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Dufus Goes to . . . Moogfest


By Leslee Kulba- Physics! Music! Technology! Geeks! What more could one ask from life? For five days last week, Moogfest transformed Asheville into a bit of heaven on earth, where knowledge was power and creativity triumphed.


Over 100 acts performed four nights last week at numerous city spots. The acts ranged from state-of-the-art technospectacles to just plain weird and obnoxious noise. It was impossible to attend a halfway decent percentage of the shows, but Keith Emerson gets the award for the best music sampled. He laid off the ear-piercing noise that destroyed otherwise masterful albums when he was with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and settled for smooth chord progressions in pleasing timbres. The sounds were reminiscent of Steve Vai’s better compositions. In fact, Vai’s word “inaccessible” applied to a lot of the vibrations other performers were trying to pass off as music.

The Pet Shop Boys, who headlined the festival, still sound good, if not a little older than they did when “West End Girls” was on the hit parade. Their dancers, who in one incarnation wore animal heads and convict suits and jumped with intentional awkwardness, defied gettingitness. Other favorites included Giorgio Moroder, who, harking from the disco era, still harbored the notion that music should have elements like harmony, melody, and rhythm.

Kraftwerk were among the performers with light shows that overpowered any sounds they were creating. They were four German dudes, dressed like semi-gridded automatons, and standing at their keyboards like candidates in a debate. The music was smooth, but the lyrics – imagine a list of vitamins pronounced with a thick German accent. Kraftwerk tipped their hat to the audience by landing the auditorium/spaceship in front of the US Cellular Center.

While Flying Lotus blew his monitors, and Kraftwerk blew their speakers, the guys from the MIT Media Lab blew my mind. In one whirlwind session, Tristan Jehan spoke not only of algorithmically predicting which types of music people would like; but stretching waves to change “Sweet Child of Mine” to swing or conform the current hit “Get Lucky” with old video of dancers on Don Cornelius’ Soul Train.

Andy Cavatorta spoke of the history of automated music, beginning 400 years ago with things like a mannequin who, dressed like Marie Antoinette, hammered the strings of a harpsichord and moved her head. “It has the added benefit of being creepy,” Cavatorta shared. He told of monstrous creations he had undertaken for various performing artists, including whirling sawed-off glasses and huge pendulums. Monstrosities often required what he called the crack test, “when we try to figure out, ‘Are we on crack?’”

Topping it all off, Ben Bloomberg told of automating an entire auditorium with interactive wave technologies for the modern opera “Death and the Powers.” He told of using speaker configurations to throw sound, even to create the sensation of voices in the head of masked audience members participating in “Sleep No More.”

Daytime presentations also included interviews with innovators in modern synthesizer music. Must-see Herbert Deutsch, who co-invented the modern synthesizer with Robert Moog, shared an old reel-to-reel tape he received from the inventive genius. In it, Moog demonstrated the “abominatron” and asked Deutsch if he thought it had any potential.

In spite of several lame interviews with stars, the event was designed to educate and stimulate creativity. Lots and lots of free passes were made available for students. Three six-hour workshops armed 100 lucky engineers with DIY mini-synthesizers.

Entrants in the 4th Annual Circuit Bending Challenge were so good this year, judges had to expand the field to admit five, instead of three, finalists. Contestants had to convert a battery-powered device into a musical instrument with original sounds. George Gleixner won, but my favorite was C FreddIE, whose ghetto humor was a hit of fresh air in a world of pretentious noise. Contestants were competing for free passes to Moogfest and nice Moog synthesizers.

Interactive installations remained open throughout the festival. On Lexington Avenue, students, who were happy to talk about waveforms, Tesla, or any other geeky subjects, happily shared their contraptions. The Asheville Art Museum featured Conductar. Collaborators calling themselves Odd Division deigned a downloadable app to work with a brainwave sensor that would compose music as users wandered about the festival. I avoided the things lest, by the absence of inductive interference anybody noticed I was flatlining.

The Ableton Dubspot workshops became my home away from home. Instructors Chris Petti and James Patrick were accomplished and personable. Patrick had a talent for making beautiful sounds instead of noise. He stressed the importance of keeping life fun. “If you’re spending all your lunch money buying equipment to make sounds in your mom’s basement, you’re probably not changing lives.”

Early on, Petti brought me up-to-speed with changes made to wave-shaping over the last thirty years. Patrick referred to Petti as a sound ninja. Petti encouraged participants to think not in terms of limitations, but workarounds. One of the greatest moments of Moogfest was when Patrick showed a guy how to apply technology to a guitar riff. He came up with a groove so fine, everybody in the room was smiling. Patrick is now officially my mentor, having sold me on the idea of getting back into music with Ableton software.

Sitting like a bad toupee, or at least a rain cloud, on the whole extravaganza was the politico-economic angle. Moogfest brought upon itself disdain, but also free publicity, by applying for and receiving $180,000 in cash and in-kind services from the city and county. Government’s ROI should be published when the economic analysis is completed, in about six weeks.

The tech expo was a let-down. The Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom was sparsely populated with friends of friends, other recipients of corporate welfare, and guys operating out of their basement. Many of the booth tenders couldn’t answer the question, “What do you produce?”

Then, there was the big fiasco of inviting and disinviting and stealth-inviting Governor Pat McCrory to the kickoff ceremonies. Nuff said on that.

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