Nerd Rave: Moogfest's Impeccable Selection of Synths and Sounds

April 30, 2014
The name Moogfest is something of a misnomer. This is a festival of love. And if it's about the love of Moog, it's about the love of synths. And if it's about the love of synths, it's about the love of sound.

On offer was a series of exhibits that synthesis is not only the domain of electronic dance music or experimental sounds. And when it did get its groove on, it was equally clear that dance music has not become a dumbed-down race to the bottom. It's smart as well as sexy.

It's also hard to understate the nerdy passion that ran through the week. Dilated pupils, sweating foreheads, eager appetites - no, not some drug-induced EDM rave; I'm describing the hungry look of rooms full of participants who bought VIP engineer passes so they could solder together their own synths. Brainy pursuits were everywhere, from the mathematics of the Simpsons to the sounds of space. And the most consistently-crowded venue was not any one club, but the Moog Store and factory, which did a brisk business in Moog trucker hats (and synths!) and paraded tours of wide-eyed music enthusiasts through the craft of manufacturing electronic instruments.
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Synth Stars

About that synth: the Werkstatt is not coming to customers any time soon. For now, the synth - which literally means "workshop" in German - is a one-off for Moog-run events. That's a shame, as it sounds the business: one big, fat, raucous analog oscillator rumbles the floor boards alongside a great filter, LFO, and flexible envelope controls, and the instrument shares an architecture with the Minitaur. There's a patch bay along one side, complete with patch cords, for semi-modular possibilities. Participants spent one day soldering (the surface mount bits done, there were still a couple hundred solder points), and the next learning the wonders of synthesis and electronics.

If the Werkstatt and Emerson modular remake seemed like throwbacks, fear not. Moog's own Cyril Lance emphasized in a panel discussion with this author on Saturday that Moog looked to the future, too. Cyril had an iPad running Animoog and the digitally-powered Theremini onstage, dismissing once and for all any analog versus digital debate. The saucer-like body of the Theremini, he revealed, was prototyped using a 3D printer. Jesper Kouthoofd of Teenage Engineering chimed in to say his company and Moog were more alike than different - even as Teenage produces disposable cameras for IKEA and builds their digital synths into sleek, mobile bodies.

And speaking of the future, while it was terrific to celebrate the legacy of Herb Deutsch and others, some of the highlights in synths came from new revelations. Roger Linn demonstrated his LinnStrument, an expressive multi-touch grid that expands the playability of digital instruments. Jesper stole the show at the panel talk by pulling out a tiny drum machine board, complete with parameter locks; the man who gave the world the Machinedrum says he now plans to ship a $50 board inspired by Nintendo's Game & Watch.

Likewise, Moog gladly shared the stage with boutique builders, including the modular showcase. There, you could shop for a bounty of modular rigs as plentiful as produce at a farmers' market in the peak of summer. Keyboard readers should take particular note of Supersynthesis' clever concept - their Eurorack rig fits the rack mounts into an actual keyboard. Independently-made instruments shared talks, exhibits, and even the Moog Store, right alongside Moog's own offerings - companions, not competition.

Big Names

Synths may have been headliners, but headliners were headliners, too. Pet Shop Boys had the most outrageous stage setup, dressed in apocalyptic-futuristic costumes, and helming spaceship-like metal keyboard rigs. Even with repeated shows, Kraftwerk managed to still draw in massive crowds; it seemed Kraftwerk t-shirts were the favored apparel by the end of the week. The band, as always, stood nearly motionless onstage in trademark mock-German stoic stasis. They kept their cool even when an electrical outage halted the whole show. But that didn't stop Ralf Hutter from crooning the signature tunes in gentle robotic style, and it was clear from my seats that in fact synth lines remain live.

Giorgio Moroder was a star of the Moog modular as much as Keith Emerson, and provided the flipside of the narrative of that instrument's influence on pop. If "Lucky Man" is the flagship song of synth-driven rock, surely "I Feel Love" carries the banner for disco and dance. Moroder could reminisce - in packed interviews with the press, in panels - and repeat the same rehearsed anecdotes about his history. But he was in his element and more iconic than ever transforming the outdoor stage into a sunny, open-air discotheque Crowds of young and old, families and singles, absolutely went wild as he piped his own records through the P.A. At age 74, he is strangely at the peak of his DJ career. Some DJs fake enthusiasm; Giorgio thrust his hands in the air in what seemed genuine triumph.

A Weekend to Dance

The highest-quality music of the week surely came from the bang-on label showcases. Ghostly International, Brainfeeder, and Warp Records proved why they're at the top of the electronic music game, with dance music intelligent and beautiful (Clark, on Warp) to unruly and raucous (Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer, Brainfeeder, FlyLo even blowing his own monitors) to the eminently musical and cool (Com Truise and Audion, on Ghostly).

For anyone who needed to take a rest, I was fortunate to host Saturday screenings and discussions of the cinema oeuvre of Cliff Martinez. Followed by the eerily-gorgeous, moving scores for the films Drive and Solaris, he spoke about the learning curve of developing relationships with directors and learning to deliver what they need, how his film career began with a tape sent to Pee Wee's Playhouse, and how he made the transition from Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer to drawing patterns with a mouse. (By Solaris, he was using Ableton Live, playing that delicate percussion that's so recognizable on the score into Live's patterns and delays.)

Out with a Bang

The final night showed a great deal of the breadth of the festival. There were the hard, funky grooves of the Afropunk Showcase, featuring Marcia Jones, Sanford Biggers, Saul Williams, and Greg Tate (and some nicely nasty synth lines alongside). There and throughout the evening, it was a night of tight rhythm sections - heavy beats with Saul Williams, the absurdly-sharp grooves of the band with Nile Rodgers, and finally the underground, party-until-you-fall-over finish of Factory Floor in the basement of the concert venue.

But against that, too, was more brainy artfulness. Holly Herndon was the gem of the RVNG International showcase; in her latest set, she works finely-sliced vocal samples into piercing, gorgeous polyphony, against deep drum machine kicks that belie her ongoing time spent in Berlin. Dan Deacon for his own gallery show, part of a series of "durational performances" put on by Moogfest, constructed an elaborate player piano rig, his own "we are the robots" machine groove.

Nile Rodgers was surely a poignant highlight. "I have platinum records; I might as well have platinum wigs," shouted Nile, inviting crowds of dancers onto the stage. He spoke intimately of his cancer diagnosis, and how his friends started calling - and "new friends," including Daft Punk. This year, he said, "I have about 50 new records coming." But first, the party: "I'm going to take you back to the days of partying, dancing, and Studio 54," he said, before leading the crowd into a frenzy as he would his own friends.

Perhaps this mirrored Dan Deacon's own call to action: "Dance like you have social anxiety, except you don't, because this weekend is f***ing awesome." Moogfest was a rave for nerds, a chance for anyone to feel comfortable and at home - a weekend out with family.
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