Synthesizer Love & Patched Ideas: Report from the Field at Moogfest 2016
Image Courtesy of Moogfest.com
From May 18-22, Moogfest 2016—a festival dedicated to “the synthesis of music, art, and technology”—took place in Durham, North Carolina. While you may not have heard of Moogfest itself, you have almost certainly heard the sound of the synthesizer that is the namesake of the festival. If you’ve ever driven on the freeway nodding along to the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun,” or Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” you’ve heard the Moog. If you’ve rocked out to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man,” or danced to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” or (keeping it local to Detroit) Parliament’s “Flash Light”—you know what the Moog sounds like. And if you grew up as a child of the 1980s, watching John Carpenter’s classic horror films—that soundtrack that punctuated the dread of Halloween? It was played on a Moog by Carpenter himself. My point is, the Moog has permeated our culture—its influence is everywhere, in plain earshot.
The Henry Ford is the repository for the original Moog prototype, pictured here. THF 156695
One of the reasons Moogfest is so important is because it raises awareness of the instrument’s impact. Not only is the Moog an essential innovation within the timeline of electronic instruments, it has also continued to influence the soundscapes of modern music. Another unique aspect of the festival is that its organizers give as much weight to organizing a carefully curated roster of lectures, workshops, and sound installations as they do in selecting the bands that play. From gatherings in small rooms where musicians lay their creative processes bare—to future-forward lectures about diverse topics like Afrofuturism, technoshamanism and radical radio—Moogfest’s speaker programming gives those interested in music, art, and technology the chance to be absorb new ideas about the history of technology.
This occasionally leads to interesting collisions and exchanges of ideas. Festival-goers might see a demonstration of IBM’s Watson project (a cognitive computing system), and later that day, hear Gary Numan play his groundbreaking 1979 Replicas album in its entirety. They might attend a workshop about “the internet of things,” and then take in a slice of a four-hour-long “durational performance” by analog synthesizer composer, Suzanne Ciani. Or for the truly committed—one might even participate in a “sleep concert” by Robert Rich, where the musician lulls participants to sleep with sound and influences their dreams from midnight until 8am the following morning.
Dave Tompkins, AUDINT, and Kristen Gallerneaux presenting their sonic research. The “mission patches” shown at center were discussed by AUDINT and represent cases in military history where sound was essential to the success of the mission: The Ghost Army, Operation Wandering Soul, and The Phantom Hailer.
While I have previously attended this festival as a spectator, this year I was honored to take part in Moogfest as an invited “Future Thought” speaker, where I helped to organize an event called Spatial Sound & Subhistories. The event opened with a presentation about some of The Henry Ford’s own sound and communications history artifacts—including the prototype Moog synthesizer. Writer Dave Tompkins gave a riveting talk about his book-in-progress, about the effect of the natural landscape on Miami Bass and hip-hop music. The event was capped off by a tour through “can’t believe this is real” sound history by the UK-based collective AUDINT, who began their discussion with the WWII-era “Ghost Army.”
Dorit Chrysler demonstrates the theremin in an adult workshop.
I also managed to take in a few events at the festival. On Thursday, I hit the ground running by participating in a theremin workshop led by world-renowned thereminist, Dorit Chrysler. Her resume is impressive, having played with the bands Blonde Redhead, Cluster, ADULT., Dinosaur Jr., and many others. Chrysler also founded KidCool Theremin School, which provides educational workshops to increase awareness of the instrument. After spending an enjoyable hour hearing stories about the theremin’s history and dipping my toes in the water of learning to play (but not too well), I’m very happy to say that KidCool Theremin School will be joining us at The Henry Ford for Maker Faire Detroit to offer a series of workshops and performances. Stay tuned for more details!
Sam Aaron makes electronic music using live Sonic-Pi coding.
The overlap between sound, art, and the technology used to make it has become indistinguishable in some cases. In this image, Sam Aaron is using Sonic Pi—a software program he created—to create live-coded synth music. As computer code swept quickly upwards on the projections behind the musician and the music changed with each command, it became obvious that Aaron was exposing the audience to the process he was using to manipulate sound. While my initial reaction was that this mode of music-making must be amazingly difficult, Sonic Pi was in fact developed as an entry point to teach basic coding in the classroom.
Ryan Germick talks about developing the Pegman icon for Google’s Street View.
At the “Arts & Smarts” event, Google Doodle team leader Ryan Germick played host to something that fell somewhere between a stand-up comedy and technology talk show—complete with a “robot” named “Jon Bot” (actually Germick’s brother in a silver space-age suit). Through a stream of constant self-effacement and hilarious jokes, Germick talked about the origins of the icons he created during his career at Google. As the artist behind the Google Maps “Pegman” icon in Street View, Germick now leads the team responsible for over 4000 Google Doodles—including an accurate version of a Moog synthesizer in celebration of inventor Bob Moog’s birthday.
Susan Kare talks about her career designing digital icons.
Keeping with the talk show format, Germick also interviewed a few other guests. Susan Kare, an artist and graphic designer responsible for “creating every icon you’ve ever loved” gave a retrospective tour through her career as a pioneer of pixel art and digital icons. While working at Apple, she created the “Chicago” and “Geneva” typefaces, as well as the “sad” and “happy” Mac graphics—and the Command key on Apple keyboards.
Virtual Reality designer Manuel Clément has worked on many projects at Google, including the self-driving car project.
Next, Manuel Clément, Senior Virtual Reality Designer at Google, spoke about his early life in computing and his work on platforms like Flash in the 1990s, Google Chrome, Doodles, a Self-Driving car program, and Cardboard. Clément showed the outcome of a new prototyping team called Google Daydream, who are testing issues of social interaction, motion, and scale in virtual reality. He reminded the audience that VR is about “experiencing the impossible,” yet he is aware of its current limitations. In reference to an intense bout of app experiments, Clément asked: “What is VR good for? Maybe it’s good for nothing. But how about we build 60 things over 30 weeks and figure it out?”
An exhibit celebrating the legacy of another early synthesizer pioneer, Don Buchla.
A collection of Don Buchla instruments and memorabilia was also on view at Moogfest. Buchla, who is located in Berkeley, California, began creating analog and touch-sensitive synthesizers at about the same time as Bob Moog was creating his synthesizer prototype on the East Coast. The exhibit was created from the collection of Richard Smith—an important instrument technician in his own right, and one-time apprentice of Buchla. Smith provided a glimpse into one of the most complete collections of Buchla material ever assembled—this small portion of his archive certainly left me wanting to see the rest!
A “Minimoog Model D” synthesizer under construction at the Moog Music Pop-Up Factory.
Moog Music, whose headquarters and factory are located in Asheville, NC, built a “pop-up factory” for the Durham’s Moogfest. Even on the last day of the festival, the enthusiasm in the building was positively electric. Every demonstration synthesizer available was being played by a visitor, and displays related to Moog’s history were being used as photo opportunities: fans posed for photos next to a larger-than-life image of composer Wendy Carlos and by the circuit boards that once powered the synths of Kraftwerk, Dr. Dre, and Bernie Worrell (who to the delight of fans, dropped in for an impromptu session at the Factory).
A view of Yuri Suzuki’s interactive Global Synthesizer Project.
In the spirit of encouraging a Maker Culture, the three finalists of Moog’s 5th Annual Circuit Bending Challenge were on display—a contest that asks contestants to create a unique electronic instrument for $70 or less. One wall was taken up by a collection of analog synthesizers in the shape of a world map. Designed by sound-art designer Yuri Suzuki, the Global Synthesizer Project asked people to contribute audio recordings of their regions. When the project debuted at Moogfest, visitors were allowed to interact by creating wire “patches” to play the gigantic archive of international sound.
The Minimoog Model D, exploded and assembled.
Moog Music also used the buzz around the festival to announce the revival of one of their most iconic synthesizers—the Minimoog Model D. Using a remarkable amount of research, craftsmanship, and detail-oriented production, the company is staying true to the original 1970 version, down to the last circuit. Visitors could see an “exploded” Minimoog, and step over to the factory stations, where the various stages of their assembly was explained.
Darion Bradley of Make Noise shows off a modular synthesizer system.
Moogfest, out of necessity and the modern spirit of music-making, isn’t all Moog all the time. In fact, there is a general spirit of comradery and democracy that permeates the event. In the Modular Marketplace, modern-day instrument makers show off their capabilities. In particular, small companies who create Eurorack modules—a sort of synthesizer that you can build piece-by-piece, by chaining together components—have a strong presence at Moogfest. Companies like Synthrotek, Mutable Instruments, Bleep Labs (along with dozens of others) demonstrated their gear and allowed people to try it out. The philosophies of innovation behind the Asheville-based Make Noise company seemed particularly relevant—not only with regard to their own instruments—but also to the general values found among creative technologists at this particular moment in time: “We see our instruments as a collaboration with musicians who create once in a lifetime performances that push boundaries and play the notes between the notes to discover the unfound sounds. We want our instruments to be an experience, one that will require us to change our trajectories and thereby impact the way we understand and imagine sound.”
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
computers, popular culture, by Kristen Gallerneaux, events, technology, musical instruments, music