Other performers addressed the role of modern musical tools in other ways. Daniel Bachman, a talented guitarist in the mold of John Fahey, performed with peculiar instruments built by Forrest Marquisee—strange cylindrical, hand-cranked beasts that created a fuzzy, droney electronic feel without any electricity. GZA, on the other hand, has built a career rapping over carefully crafted beats that depend on sampling technology, yet he played the second of two nights with a powerhouse live band. (I didn’t catch Gary Numan’s sets, which were attended by a throng of rabidly excited middle-aged men; one attendee had reportedly been to a Deadhead-esque 400 Numan shows)
Among the other acts I saw were Floating Points, delivering a Pink Floyd-reminscent set; Odesza, a pair of Seattle rhythmbros who played a fun if not especially challenging set of EDM, occasionally backed by live performers; and Grimes. The latter, a dance-pop critical darling, has in the past struggled with performing live. While she seemed nervous between songs, her stage show was exhilarating, backed by three young women who danced and occasionally played instruments. The music itself seemed unusually poppy for the audience—“weird music for normal people,” a friend suggested. More interesting was an installation put together by Grimes, Listen, and Microsoft that used interactive technology to allow listeners to affect the song: By pushing on mesh nets arranged in a dark tent, listeners could affect the volume of certain elements of the song, or tweak the equalization of the mix. Another exhibition gave attendees the chance to play and buy a range of synthesizers, both Moogs and other brands, as well as theremins. Some people signed up for workshops to build their own.
With its celebration of Bob Moog’s technological advances, Moogfest is also in part a tech conference. This year’s theme revolved around “Future Sound” and “Future Thought.” It was also the first time Moogfest has been located in Durham, after previous stints in New York City and then in Asheville, North Carolina, the hometown of the Moog company but a more remote location. That fits nicely with Durham, which is positioning itself as an East Coast alternative to Silicon Valley and Austin, and there were faint echoes of South by Southwest. (The sidewalks of downtown were plastered with somewhat eyeroll-inducing propaganda about the city’s friendliness to startups. To the relief of residents and attendees alike, Moogfest remains less overwhelming than SXSW.) Martine Rothblatt, a pharmaceutical CEO and founder of SiriusXM delivered one keynote, focusing on creativity and futurism—though her presence, as a transgender woman, stood as rebuke to HB2, the recent North Carolina law targeting transgender bathroom accommodation.
A festival celebrating a 50-year-old analog synthesizer is bound to attract different viewpoints—including those who admire the Moog’s innovation but eye more recent technologies with some trepidation, complaining they lack the warmth or naturalism of the original Moog. Fittingly, then, there was a current of dubiousness about the future running through the festival. A second keynote featured the VR pioneer-turned-technoskeptic Jaron Lanier, but a particularly pointed moment came in the midst of Laurie Anderson’s show, which she calls “The Language of the Future.” Speaking over soft keyboard chords, she recalled an encounter with the author Gary Shteyngart, then in the midst of an experiment with Google Glass that seemed to be doing no favors to Shteyngart, his interlocutors, or Google. Perhaps, Anderson seemed to suggest, to seek the language of the future is to open a virtual Pandora’s box.