For its fifth edition in North Carolina – and first since moving into the technology-centric Research Triangle – Moogfest promised another year of "Future Sound" and "Future Thought." Durham's hotels, theaters, pubs, open-air spaces and YMCA cages were crackling with circuitry. There were electronic-infused musical acts like Gary Numan, Odesza and Oneohtrix Point Never; thinkers like artist/"cyborg activist" Neil Harbisson, who could be spotted walking around with a color-sensing robotic eye sprouting from his head; and even installations like the Burt's Bees observational beehive turned into a relaxing-to-dystopic sound machine. Could this convergence of musicians, scientists, futurists, relentlessly optimistic tech types and the brands that love them actually reveal the future of music itself?
The short answer is "probably not." Though it was certainly entertaining to watch Shimon, the improvising jazz robot, bop along to his human pals as he followed along on his marimba. Whether Shimon will unlock exciting and aesthetically intriguing melodies remains to be seen, but he is a very solid side-bot and some enterprising jam band should take him on the road immediately.
Two performances did seem to transcend the present, with artists sharing music that felt like open-source software to paths unknown. The first, Sam Aaron, played an early techno set to a small crowd, performing by coding live. His computer display, splayed naked on a giant screen, showcasedSonic Pi, the free software he invented. Before he let loose by revising lines of brackets, colons and commas, he typed:
#This is Sonic Pi…..
#I use it to teach people how to code
#everything i do tonight, i can teach a 10 year old child…..
His set – which sounded like Electric Café-era Kraftwerk, a little bit of Aphex Twin skitter and some Eighties electro – was constructed through typing and deleting lines of code. The shadowy DJ sets, knob-tweaking noise and fogbank ambient of many Moogfest performers was completely demystified and turned into simple numbers and letters that you could see in action. Dubbed "the live coding synth for everyone," it truly seemed less like a performance and more like an invitation to code your own adventure.
The second future-paving performer, Grimes, turned cutting-edge experimental ideas into a pop spectacle. Between the huge crowd, the massive bass and the dancers, everything about her set looked like a pop show, but the sounds were as out-there as many of the weekend's chillier, more expressionistic acts. You could hear the cold, harp-like, synthetic-sounding synths that power artists like Fatima Al Qadiri and the desiccated Weather Channel music of vaporwave. Grimes turned the distorted, nostalgic noises of the past into an exultant, extroverted pop future.
Similarly, Moogfest itself turned Durham into a cozy EPCOT that made electronic music and avant-garde ideas fun for all ages thanks to interactive musical installations. However, there was a cognitive dissonance between the World's Fair environment and accompanying paragraphs of techno-babble, jargon and advertising copy. Descriptions of things set up expectations that no technology could deliver, and the weekend's diversions from performers were riddled with anti-climax. Global design firm IDEO rigged up some enormous beachballs in the YMCA's outdoor basketball court, which provided some pastoral but busy, Eno-esque interactive composing for giddy kids and fun-loving adults. It was pretty to hear and, of course, fun to whack around giant beach balls. However, it was explained thusly: "[G]estures are interpreted through machine learning and used to sculpt an evolving dynamic sonic output."
Microsoft sponsored a walk-in installation called "Realiti – Inside the Music of Grimes" that boasted "innovative hardware [that] recognizes and tracks each interaction with the installation, translating the data into unique sounds and visuals. The result is a dynamic and immersive environment that blurs the line between creator and audience." In reality, it was a darkened room where pressing a net made different parts of a Grimes song louder and fuller. "Using Mammal Music, you become a wilderness DJ by combining musical loops, natural sounds and animal calls to make unique musical mixes" was an especially whimsical way of saying: "The museum put some whale sounds into a sequencer." Popular kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! invited "both adults and children to experiment with new sounds," but it was more like TED Talks Jr. inserted into a cascade of technical nightmares.
However, the formidable, diverse line-up of musical performers was nothing to scoff at, as it explored a nexus of adventurous sounds and accessible ideas. Probably the most "now" music at Moogfest was the digital-based, sculptural, sound-stretching mutant techno of Rabit, Tim Hecker, Ben Frost and Oneohtrix Point Never. Texas-based grime bender Rabit performed a stream-of-consciousness mood piece on three CD-Js. A shadowy figure in a Pierre Balmain shirt, he layered rain and crackles and soap opera-sounding pianos and the rumbling foley-style booms that mark modern avant-electronic music. When he ventured into songs – Pimp C's "Pourin Up," Mystikal's "The Man Right Chea" and, in some nostalgia wormhole combination of brilliant and insane, Enigma's "Return to Innocence" – he often dropped them out sharply for noise and slurps or accompanied them with unsettling rumbles.
Ben Frost worked with the dynamics of a horror movie and the volume of a bulldozer. Ironically, he opened with good, old-fashioned guitar feedback, which quickly got eaten by digital squelch. As the Carolina Theater filled with smoke, he worked in layers – pastoral glitch, sub-bass rumbles, industrial dancehall rhythms, distorted noise, hissing textures and distorted Blade Runner noise. Peak terrifying was of the analog world: the deep, unpredictable breathing of wolves at pulse-quickening volumes. After each song, people would laugh like they just survived a thrill ride. Tim Hecker followed with even more smoke. Swamped in the bright, consonant drones of his new album, Love Streams, this time people cheered like they were on the rollercoaster, as he unleashed a haze of stuttering noise, frisson-fuzz, hammer dulcimer-esque sparkles and stomach-churning low end.
Chicago footwork icon Jlin showcased some of the most future-minded regional dance music in America at a deafening volume. Footwork's most subtle and sophisticated musician was basically turned into a high-decibel panic attack thanks to the aggressive, visceral feel of six enormous speakers on the Armory floor. But what she lost in nuance, she made up for in personality, dancing, clapping and air-drumming to the frenetic rhythms. When we caught Detroit techno icon Robert Hood exploding from this massive sound system, it was not with the dystopic house of albums like Omega and Motor: Nighttime World, but happier fare from Chicago's Frankie Knuckles and Brooklyn's Kenny Dope.
Oddly, the two strongest performances that we caught over the weekend were powered mostly by flesh, bone and elbow grease. Brooklyn's Dawn of Midi are set up like a traditional jazz trio – piano, upright bass and drums – but play polyrhythms straight from outer space, Meshuggah or some sort of data visualization. Bassist Aakaash Israni plays with his sound holes covered and pianist Amino Belyamani tinkers with open piano strings with his left hand, so everything is percussive as they slowly shift where you assume a downbeat should be. They're probably not the type of band used to insane light shows, so the Moogfest experience provided another element of geometric wonder to their already intriguing set.
Another highlight was second-generation man-machine Gary Numan, playing albums like 1979's The Pleasure Principle and 1980's Telekon in full. His synths were full and warm and precise, but the stiff, strutting New Waver android behind hits like "Cars" and "We Are Glass" has been seemingly juiced by the mutual appreciation with tourmates Nine Inch Nails. The 58-year-old bucked and stomped his boots and slammed mike stands. His arrangements of these once synth-heavy and chilly tunes are now chugging with electric guitar, but lose none of their robotic luster. Through a weekend of showcasing new technologies, one of the best performances was also one of the most human.