Scott Burland | 2 MAY 2019 – Special to EarRelevant
Moogfest celebrated its 15th anniversary last weekend, April 25-28, in Durham, North Carolina.
Named in honor of pioneer synthesizer designer Robert Moog, since 2004 Moogfest has acted a forum for the exchange of ideas by artists, futurists, inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists, with the aim of growing a global community of futurists who explore emerging sound technologies and design radical instruments.
EarRelevant asked Scott Burland, thereminist of Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel, who was attending the event, to take the following notes and photos.
Money Mark: Primarily known to me as a Beastie Boys collaborator, I decided to check out his set after hearing about his Echolodeon project. The Echolodeon is a machine that allows one to play piano rolls through modern synthesizers via MIDI.
I found Mark to be a humorous and personable speaker and the full venue was with him all the way. This was a fun show, and he demonstrated various gadgets, including a robotic drummer, a microphone that converted speech into a noisy bass tone and finally the Echolodeon. He hooked up a vacuum cleaner motor to the machine to have it run automatically, though he ran the piano roll (“Amazing Grace”) by hand to demonstrate the concept, including adding an arpeggiator at one point. As with experimental processes like these, they were mostly successful, though some technical difficulties were apparent, however this didn’t douse the audience’s enthusiasm.
Patrick Gleeson: Was not familiar with his music, but was with his name, so through a cursory search found that in some ways, he was a synthesizer pioneer. Surprisingly spry at 85 years old, he worked from a laptop and I would classify his music as upbeat electronic.
The music was dense, rich, dynamic, dramatic and made use of timbres which were not clichés. He told us he was Moog’s eleventh customer, assuming he was referring to having purchased a Minimoog after having heard “Switched on Bach”.
Gleeson performed his rendition of Miles Davis’ “Spanish Key” from Bitches Brew. Lots of subtlety here, including the chord changes, which were rendered beautifully.
At this point he mentioned that the concert was being recorded and would be made available for purchase, a limited edition of one hundred.
The next piece was looser, more abstract. A nice counterpoint, and I became aware of the stellar lighting effects and startlingly clear sound system.
Craig Leon: I bought his record, “Nommos” in the early 80’s when I would scoop up anything that was recommended and looked interesting and/or weird. The record was spare, primarily featuring repetitive electronic percussion. I sold/traded that record at some point, but became aware of him in the last few years as “Nommos” was re-mastered/re-released. In the meantime, I learned he did a lot of production work in the 70’s and 80’s, apparently instrumental in launching the careers, among others, Blondie, The Ramones and the Talking Heads.
I found this concert to be much more appealing and engaging than I found his previous work to be. The rhythms weren’t as abstract and the synthesized drones and washes were quite pleasant, at the same time they exhibited an element of danger. It was a nice counterpoint to Patrick Gleeson’s work, definitely darker.
This music was synced to video that featured computer generated human forms and elements of “outer space.” Strong work; he’s got an album ready to drop on May 10, I will be very interested in hearing it.
William Basinski is best known for The Disintegration Loops,, a video project released in 2003 that combined video of the sunset over Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, combined with disintegrating audio loops Basinski was digitizing at the time.
It was difficult to determine what he was actually doing onstage, but my assumption was that he was mixing a series of tape loops over a one hour performance.
This, combined with deep red light and fog machines, created a melancholy, though beautiful mood. It was easy to get lost in thought and then pulled back when one loop transformed into the next. He moved flawlessly from pitch into noise. Basinski told us that this was a love story and listening allowed one to contemplate that during the performance. He used a short vocal sample towards the end and as it faded out, it was clear that this achingly beautiful loop was tied to that love story.
The above performances took place at The Carolina Theater.
I then took a quick look at an audio-visual installation by Vorticity at the 21C hotel performance space. It was a three screen audio/visual interactive installation where onlookers could move in front of video camera and affect sound, visuals and rhythm. Very abstract but also engaging, one could tell that they were affecting the experience depending on their proximity to the cameras. Brilliant! The visuals were used for various performances throughout the weekend.
Back to the Carolina Theater to hear Dorit Chrysler, one of New York’s premier theremin players and Moog’s darling. Dorit is quite an active proponent of the theremin, having co-founded the New York Theremin Society, performing around the world and teaches theremin technique to adults and children alike.
Her set involves pre-recorded backing tracks with theremin and vocals. She used Moog’s Theremini for this performance, as opposed to her typical Moog Etherwave Pro.
The Theremini has been referred to as a toy, but Dorit uses the instrument in a way that transcends this description. She worked through a set full of sampled rhythms, lush synthesizer tones, drones and ethereal vocals.
Next up at 21C was Sofia Hultquist, known as Drum & Lace. Sofia weaves ethereal compositions derived from field recordings that are transformed into rhythmic playgrounds in which she adds reverb-drenched vocals into dreamy compositions. Does that make sense? Beautiful work, including a wonderful version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” This performance was accompanied by Vorticity’s interactive video.
Following Hultquist at 21C was Atlanta’s own Poémes Electronique, featuring Stuart Gerber (drums) and Marc Fleury (synthesizer), plus Al Nesby (from Denver, also onsynth). I have seen them perform twice in Atlanta and their sound/intensity continues to evolve. Combined with Gerber’s breakbeat rhythms and Fleury’s modular work and Illuminati-drenched vocal samples, their set ebbs and flows, often building to a fever
Swung by The Armory to hear Jlin – missed her at Big Ears Festival this year. Bass!! Visuals!! Not your typical thump-thump DJ! Not really my thing, but the kids seemed to love it.
Then came Tim Hecker at the Carolina Theater. Billed as Tim Hecker and The Konoyo Ensemble, this is what I’d refer to as power ambiance. Ambient music amplified to the edge of distortion. Watching an essentially dark stage, this was rumbling drone music, punctuated by the occasional large drum. There was a variety of timbres throughout, I found it an engaging experience, like William Basinski’s set, though less subtle, but no less emotional.
I had to leave a bit early as I had a spot to experience William Basinski’s sleep concert at 21C. I stopped by the bar for a shot of bourbon and water to help put me into dreamland. I got the last mattress (provided by Nest Bedding…thank you).
It was a surreal experience all around, as Basinski manipulated his audio loops into dreamy sequences while I gazed around at the thirty or so participants laying on mattresses, covered with blankets or not. I didn’t have time to get back to the car to grab my blanket so decided to wing it. Removed my shoes and laid on the rather comfortable mattress and while it took me a good twenty minutes to fall asleep, I was interested in what effect the music would have on my slumber.
I woke up around 3am, chilly from not being covered up, aware of a looming 9am breakfast appointment with friends. I dozed for another twenty or so minutes and wondered about the thirty or so snoozing participants around me. I don’t regret staying for the whole experience, glad I got to grab some winks and sober up a bit before heading back to my Airbnb.
Spent some time in the early afternoon listening to what’s known as Modular on the Spot, a revolving concert of musicians using their modular synthesizer setups. It was a beautiful day in Durham, warm with a nice breeze, so being in the open air space known as The Cage was relaxing and enjoyable, perhaps in contrast to the sometime dark stylings of the various musicians who participated. The event was more than modestly attended.
Later attended a free DJ performance at The Cage by Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), best known as the drummer for The Roots who are also known as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Questlove described this as a ninety-minute history of hip-hop, choosing 10-15 second samples of everyone from James Brown to Led Zeppelin. The crowd was engaged, bobbing their heads throughout, the samples familiar and danceable. A win!
On to a performance by Raleigh, NC’s Triple XXX Snaxxx, a modular synthesizer trio at 21C. Theirs was a good showcase to what contemporary modular synth trios can achieve. Rhythically engaging with a variety of changing timbres to support the pulse. Their set evolved in a way that was both forward looking while paying tribute to the past.
Swung by Pinhook, a small bar/venue just down the street, to hear U.S. Girls. They have been described as experimental pop, though I would add blue-eyed soul to that description. Groovy and hummable, the crowd was an appreciative one. They are a band to keep your eye on.
Back to the Carolina Theater to hear GAS (Wolfgang Voigt). He appeared at Big Ears two years ago and I missed his set. I was a bit concerned as I read techno and disco in many descriptions of his work. Not that I’m opposed to either of those genres, just wasn’t sure I was in the mood. What I heard was an hour performance of what I’d describe (again) as power ambiance, subtly shifting textures and timbres, all at high volume. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Accompanied by a slowly abstract video projection, this performance was very much at home with Tim Hecker and William Basinski’s previous sets at The Carolina Theater.
Next up was Church of Space at 21C (Church of Space is a side project of Poémes Electronique). Same lineup as the previous evening plus guitarist David Rapp, though this was a two hour, rather than one hour performance. Similar, though approached at a different, slower pace than the previous performance, the combination of driving rhythm, modular synth work and processed vocals was stunning.
Weary, I decided to stop by The Fruit at the edge of downtown, a venue I had yet to visit, for another DJ set by Questlove, essentially a party to mark the end of the festival. The Fruit is an amazing space, it consists of three performance areas, and it was in full swing as I arrived shortly after midnight. DJs everywhere. Questlove did his thing beginning at 12:20 or so, but this festival attendee had enough, and decided to call it quits.
In general, I found it to be an enjoyable weekend, I heard some great performances, met up with friends from around the world, played around with some great electronic gear (in the Moog Marketplace), and had some great food and drinks. Moogfest offered a variety of workshops throughout the weekend, everything from Theremin instruction to music production. Durham has proven itself to be a worthy successor city to Asheville to host Moogfest and I hope they continue this celebration of the future of electronic music. ■