends and realized that they were at Motorco Music Hall where there was a long line of eager festival attendees trying to see Son Lux. Unfortunately we had to bear witness to sunn O))) where it sounded as if they were doing sound check for the entirety of their set. Supposedly it is a combination of metal, drone, contemporary composition, jazz, and minimalism and translates to what sounds like a bunch of noise.

Moogfest - Moog Pop Up with Gary Numan by Carlos G

Luckily we quickly made it inside Motorco Music Hall to escape this odd sounding music and witnessed Son Lux play a very eclectic set with lots of energy that was felt throughout. There was a young man simply killing it on a modular synth that made you truly appreciate a good live set. Next, we headed back over to the armoury, which happened to be one of our favorite venues. DJ Harvey looked as if he was a mad Techno scientist crafting beats as if he was meticulously constructing the circuits himself. Somehow the crowd was moving as if it was one as DJ Harvey played as if he was at Berghain before he transited into disco music as he is infamous for. The pounding Techno moving into familiar disco was quite mesmerizing as the crowd went from full on energy to as if they were slow dancing to a lullaby. It was absolutely astonishing and something that is rarely witnessed.

After DJ Harvey brought things to a close, we found out about another after party. This time, it happened to be in a dilapidated building with multiple rooms. As soon as we entered, this girl had taken to the decks playing some superb house and techno. Stuffed animals were placed throughout and there were even inflatable pools filled with them. We ended up finding some inflatable balls that lit up when you shook them and started shaking them to the beat. We also found Nemo who we had some fun with as we danced with him across the speakers. The southern charm was prevalent and the crowd was very welcoming and friendly. We took the night to a close and headed back to the hotel to get some much-needed rest before the last day.

moogfest, #moogfest2016, caleb smallwood, www.calebbsmallwood.com

On Sunday, we attended a lecture about Google’s new project, Magenta which explored how artificial intelligence might be able to make art and music. Unfortunately, we are quite far from where we need to be so that it actually sounds good. The bots are still unable to barely decipher a paragraph although they are able to pick out items in a forest and create some cool pictures.

When Moog first had his vision, he hoped to create a captivating story, to take the listener and audience on a journey of sound. Moog was truly ahead of his time and without him, electronic music would arguably not even exist. The ability to generate sounds through circuitry and electrodes is truly an astonishing feat. For the ability to take these sounds and utilize them in a portable application took things to a whole new level. This amazing festival was a true display of everything that electronic music stands for and how much we have evolved as a culture and entity to appreciate all things electronic.

Phot Credits: Carlos G, Eric Waters, Ryans Sides, Rodney Boles, Caleb Smallwood and Oliver Sholder