When the music-and-technology festival Moogfest announced in July it would relocate from Asheville, its longtime home and the headquarters of its parent brand, Moog Music, to Durham, the impending move raised a set of salient questions.
How, for instance, would downtown Durham and its slim set of music venues provide adequate space for a few hundred acts, let alone several thousand attendees? Where would they speak and teach during daytime workshops? Where would they play and dance during shows at night?
In a region with a budding festival circuit, would Moogfest trend more toward the technology side of its mission, using big-name speakers and cutting-edge thinkers to lure start-up zealots, Research Triangle Park wonks and university affiliates into rock clubs? And after abandoned attempts to establish the event in Manhattan and Asheville, an ostensibly bitter split with one of the nation's largest independent concert promoters years ago, and a $1.5 million loss during the 2014 festival, could Moogfest finally settle down in Durham—and, who knows, maybe break even?
On Tuesday morning, Moogfest took its first serious step toward answering at least some of those questions (but, inevitably, not all of them) with the release of an impressive initial roster for its Durham debut, scheduled to run from May 19 to May 22. Moogfest's geographic footprint alone will likely make it the most involved and involving festival yet in Durham's resurgent downtown. Its deep integration of musicians and thinkers—or its perception of that binary as false—positions it to become a singular Triangle event, too, where theory and praxis share stage time and spotlights. Backtracking on an earlier announcement that the festival would be biannual, Moogfest now intends to become an annual event; with this sort of size and scope, it could permanently alter the Triangle's major-events landscape.
The festival will enlist nearly two dozen venues—some preexisting, like Motorco Music Hall; others ad hoc, like Motorco's parking lot—in downtown Durham. The festival will turn the Carolina Theatre into three event spaces, the 21c Museum Hotel into two and the Durham Arts Council into three. Organizers will employ untraditional rooms such as the First Presbyterian Church and Duke's downtown "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" facility, and they will build stages in outdoor squares like CCB Plaza and Diamond View Park.
The lineup itself, which will expand in the coming months, aims to close the gap between the festival's music and technology aspects by exploring and connecting both realms. During the day, an array of speakers, including Sirius Radio creator Martine Rothblatt and "cyborg artist" Neil Harbisson, will lead panels and lectures and interact with a world of musicians selected, at least in part, for their interest in technology.
As such, many of those 100-plus acts work mainly in the realm of electronic music—from dubstep icon Kode9 to British dance architect DJ Harvey, from soul sophisticate Blood Orange to synth magus M. Geddes Gengras, from pillow-top techno lords The Orb to U2 producer, rock songwriter and ambient explorer Daniel Lanois. The roster crisscrosses multiple genres, too, nodding at something like jazz with Dawn of Midi and hip-hop with Wu-Tang's GZA, pop with Empress Of and Gary Numan and heavy metal with Sunn O))) and The Body. There's rock from Explosions in the Sky and Mac McCaughan, noise from Ben Frost and Tim Hecker. There will be hours-long improvisations called "Durationals," quiet shows in a sanctuary, synthesizer demonstrations from modern masters and even a Yo Gabba Gabba! kids show that includes Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Parliament-Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins.
The most emblematic performer, though, might be Laurie Anderson, the violinist, singer, performance artist and conceptual powerhouse. For the last 40 years, Anderson has explored intersections of technology and music, becoming an early and inventive adopter of various electronic instruments and processes. Those choices have often illuminated her music's uncanny explorations of society, time and unease, adding an edge of inquisitive exploration across fields. Anderson, you could argue, is Moogfest's paragon.
As with Anderson's music, Moogfest aims to create an immersive, unified event, where ideas that are proposed and analyzed during daytime talks, classes, seminars and panels are made flesh during nighttime concerts. Some programming themes are gnomically general; what can one really say, for instance, about "The Future of Creativity?" Others, like "Afrofuturism" and "Transhumanism," seem especially relevant right now; to wit, the latter topic recently arrived at your Sunday-morning doorstep, thanks to The New York Times' distribution of Google Cardboard glasses.
Moogfest feels a little like a series of TED Talks, where the question of who's playing the after-party is not only paramount but tied to the day's actual discussions.
"All participants, whether performing artists or contributors in the conference, have been selected for their thematic connection to the central programmatic themes," festival director Marisa Brickman explained Monday night. "In some cases, they were sought out for a very specific contribution—synth pioneers, transhumanist advocates, experts in dub reggae. In other cases, their association (to electronic music, the future of creativity, emerging technologies) is more loose."
This, of course, goes several steps beyond the general music festival or creativity conference approach, where events seem like convocations for the preexisting choir rather than chances to explore interstitial ideas and audiences and find new connections. The concept of combining the two is en vogue right now, evidenced locally by the Art of Cool Festival's "Innovate Your Cool" addition or the Hopscotch Design Festival, which ends just before the Hopscotch Music Festival begins.
But these sideshows feel tenuous and tacked-on, limited by budgets and the need to, first and foremost, satiate the music crowds they've built over many years. Moogfest hopes to remove those self-imposed boundaries—to put the systems, system designers and system operators in play all at once. The acts themselves—many of which have played Hopscotch, Moogfest or Knoxville's Big Ears in recent years, anyway—seem less important than that difficult, expensive mission. It is Moogfest's cri de cœur.
"The total number of artists and activities is not nearly as important as the integration of a holistic program," Brickman said. "We know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."