Is it a music festival? Is it an arts festival? Is it a science and technology conference? Is it a forum to promote and debate weird ideas that sound like extracts from second-rate science fiction novels but may be much more than that? Or is it something else entirely? In truth, it’s all of these things and more and, as I’ve watched the final preparations for Moogfest 2017 over the past three days, I’ve been acutely aware of the massive undertaking that the festival has now become. Growing from humble beginnings in 2004 as a small New York event aimed at Moog synthesizer aficionados, the latest incarnation of Moogfest is a huge, four-day festival comprising nearly 400 events that sprawl right across the city of Durham in North Carolina.
Trying to convey the scope of the festival is daunting. There are engineering workshops; concerts that range from world famous players and bands performing in major venues to obscure artists playing in even more obscure genres in intimate surroundings; lectures from eminent academics and industry figures; computing workshops; workshops on the place of music in politics; protest planning groups (yes, you read that correctly!); speculations on the interacting futures of music and technology and their evolving relationships with humanity’ master classes on specific instruments; film presentations; business planning workshops; two synthesizer shops with some genuine bargains to be had… and more. For much of the festival, you’re going to need a ticket, with access to the various events determined by the type of pass you buy, but there’s also much that’s free of charge distributed across the four days, including DJ parties and musical performances, workshops, conversations and access to all of the shops and exhibits.
Last night, I asked Casey Steinbacher, former CEO of the Durham Chamber Of Commerce, why the festival had relocated from Moog’s home city of Asheville to Durham in 2016. She explained, “Durham is not only a lovely, cosmopolitan city with a great university, it’s the heart of a technological bubble at the forefront of scientific and business development. The city is an incubator for innovators and start-ups, and we’re very proud that several of the businesses in the complex where part of Moogfest is based have been acquired by leading ‘tech’ companies, but have chosen to remain in Durham rather than relocate to Silicon Valley and elsewhere. This combination of a young, vibrant university city and cutting-edge technology made it perfect for Moogfest so, when I suggested this to Mike Adams at Moog Music, he simply said, “let’s talk about that…”, and here we are. We have an international airport to make transportation really convenient, and great support from the local community as well as the festival sponsors, so we plan for Moogfest to be based here until at least 2020, and hopefully much longer than that.”
Of course, you can’t have Moogfest without talking about Moog synthesizers, and yesterday the company announced a significant revision to its Sub 37 monosynth, now renamed the Subsequent 37 CV. The first 100 or so of these are being built by Moog’s production staff in public in what they call the ‘pop-up factory’ on one of the main sites. I watched the first of these synths emerge from boxes of metalwork, circuit boards, knobs, nuts and bolts, moving down the production line from initial assembly, through calibration, finishing and final testing, and I suspect that many synth enthusiasts and DIY-ers will be fascinated to see how the pros do it. Mind you, I doubt that Moog will reach their production targets, because this isn’t happening ‘behind glass’ and the staff are accessible to anyone who wants to interrupt and engage in conversation.
A few feet away, the production prototype of the Moog IIIC modular synth dwarfs the Subsequent 37s rolling off the production line. Following on from the System 35 and System 55 that were launched in 2015, this is another spin-off from the technology that made possible the limited edition Emerson Moog Modular synth that was unveiled three years ago at Moogfest 2014. It’s a beautiful instrument and, even on set-up day, there was a constant stream of people trying to get their hands on it, often resulting in the cacophony that inevitably occurs when someone who has never used a Moog Modular gets his (it’s always the men!) hands on one.
At the other end of the scale, there’s a much smaller instrument that’s also garnering considerable interest. At recent Moogfests there have been engineering workshops in which registered attendees can build their own Moog synthesizer (and, when completed, take it home). Last time I was here, it was the Werkstatt, which was later launched as a product in its own right. This year, it’s the DFAM, a small analogue percussion monosynth based upon the Moog Mother 32. The tag line on the front panel, the ‘Drummer From Another Mother’ tells all.
Surrounded by dozens of synth fanatics in the pop-up factory a couple of hours ago, I spoke to Trent Thompson, Moog’s Product Marketing Manager, and he enthused, “Where else can you build people’s dream instruments in front of them, and then hand over these awesome tools that are used to make music? When it’s over, we’ll be exhausted but also inspired by all of the interactions and feedback over the four days. It’s good for us as people and as a company. People are here because they’re passionate about music, and I love the fact that the goal is to bring people together like this.”
So here I am, halfway through the first day, and I’ve already missed a dozen events that I would have liked to attend, simply because there’s so much happening all of the time. The city is awash with people wearing their variously coloured wristbands and walking around with their Moogfest goodie bags, and the planning committee expects that attendance will reach or perhaps even exceed 10,000 visitors per day. I imagine that, despite the huge quantities of coffee available, there are going to be a lot of dazed people emerging from Durham NC on Sunday evening, ready to recharge their batteries in time to return in 2018. Gordon Reid
Want to get some synth deals? Guitar Center are the exclusive retail partner for Moogfest and have great deals on synths from Moog, Novation, Roland, Korg, Teenage Engineering and more on sale on site in the Moog Store by Guitar Center as well as across their other retail stores and website.