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Moogfest 2016 Festival Review: 25 Best Performances

A perfect hybrid of music, technology, and humanity

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    Moogfest: the event that never ceases to amaze.

    “Event” being the important distinction. Part festival, part conference, part expo — Moogfest celebrates music, technology, counterculture, and always the future. It’s as hybridized as the music genres it highlights and the multidisciplinary creatives presiding over its programming.

    Where else can cyborgs and futurists rub elbows with electronic music legends? Better still, where else can forward-thinking fans and creatives go to engage directly with some of the brightest minds on the planet? Moogfest is an experience designed to stimulate creativity. It’s uncommon for any event of this scale to have such altruistic intentions, but that’s the reality. That’s why luminaries like Laurie Anderson, Gary Numan, Martine Rothblatt, Mark Mothersbaugh, Janelle Monáe, Daniel Lanois, and many others left their mark on Moogfest this year — not to mention the legacy of remarkable talent that’s graced the event across its nine iterations.

    Nina Corcoran, Crowd 01

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    What further sets Moogfest apart are its cozy confines. Since 2010, Moogfest had shared its home with the Moog Factory in Asheville, North Carolina, where it cultivated a relaxed, familial environment of artists, presenters, and patrons co-mingling as they walked from venue to venue. This year, they’ve uprooted from the funky mountain town to Durham, home of Duke University and myriad tech startups. Miraculously, the scenery change didn’t cause any unwanted distortion. Durham welcomed the hybrid festival with open arms, and their wide variety of venue spaces, excellent food, and genuinely friendly people ensured that even with the move, returning to Moogfest still felt like coming home.

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    This year’s event comes at a critical time, with North Carolina’s discriminatory HB2 bathroom law restricting transgender persons from using the bathrooms of their chosen gender and many performers boycotting the state in protest. In response, Moogfest, along with the artists and local activist groups, co-opted the festival as a weekend-long protest of HB2, ensuring that all bathrooms at all venues were gender neutral, speaking out against the bill throughout the four-day event, and encouraging everyone to “Synthesize Love.” No artist declined to appear at Moogfest, and some of the biggest names lent their words to the creation of a powerful statement of defiance on the Moogfest website — a statement embodied in the event itself.

    Yo Gabba Gabba 1 - Moogfest 16 - Cap Blackard

    Photo by Cap Blackard

    Future thought, future sound, afrofuturism, transhumanism … synthesis. Moogfest is the festival of the 21st century. It’s an idea too bold to work, and yet, against all odds, it thrives — celebrating humankind’s triumphs in innovation and looking headlong to the synth-scored horizon of where we’re headed. Here’s but a sampling of the amazing things we saw and experienced at Moogfest 2016: music performances, discussions, and all the eye-opening stuff in between.

    –Cap Blackard
    Art Director


    Greg Fox durational sound installation

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    Photo by Jon Hadusek

    It takes a certain superhuman physicality to play drums for four hours straight. Then again, Greg Fox has proven himself to be unnaturally gifted in the art of percussion as the drummer of Liturgy. Backed by a group of free-form electronic soundscapists, Fox kept the groove going from 2-6 p.m. on Thursday at the Museum Hotel, where there was a different four-hour durational sound installation each day of Moogfest. His limbs looked like boneless rubber, and he didn’t appear to tire — physically or mentally — at any point in the performance. I even saw him later that night at another set, and he was totally awake, aware, and unfazed by the insane task he’d just accomplished. –Jon Hadusek
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    Neil Harbisson and Pau Riba’s “A Cyborg’s Synaesthetic Pedicure”

    Neil Harbisson 1 - Moogfest 16 - Cap Blackard

    Photo by Cap Blackard

    In a list of “only at Moogfest” moments, this has got to be at the top of the heap: a duet between an acoustic guitar player and the colors of this toenails, as read by a cyborg.

    Neil Harbisson is the world’s first government-recognized cyborg. The Catalan artist was born without the ability to perceive color and took matters into his own hands by installing a device called an eyeborg. It extends like a quail feather over the top of his head and translates colors into tonal frequencies – from infrared to ultraviolet – which he hears via bone conduction. On the opening day of Moogfest, Harbisson teamed up with fellow Catalan multidisciplinary artist Pau Riba for a truly unique piece of musical performance art. After Riba wandered the audience barefoot, singing, and playing guitar, he took an elevated seat, and Harbisson proceeded to paint the 68-year-old man’s toes. Harbisson then scanned the colors he pained with his eyeborg so the audience could hear the tones. Riba improvised guitar and vocals as one beep layered atop another.

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    The colors, Harbission explained, were specifically chosen because his perception of colors is microtonal. As a result, he had to drive all over New York City and buy the right colors at great expense; otherwise, the performance would have been out of key. They went on to do another duet where Harbisson played hues of orange (f-sharp) underneath Riba’s best known song, “Porcelain Girl”. The two met over Riba’s manifesto, proposing that by virtue of our modern dependence on machines, we’re all cyborgs. While Harbisson has electronic implants, the rest of us augment ourselves with “explants” – cars, watches, and any other objects that exist outside our bodies. –Cap Blackard
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    Claire Evans: The Future Is Unmanned

    Claie Evans - Moogfest 16 - Cap Blackard

    Photo by Cap Blackard

    Claire Evans is the lead singer of YACHT, a major player in Vice‘s sci-tech branch, Motherboard, and a perpetual explorer of the new, the old, and exciting across all the mediums she chooses to inhabit. Her presentation, “The Future Is Unmanned”, set the pace on the opening day of Moogfest as she cast light on one of the most woefully undocumented facets of 20th century history: women’s founding roles in computer sciences and the Internet at large. From the time when “computer” was a job that saw rooms of women crunching complex equations to the digital renegades of the cyberfeminist movement of the ’90s, Evans’ overview was staggering in the wealth of untold history – all of it headed towards a forthcoming book, tentatively of the same title. The audience was treated to stories of computer pioneer Grace Hopper, who had to convince her male superiors that computer programming was even a thing, and the amazing gender-smashing antics of The VNS Matrix, from whom the lecture’s title was derived as well as the lecture/book’s rejected title: “We Are the Future Cunt”. Evans’ research into the feminist origins of the digital age are ongoing, but her goal is clear: “If women and girls can see themselves in the DNA of our planet’s most transformative and powerful technology, then I hope they can see themselves in its future.” –Cap Blackard
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    Dawn of Midi

    Nina Corcoran, Dawn of Midi 01

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    If you asked the people sitting on either side of you at the Carolina Theatre before Dawn of Midi began their set, chances are one of them knew the band was scheduled to open for Radiohead later this year and the other person had never heard of them before looking at the festival’s schedule. As seemed to be the case for both types of people, likely neither had listened to them before. The Brooklyn trio couldn’t care less.

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    Onstage, Dawn of Midi perform a meditative, experimental, ambient-like take on sparse jazz. Drawing on the subtlest influences from their respective countries: India for Aakaash Israni on double bass, Morocco for Amino Belyamani on piano, and Pakistan for Qasim Naqvi on drums. They worked through Dysnomia, their 2013 full-length, with expert focus, pulling on piano strings and burping out syncopated drumbeats with seamless transitions to new tempos. Calling it hypnotic is an understatement. As such, it felt like there could be no end, so the whole set ended somewhat comedically: with the venue itself pulling the plug to keep things on track — even though the band only had two minutes left of a 47-minute album they chose to perform in full. –Nina Corcoran
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    Qrion

    Nina Corcoran, Qrion 01

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    It’s fitting that Qrion hails from Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s northernmost island. It’s both tropical and chilly, snow dusting the city’s circumference in winter whereas its sandy beaches boast a different shade of white come the summer. Live, Qrion evokes attributes of both. Inside the expansive Armory, the 21-year-old worked through cuts off her own EPs, mixing them with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and deep house with sweet-turned-vicious delivery. There’s a tongue-in-cheek acceptance of her heritage that comes naturally when standing in front of a room of, for the most part, white boys. Qrion, who now lives in Los Angeles, projected a tweet in broken English on the screen behind her while pixelated sushi fell over it, burst purple heart emojis on rapidfire, and went so far as to flash the proper pronunciation of her stage name across the screen. If she could mock the way she’s perceived in America, then the crowd could mock themselves too, most of whom eventually followed suit, breaking out of their comfort zones to break into a full sweat come the end of her set. –Nina Corcoran
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    Daniel Lanois

    DanielLanois

    Photo by Jon Hadusek

    You might not know the name Daniel Lanois, but you’ve likely heard one of his productions. Lanois worked with Brian Eno on the Ambient series and produced U2’s most acclaimed records, in addition to working with legends such as Neil Young (Le Noise) and Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball).

    A deeply spiritual figure, Lanois perceives music as a gateway to the soul — a shared experience through sound. Watching him perform with his band, which includes singer-songwriter Rocco DeLuca, was like watching three musicians fall into a dream together. His late midnight show at the Carolina Theatre affected me deeply, taking me to places I’ve been and places I’ve yet to see. In this moment, I saw family, old friends, ex-lovers, acquaintances, random faces, and we all co-existed in peace — in mutual resignation to our inevitable fate and the belief that our experiences are connected in a poetic way that we may never understand in our waking lives. Lanois played pedal steel through processes that make it sound like an instrument he invented. DeLuca and Jim Wilson followed in fractured harmony, playing harmonized folk hymns that recalled the transcendent work of Bonnie Prince Billy and Scott Tuma. The set also featured a heavy improvisational electronic dabbling that Lanois described as “bringing the studio to the stage” — a theme at Moogfest.

    After Thursday’s performance, Lanois hosted two masterclass sessions discussing his artistic process — like a sage imparting wisdom. I feel changed after spending hours in the presence of this man. Whether he was discussing the proper means of capturing a drum sound or the virtues of organic, spontaneous creation — free of inhibition and self-doubt — his philosophical angle on each topic could be applied to any facet of life. Trust in your friends, move with the flow of time, and never fear the future. His words became the motif of Moogfest as I watched other artists express similar themes through their music and discussions. We’re here, in this singular moment, so why not live it and surrender your conscious mind to the beauty of love and chaos? –Jon Hadusek
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    Technoshamanism: A Very Psychedelic Century!

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    Technoshamanism - Moogfest 16 - Cap Blackard

    Photo by Cap Blackard

    Easily the most mind-opening presentation Moogfest 2016 had to offer – a multidisciplinary monologue that rivaled Brian Eno’s Moogfest 2011 keynote for all the unexpected twists and turns it took. This one-man show saw artist-musician Michael Garfield take a captive audience on a vision-quest through the lands where metaphysics and emerging technology meet. Make no mistake – it was a ramble, but an insightful and fascinating one from start to finish that traveled from the ancient dragon god Tiamat to the Victorians laying the transatlantic telegraph cable to the Manhattan Project giving birth to a new age of fear and awareness. The “psychedelic century”? That’s the here and now that’s just beginning, and the more our technology graduates us to the alchemical act of creation, the closer humanity comes to confronting “the cosmic mystery that we are.” Heavy and heady stuff, and a pleasant counterpoint to the doom and gloom of the average transhumanist cybergrumps whose future-thinking seems improbably grounded in the limited perceptions of the present. –Cap Blackard
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    Dr. Martine Rothblatt: The Future of Creativity

    Rothblatt - Moogfest 16 - Cap Blackard

    Photo by Cap Blackard

    You might have heard of Dr. Rothblatt for a number of reasons. She’s the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio (now SiriusXM), she’s an outspoken trans activist, and perhaps most famously these days she’s leading the charge in humanity’s transcendence from death as exemplified by an ongoing project to replicate her partner’s consciousness digitally. This is a gross over-simplification of Rothblatt’s quest, but it should suffice to say, she’s a fount of crazy ideas and relentless determination. That determination was the subject of Rothblatt’s empowering Keynote speech – as she puts it: “dogged, single-minded persistence.” Her take on transhumanism was shockingly pleasant. Rather than the glum cyberpunk ultimatum of humanity being a biological dead-end, Rothblatt spoke of our technological evolution as human consciousness evolving to “Personae Creatus,” a unified digital existence beyond physical boarders. It seems crazy now, but Rothblatt’s used to being told she’s crazy and then proving everyone wrong, so brace yourselves for a deathless cyber utopia. –Cap Blackard
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    EMA/Jana Hunter durational sound installation

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    Photo by Jon Hadusek

    There was a different durational sound installation every day at the Museum Hotel, and Friday’s featured collaborative improvisation from EMA and Jana Hunter of Lower Dens. These sets were unrehearsed — planned the night before on a whim and executed on the spot — though you wouldn’t have been able to tell on Friday. Hunter led a small band of collaborators through ambient explorations that were airtight, structured by droning pulses and two-chord drones, while EMA read memoirs about past boyfriends. Seeped in eerie nostalgia, her stories were creepy and honest, giving the otherwise drifting sounds a narrative thread … and no doubt helping pass the time for the performers involved. –Jon Hadusek
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    Grimes

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    Nina Corcoran, Grimes 04

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    The great thing about Moogfest is that it brought together musical innovators from all harmonic spectrums, from the most dissonant drone to the poppiest pop. Grimes represented the latter, injecting some liberating dance pop into the headiness that presided over much of the festival. The crowd at the large Motorco Stage unleashed all of that bottled-up energy in a vicarious reaction to the ecstatic stage presence of Grimes herself. The months of touring and playing the festival circuit have turned her and her troupe of dancers into a machine of visual and aural entertainment. She went into a rage during “Scream”, falling on her back, unleashing a scream that would make any black-metal vocalist proud before thrusting the mic into the monitors to create a spike of terrifying feedback. On “Kill v. Maim” and “Realiti”, she darted around the stage in a frenzy, but never so far away from her gear as to miss a sample cue or triggered change-up in the song. Once a shy bedroom popsmith, Grimes has become a full-on pop superstar worthy of headlining a festival like Moogfest. –Jon Hadusek
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