Durham, North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking (electronic) music festival, but this small city in the American South annually plays host to one of the finest and most forward thinking celebrations of music, technology, art, and politics around.
With a mission set in growth and philosophy, and a 2018 focus on lineup diversity, Moogfest is a dual approach event, splitting its education and entrepreneurship focused days with cutting edge performance nights. Set across 4 days, 17 – 20 May, the festival is spread across multiple venues throughout the newly developed city of 250K. As a tribute to analogue synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, as well as the legacy surrounding his slew of inventions, Moogfest has been stimulating the organic exchange between engineer and musician since 2004 and, by our accounts on the ground, should be around for a long time to come.
Amongst the fastest growing cities in America, Moogfest’s Durham location provides a welcome relief from the saturation of the industry’s large markets, Europe and America included. Bypassing the hustle of the New Yorks and Londons of the world, the quaint charm and green lined streets of the South provide an alternative (and welcome) perspective on where a music festival can thrive…not to mention an educational experience in an American culture not often recognized outside of its area, let alone across oceans. This once Tobacco capital, and current University rich area, teams with diversity and authenticity…something that Moogfest has identified and embraced.
Of course for us, these events are all about the music and experience, to which Moogfest offered something unlike much we have seen in Amsterdam, Europe, and the wider International scene. It offered a multi-dimensional experience where art and politics merged into a revolutionary minded event for those looking beyond the superficiality of partying “escape”. With its female and non-binary heavy lineup and progressive minded approach, the festival was an overt fist in the face of standard industry practice in the age of current nationalist isolationism and corporate driven agendas. From keynote talks with activist icon Chelsea Manning to blistering (non electronic) performances from KRS-One, Kelela, gallery exhibitions from counter culture icon Ralph Steadman to Creative AI masterclasses with Maya C Weinstein (IBM Watson), Moogfest simply never missed an opportunity to deliver its message of empowered futurist possibility.
Our focus was meant to experience the extent of what the festival had to offer and over our four days on site, I can comfortably say we did just that. Its first night culminated in a typically blistering set from Helena Hauff, which was followed by the spacey eclecticism of Ellen Allien, at the no frills afterhours location – Durham Fruit Company. Prior, electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani presented her live soundtrack to German Expressionist classic – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – in multi dimensional spatial sound at the Durham Armory.
The festival’s Friday was another eclectic offering, ramping up the options that included the first of two appearances from Jon Hopkins (live set at the Carolina Theater), a Techno set from German robo-musicians Mouse on Mars, DJ sets from the likes of Shanti Celeste, Honey Dijon, and Little Boots, as well as an absolutely apocalyptic peer into the future of sound and vision with Yves Tumor (backed up by live visual improvisation from algorithmic art whiz kid Ezra Miller).
Saturday saw the first of two in my own public appearances, going In Conversation with Detroit-bred, Berlin-based electro-tech icon DJ Stingray. In our one hour conversation, which preceded his own set of blistering selections that evening, we touched upon a wide range of topics from his early days with the Urban Tribe project and the theory based electro outfit Drexciya to his current incarnation as the mask-clad DJ Stingray. The night also included a slew of hip hop coming from KRS-One, Pete Rock, J Rocc, and more, experimental video & art outfit Psychic TV, while Durham’s dive bar-esque Pinhook hosted the rapid-fire stylings of Queens’ multi instrumentalist and DJ, Stud1nt followed by Discwoman co-founder UMFANG.
Finally Sunday, as things wound down, I did my second appearance, moderating a Masterclass on Visuals & Design in Live Performance. Taking part in the talk was Ghostdad, DJ turned Porter Robinson visual purveyor, and the aforementioned Ezra Miller. Over its 1.5 hours, the class spanned topics from creative inspiration to hard tech. Afterwards, it was time to peruse through the Modular marketplace where the likes of Eventide, Novation, Teenage Engineering, and more displayed their current and forthcoming products, before a quick perusal of Reverb‘s LP fair.
The overall experience at Moogfest 2018 was one of ideological refreshment. One not just the result of quality performance from forward thinking artists but of something bigger. The palbable sense of resistance permeating through the event could be felt throughout every topic, conversation, and appearance. Artists were not just performing. Rather, they were making statements of what (electronic) music can, and should, be…something beyond the party and escape; a tool of resistance able to make the marginalizing practices of the status quo, whether in our industry or politics, irrelevant. In the age of the template, brand, and illusion, Moogfest is the modular middle finger proudly displayed for the rest to see.
Featured Image: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith @ Carolina Theater Flectcher Hall