Downtown Durham
Thursday, May 18, 2017

A mélange of ambient sounds is flowing from a hut made of corrugated plastic, blending with the noise of nearby construction in a downtown Durham in flux. In the geodesic dome-like space, an ensemble is seated around a circular table, making sounds with such devices as a microphone running through a series of effects pedals, a rattle, and an austere-looking electronic mixer. The event, titled “Democracy’s Exquisite Corpse,” is my entree to Moogfest, and it’s a fitting introduction to the festival.

“Democracy’s Exquisite Corpse” sought an alternative to now-common scenarios of artists producing music in isolation by creating a space for communal, democratic improvisation with a variety of musical technologies. In line with Moogfest’s programming visions, the installation harnesses cutting-edge technologies to transcend modern social barriers or to conjure up ideas of utopia.

I linger by the hut for a while before journeying to the Power Plant Gallery to witness the Modular Marketplace, where representatives for electronic instrument manufacturers and distributers are demonstrating their wares. When I arrive, I impulsively begin counting the number of men in the room. The room is packed with synthesizers, mixers, effects units, and other shiny electronic music machines. It’s also packed with around a hundred dudes and maybe ten or fifteen women.

Exiting the building, I head toward the American Underground building for a performance by Moor Mother but am distracted by a man sitting on the sidewalk in front of a laptop and synthesizer, playing arpeggios over a looping cymbal crash. His name is Thor, and he is not on the Moogfest lineup but is performing anyway. He says he tried a similar, guerilla-style performance on the previous day on the Amtrak from Boston to Durham, but “they shut it down after ten seconds.” Thor hands me two free cassettes and goes back to performing while his friend Ilya films him on an iPhone.

In the American Underground Storefront, Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, weaves sounds seamlessly in and out of one another with an array of electronic instruments, varying the intensity and amplitude of her performance in an organic, evolutionary way. What starts as a single loop, sounding like a distorted recording of a wind tunnel, becomes laden with screeching, metallic percussion hits. The sound of clanging metal accelerates, then receives greater electronic manipulation until the room is a haze of echoing steel. Moor Mother then plays with some knobs and the clanging becomes softer and gentle as a pastel-hued synth burble rises. Moor Mother masters fluctuations between heavenly and horrifying.

When I leave the show I venture to The Dream Wanderer, a bus converted into a mobile virtual-reality gallery, adjacent to the geodesic hut. A group of people operating under the name Flatsitter are presenting a newly designed VR exploration of the town of Lily Dale, New York, one of the festival’s key techno-shamanistic events of the day. I enter the bus, and a barefoot man puts a VR headset, headphones, and a chest piece on me. I see fiery, orbicular shapes cascading in three-dimensional space while an echoing, pitched-down voice repeats, “We’re energy, everything, its energy.” Two similarly structured VR events consisting of colorful, geometric visuals and repetitious sounds follow, and I exit the bus.

When I ask a Flatsitter member about the creative process of making of the VR and the goals behind the mysticism, I’m handed a business card. I pocket the shaman’s business card and start walking toward the actual reality of Mykki Blanco’s explosive set in the Motorco parking lot.