Moogfest’s mission is to “grow a global community of futurists who explore emerging sound technologies and design radical instruments for change.” They accomplish this in Durham every May by carefully curating a lineup of artists who explore the synthesis of music, art and technology. The lineup features a breadth of experimental musicians from around the globe, ranging from hallmark German techno (Mouse on Mars) to “sonic weaponry that critiques power structures” (Bonaventure). The festival also includes a Future Thought program that hosts a variety of workshops and lectures presented by artists and researchers alike. I talked with the festival’s programming director about this year’s themes and features, and the universal appeal of Moogfest.
Phillip: Can you explain the theme for this year, and why it feels like a good time for that theme?
Lorna: What theme are you referring to?
P: Celebrating female experimental artists, or non-binary artists.
L: Yeah, I think it’s something that has always been a part of the Moogfest dialogue. There is such an amazing array of female, non-binary and trans artists in the world, and often they don’t get the representation – particularly on festival lineups – that they should. So it is always a mission of Moogfest and Moog Music to utilize the festival as a platform to highlight these artists, to celebrate these artists, to recognize and acknowledge the amount of female artists across the world making this kind of music. We had a 50 hour live stream in December, which was sort of the impetus of this dialogue. We invited musicians from across the globe to perform for one hour, and their performances [were] live-streamed as a part of this global gathering. This was a way to literally demonstrate, “look at all of these artists.” This shows the global essence of what we are always trying to work towards. The continuation of that at the festival is that 50% of the lineup is women. This is in the day and age where the majority of festival lineups are approximately 10% women – maybe a little more, depending on the festival. But for us, particularly for me, as a female programming director, I think it’s very close to our hearts. It’s something we want to use as an opportunity and the festival allows us to do that.
L: That’s definetly one of the themes of the festival. Another feature of the festival this year is that we are premiering a spatial sound venue. For the first time ever, the Armory is being made into a spatial sound venue, which essentially means you will experience 360 degrees of sound. The venue has multiple speakers set up in the space, and as you move around the space, you will experience different perceptions of sound, and you will hear things slightly differently. We are doing that in collaboration with Virginia Tech. A lot of the artists that we are working with have gone to Virginia Tech to work with the audio engineers there to really make their performance at Moogfest unique and specific to this setup. So it’s really exciting. As a continuation of that, we will have workshops in the space, to help teach people about the sound set up.
P: As a festival curator, I am curious how you stay on top of finding these artists all the time to create a cohesive lineup, especially of experimental musicians, as these artists are operating outside of the mainstream sometimes . . . What do you do to find all of these wonderful musicians?
L: . . . Yeah. [laughs] It’s a good question! It’s a year round dedicated project, and not only is the festival carefully curated, with a lot of detail and energy going into a selection of artists, but also where they are playing. There will be a kind of theme that you see across venues, whether it be the Pinhook, or Motorco, or Fletcher Hall, or whatever – it’s often about “Who is this artist? How can we highlight them? How can we challenge them to play in a space they aren’t used to?” It’s not the selection, but the context as well. We definitely pride ourselves on artists playing in intimate venues. Even though you may see Kelela play at Coachella, at Moogfest, you can see her play at a seated venue, at Fletcher Hall, it’s quite an interesting experience. That is definitely part of the process. As far as how we select the musicians, it’s something that kind of develops over time when you build relationships with artists and agents; people will submit their music. Obviously, you have to a wide appreciation and understanding of what musicians are out there. We all love what we are doing and discovering new music, it’s all second nature. A recommendation of an artist leads to the discovery of another artist, then you go down this wormhole and you discover something else. It’s a part of this creative pursuit that is so intrinsic within you that seems normal.
P: Perhaps this question will be difficult to answer, but I am curious if there are any artists this year in particular that you are very excited to have at Moogfest? Or maybe a handful that you are particularly passionate about?
L: It’s difficult! I think of course I am interested to see Mouse on Mars, a legacy German band come to Moogfest. They are playing two shows. They are playing their techno set, and the other is the specialized spatial sound performance. So I am intrigued to see how those two sets are in dialogue with one another. They are also playing a techno show in a seated venue, so again, I am always intrigued by that. Jon Hopkins is fantastic, of course Jenny Hval, she is always puts so much thought and detail into her performances. She is also doing a workshop at the festival. We ask the artists to perform by night and give talks or workshops during the day, which is called our Future Thought program. So Jenny Hval’s workshop is the day before her performance. The people that go to her workshop will actually be helping to actually contribute sound clips to her performance, doing some kind of sound workshop, which will then feed into her spatial sound performance the next day. So again there is this element of precision and collaboration, which I think is always unique to the festival . . . It’s a busy festival, even as a festival goer, there is a lot to see. You have to sort of pick your program and try to stick to it, or go with the flow and see what happens.
P: Do you find yourself doing anything in particular to cultivate the synth nerd crowd, versus um . . . I guess someone who is just excited to go to a music festival if that makes sense. So the niche crowd –
L: Yeah yeah of course! I think that is what is quite unique about Moogfest. There are different access levels or access points depending on who you are and what your interests are, so for example, you can come from that synth-heavy world and there will be a program there that will tick all of your boxes. So obviously when it comes to the more synth-driven program, we have the best resource ever, we have Moog Music. So I work with the creative director at Moog very closely, particularly on the modular synth program side of things. But then if you want to come to the festival and get involved in the more holistic side of the program, you can go to the daily sound bath, you can go and do yoga (Moog-a), you can do meditation, you can go to workshops about rallying in your community. If you have an interest in film and live score, there is also that. If you like the more mainstream music, we try to tick those boxes. Hip-hop, to techno, to also if you just want to come and experience the workshops to learn how to DJ, or how to build a theremin, switchboard or something, that is there for you also. For us, it’s always about having multiple ways in which people can engage with the festival.
P: Last question, about Durham. I have been to the festival the past two years, and before that I had never been to Durham before, and it’s just such an amazing space for the festival. That may be surprising to some people, like it was for me. What makes Durham such a great space for an event like Moogfest?
L: I agree with you. It’s an amazing town. It’s growing exponentially at a rate that’s wild. There is a lot going on in Durham. There is a great music scene, there is great food, and there is this energy there that hopefully we are helping to contribute to. We work very closely with the city, very closely with the venues, we have relationships with the community and the artists, and it’s something we are trying to build upon. We want to integrate into the community. What’s exciting for me is the festival can grow and develop with the downtown Durham. It’s nice we can do that in tandem together.