Between 30 and 40 creative professionals and synthesizer devotees gathered in a basement room of Manhattan’s Ace Hotel on Saturday night, with separate sets of screws, tools, hunks of black metal, circuitboards, and small amplifiers laid out on folding tables in front of them. At the front of the room, Amos Gaynes — one of the chief engineers at Moog Music, Inc., based out of Asheville, North Carolina — stood in front of a digital slideshow of sketches in the general style of an Ikea instructions manual.
The goal of the “workshop” was to guide participants through assembling the most basic analog synthesizer that the Moog company makes: the Werkstatt-01. Haynes describes it as a “monophonic single oscillator analog synthesizer,” and explains its components, flicking through diagrams on the screen as well as shots of musicians who use Moog products, from Alicia Keys to Yes’ Rick Wakeman. As the participants begin to finishing assembling their toys, Gaynes has to shout to be heard over the panoply of warbles and bloops.
The “workshop” was part of an evening program of roundtables, demonstrations, and performances to promote and announce Moogfest 2016, a combination “conference,” concert series, and bazaar of sorts being held in the city of Durham, North Carolina in May of this year. Serving as a kind of microcosm of the four-day summit, Saturday’s “Dial-Tones” event found sound artists, freelance synth architects, and visual artists from New Inc. — a art/music/tech incubator at Manhattan’s the New Museum — roaming around to showcase their own odd, forward-thinking multimedia projects. These included live VR visual enhancements for use in live shows, a homemade Moog-like synth that auto-generates complex, J.S. Bach-style counterpoint, to several synths rigged from old telephone switchboards.
The promotional event, Moogfest — and Moog Music in general — has one foot in electronic music’s future and another in its past. The company’s namesake and founder, Robert Moog, was an engineer and entrepreneur who developed the first retail synthesizer in the mid-1960s, after making his start in the previous decade selling a build-it-yourself kit for the eerie-sounding theremin — the earliest wholly electronic instrument. As digital synths became popular in the late ’70s and ’80s, Moog left the analog racket and settled down on a farm in North Carolina. In the early ’00s, however, he returned to synths in earnest, reissuing and improving upon some of the early Moog models. Though it once seemed that they were destined for extinction, the uniquely powerful and customizable instruments had remained much-desired collectors items for many musicians; the digital facsimiles were, sonically, nowhere near as convincing.
Using a Moog requires more understanding and personal investment than most other common retail synthesizers, as watching the sometimes puzzled but rapt attendees at the workshop — poring over their bits of mainframe — evidences. Plus, fiddling with knobs and sliders is, no matter how you slice it, always going to be more fun that clicking on digital recreations of them with a mouse.
Today, the company, in the wake of Moog’s death in 2005, continues to expand its product line, including more varieties of modular synths based on Moog’s original technology; the workshop’s Werkstatt-01 is one of these. Clinging to analog circuitry may seem nostalgic, but Moog’s new products encourage users to use the instruments in conjunction with digital interfaces to create even more unusual sounds and multimedia projects. Though Moog himself remained devoted to analog technology throughout his life, he maintained an interest in looking toward the future of tech and electronic music. Today, his company continues in this forward-thinking spirit.
Moogfest began in 2004 as a “platform for conversation and experimentation,” and has become an elaborate annual tribute to the iconoclastic spirit of Moog’s mini-empire. As the event organizers emphasize, there’s no easy way to distill the fest’s scope or itinerary as an easy elevator pitch. Spread out across several venues and stages in the cities in which it has set up shop — this year, it’s in Durham, North Carolina — it consists of both “Future Thought” and “Future Sound” vectors: the former an extensive series of daytime presentations, workshops and panels, the latter an ambitious multi-stage concert series. The year’s roster of performers includes Grimes and Odesza, as long as electronic music legends like new-wave pioneer Gary Numan and electronic composer and violinist Laurie Anderson. If you’re in it for the panels, you can find session covering A.I., transhumanism, and “technoshamanism” (among countless others).
The attendees of the Dial-Tones event included a member of the official PR team for the city of Durham, as well as employees of American Underground — a so-called “start-up hub” located in the city. The once-prosperous Raleigh/Durham area suffered under the weight of the collapse of its profitable textile industry in the first half of the 20th century, but has become revitalized in recent years; nowadays it’s become a minor destination for new tech companies. The phrase “the Silicon Valley of the South” is passed around by the enthusiastic Durham-ites peppering the crowd at “Dial-Tones.” To the Moog team — still based in Asheville — the burgeoning area seemed like a perfect place to hold the festival; to the idealistic, young entrepreneurs who claim Durham as their home, it’s good publicity, a place to build connections, and even plug their fledgling companies.
As with every year before it, Moogfest’s scope is simply continuing to expand, and only becoming more scrappy and unruly as the musical acts that flock to it get bigger and hipper. For electronics and music fans of both pop and the avant-garde persuasion, it’s another Burning Man. Luisa Pereira, co-creator of the Counterpointer, says that she will be at the Marketplace demonstrating her instrument, in hopes of building enough interest (and crowdfunding) to produce a small product line — one of hundreds of young musicians and designers who will be assembled to advertise and perform. Moogfest is far from the music festival it seems to be on paper. It’s an overwhelming, slightly haphazard summit for musicians, scientists, and tech professionals interested in figuring out where music technology has yet to go, and helping to push it in the right directions.