Back to the Future With Moogfest

Moogfest is the synthesis of music, art, and technology and a fitting tribute to synthesizer inventor Bob Moog, who created the Theremin and numerous other musicial toys. In keeping with the legacy of Bob Moog, the festival pays homage to software and hardware pioneers as well as progressive performers and theories. Now in its 12th year, this year’s iteration in Durham, North Carolina, is divided into “Future Sound” music performances and “Future Thought” conferences, workshops, installations, and technical presentations. 

A Bob Moog Primer

So, what’s all the fuss about Bob Moog? Moog was an engineer, inventor and founder of Moog Music. Moog’s numerous products include the Minimoog, Voyager, Little Phatty, Theremin, Moog Taurus bass pedals, Minitaur and Moogerfooger effects pedals. He has been known as a jovial patriarch who circumvented money-grubbing behavior and eschewed clandestine trade secrets — he would often make kit versions available to customers who couldn’t afford the hefty price tags of his products while sharing profits of his company with employees.

Moog began tinkering with designs for what would become the Theremin in the early ‘50s when he was 19 years old. He debuted his handmade Moog Modular prototypes at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in 1964, while he was attending Cornell University in pursuit of his Ph.D. in Engineering Physics and incorporated Moog Music in 1967. The following year, Wendy Carlos released the album Switched-on Bach, recorded exclusively with a custom Moog Modular synthesizer — it was the first classical electronic album to go gold.

Bob Moog
Inventor Bob Moog

Throughout the ‘70s, Moog-manufactured music surfaced everywhere — from the freaky Theremin haunted soundtrack of the Addams Family, the Midnight Cowboy scores, “Strange Days” by The Doors and the cocaine-fueled disco of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. The T.O.N.T.O. (The Original New Timbre Orchestra) was a customized modular Frankenstein synth combining Moog, Serge, Oberheim and Arp that Stevie Wonder used to record Songs in the Key of Life. Moog synthesizers were academic, esoteric and expensive, but as technologies developed in the ensuing decades, Moog products have become increasingly more accessible to bedroom producers and others without multimillion-dollar recording studios.

To this end, Moog unveiled reissues of their original modular synthesizers at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) conference in January 2016 via the “Island of Electronicus,” a hands-on product display centered around a vibrant succulent garden.

For a more detailed (and worthwhile) background on Bob Moog and Moog Music (Moog in 2005 at the age of 71), watch the excellent documentary Moog, directed by Hans Fjellestad.

Future Sound

sunn o)))
sunn o)))

sunn O))) Overlords of drone metal, sunn O))) (Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley) radiate sonic incandescence by layering textured acoustic guitar riffs, horns and viscous chords played at deafening octaves. Often performing in hooded robes and conjuring moody medieval rune reading sessions at Stonehenge, the group has evolved from its insular bedroom producer beginnings nearly 20 years ago into a touring metal group.

Oneohtrix Point Never is the experimental fusion of IDM and noise created by Brooklyn musician Daniel Lopatin. Lopatin ping-pongs between esoteric and exoteric: his first release, 2007’s Rifts, compiled noise tracks he’d been releasing over the previous four years on cassette and CD-R, and he’s recently scored films for Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring), Ariel Klieman (Partisan) and Koji Morimoto (Magnetic Rose).

GZA The superbly written Moogfest site posits, “Perhaps more than any other MC, GZA decapitates the quite choppable theory that black studies’ rise out of black power amounted to a move from the streets to the accredited university.” Zing! The influential Wu-Tang’s “spiritual leader” and luminary founding member has two separate performances. GZA, or Gary Grice, started a group called FOI: Force of the Imperial Master with his cousins, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones) and RZA (Robert Diggs), who later went on to found Wu-Tang.

ODESZA is comprised of college buddies Harrison Mills (CatacombKid) and Clayton Knight (BeachesBeaches). After charting on Hype Machine, ODESZA were catapulted into world renown, performing live at Lollapalooza, Coachella and the Governor’s Ball. Mills and Knight will also dissect their songs with Hrishikesh Hirway in a live recording of his Song Exploder Podcast at Moogfest, in which musicians take apart their songs and discuss their creative process.

Miike Snow
Miike Snow

Miike Snow, or Christian Karlsson, Andrew Wyatt and Pontus Winnberg, have worked with Spank Rock, Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears. They produce infectious earworms as the poppy electronic outift Miike Snow.

Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) creates languid electronic beats fusing influences from synth-heavy electronics and jazzy live instrumentation. He will perform his brand of warm house-ish electronica.

Kode9 The latest releases by Scottish producer Steve Goodman, founder of the Hyperdub label, fuse elements of grime and dubstep, while his older releases reflect his background influenced by British drum ‘n’ bass and garage.

Tim Hecker Ambient musician Hecker’s most recent album, Love Streams, featured the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Future Thought

Hacking Sound (Systems) workshops explore the evolution of DIY “maker culture” and engineering software toolkits like Arduino and openFrameworks. The Reggae Sound Systems and Dub Production panel examines dub and the homemade sound system culture of Jamaica with presenters such as Neil Joseph Stephen Fraser, aka Mad Professor.

Dr. Martine Rothblatt
Dr. Martine Rothblatt

Dr. Martine Rothblatt, a lawyer, engineer and medical ethicist as well as Chairman and CEO of Sirius XM and United Therapeutics, will present on topics of transhumanism, the movement to evolve as visceral beings with technology using artificial intelligence, cloning, human genetic engineering and other means.

Art and Aritifical Intelligence programs explore machine learning algorithms such as the Markov Chain Generator to emulate thinking and conscious creativity. Musicians such as Brian Eno used the Markov software in his recent release on Warp Records, The Ship.

Technoshamanism is a discussion of spirituality and transformational energy as it relates to rituals of trance in electronic music, progressive technological innovations and research on the effects of music on human consciousness inspired by Bob Moog.

Modular Marketplace is a “petting zoo” — a hands-on bazaar for animals of the boutique electronics and modular synthesizers as the participating modular synthesizer retailer Patchwerks describes it. Participating companies include Synthrotek, developer of the Atari Punk Console, the visual programming software developer Audulus, and real-time solid-state analog instrument developers Dewanatron.

Electronic Music for Children and Experimental Adults includes performances and discussions programmed to engage youth and the young at heart. Performers and presenters include Bootsy Collins, Lance Collins (DJ Lance Rock) of Yo Gabba Gabba! and Devo frontman and cinematic score musician Mark Mothersbaugh.

Richard Devine, a music producer and modular synthesizer maestro with experimental releases on Warp, Schematic and Underground Resistance, will create a four-hour durational sound immersion using a live patch bay and modular synthesizer setup.

Other Events

Moga! Moog yoga, or Moga, takes place on the rooftop of The Durham Hotel to a soundtrack of Moog music.

Beats and Star Wars is a coding iPhone app in development that allows budding music producers to share music through a Darth Vader robot in galaxies far, far away — or at least around the world, as the app has a social sharing element. Pew! Pew! Pew!

Moog Booth