At Moogfest, Electronics Stimulate Ears and Emotions

Posted May 21, 2018 5:30 p.m. EDT

DURHAM, N.C. — At the annual Moogfest, many festivalgoers are as fascinated with how music is made as with how it sounds. Performers wielding a copious assortment of electronic gear — along with acoustic outliers like a viola da gamba or a church organ — played at night in clubs and other venues in downtown Durham late last week. By day, many of them did double duty at workshops and stage interviews, explaining their artistic practices and technical solutions to audiences full of musicians. Festivalgoers could also try out all sorts of gizmos at a marketplace full of new and vintage electronic instruments and, often, the people who devised them.

Moogfest has emerged as the opposite of typical electronic-music festivals. It largely ignores “big room” dance music in favor of sounds that stretch boundaries and explore sonic phenomena. Four-hour “durational” performances and an eight-hour, overnight “sleep concert” favored drones and meditative music. Moogfest also, in the state that passed and then repealed a divisive law on bathroom use, made a point of featuring performers and speakers who are gay, female, transgender or nonbinary — including a keynote stage interview with Chelsea Manning of WikiLeaks fame.

This year’s Moogfest was scaled down from previous editions. Its biggest hitmaker was probably socially conscious rapper KRS-One, whose Boogie Down Productions was a force in 1980s hip-hop. But it brought together a rewarding collection of performers whose gear, in the end, was beside the point. Below are 15 highlights.

— Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney’s songs ache for connection yet often end up lonely, his otherworldly falsetto cradled by slow-motion R&B grooves. He builds songs from loops of his voice and instruments, and he performed behind a futuristic microphone stand that doubled as a looping station, while his band also employed electronic metamorphoses; pizzicato lines from a violinist were pitched down to sound like a jazz bass. Yet the gadgetry only heightened the songs’ very human longing.

— Aisha Devi

Meditation and ritual meet the tools of the electronic rave in Aisha Devi’s songs. At Moogfest she sang Asian-inflected melodies in English and Sanskrit over sporadic stretches of hefty bass tones and larger-than-life drums. She also used the throbbing sustained tones known as binaural beats, hints of Buddhist chants and bell tones, while her video showed images from alchemy, Eastern religion and surreal modernity. The music veered dramatically between tense anticipation and the promise of serenity.

— Caterina Barbieri and Upper Glossa

Caterina Barbieri, an Italian composer based in Berlin, performed solo and in Upper Glossa, her duo with Kali Malone. Her solo pieces were built around a vintage synthesizer capability: the sequencer, repeating a series of notes ad infinitum or making changes as the repetition continued. Her pieces were pointillistic and dizzying, defining odd meters and adding and subtracting notes to make the patterns endlessly flex and realign. Upper Glossa was both more somber and more enveloping. Performing at the First Presbyterian Church, Barbieri played an introductory church-organ piece. Then she and Malone created a rich, buzzing, steadily tolling electronic drone and topped it with inexorable electric guitar chords; amid all the resonances and overtones already in the room, the arrival of each chord seemed to change the light and air.

— Suzanne Ciani and Layne

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 German expressionist horror film, got a live, surround-sound score by pioneering synthesizer composer Suzanne Ciani and her recent collaborator, Layne, performing with a small ensemble including a flutist and a singer. The foundation was a minor chord and a recurring sequence; above it were ghostly whispers and sporadic, three-dimensional whirlwinds of dissonance.

— Fatima Al Qadiri

Fatima Al Qadiri pushed the giant drums and glossy synthesizer tones of trance toward the Middle East as she performed songs from her 2017 EP “Shaneera” synced to a new video that placed her in surreal, golden surroundings. Qadiri is a very high-concept producer and songwriter, and “Shaneera” is a version of Arab-world slang for a gender-defying persona: the “evil extreme femme alter ego” that Qadiri plays, according to a news release, in the songs. She belted poppy Arab-tinged melodies answered by insistent keyboard lines, looking both sultry and menacing in a long black wig that she removed with a flourish onstage when the set ended.

Shabazz Palaces

Shabazz Palaces pairs Ishmael Butler, the rapper who was known as Butterfly in the group Digable Planets and now also goes by Palaceer Lazaro, with percussionist Tendai Maraire. Shabazz Palaces built vamps methodically, with Butler running his own electronics and Maraire claiming an entire African diaspora. Enunciating calmly and precisely, Butler confronted complex issues — particularly gun violence, right after the Texas school shooting: “Wake up Johnny, it’s time for school/Pack a vest, learn the rules/Always notice escape routes.”

— Sonic Robots

It doesn’t get geekier than this: Moritz Simon Geist builds miniaturized but still physical mechanisms that tap or pluck tiny bits of material on a computer command, then go through microphones, then come through a sound system to play what turn out to be rhythm tracks worthy of the foreground. It would be so much easier with samples and digital processing — but what fun would that be?

— Deradoorian and Stephen O’Malley

Deradoorian (whose first name is Angel) has made her own albums and backed up Dirty Projectors, Avey Tare and Department of Eagles as a keyboardist and singer; guitarist Stephen O’Malley has worked prolifically on his own and with groups including Sunn O))). Their four-hour durational duet proceeded in extreme slow motion and extreme close-up. They were focused on the sonic nuances of what happens when two instruments sustain drones on pitches just a few cycles apart — creating the acoustic interference patterns known as beats, which set the whole room throbbing and built up swarming, untamed overtones — or linger for long minutes over just a handful of notes, smearing their frequencies with a gong.

— Emptyset

Emptyset, the English electronic duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas, dealt in elementals almost entirely stripped of melody; crashes, thuds, whooshes, crunches and room-shaking bass tones that could linger and throb or land as hard as drumbeats. The impact was visceral but without any invitation to dance, while in the video imagery, grids and geometric figures trembled as if they were registering a seismic impact.

— Valgeir Sigurdsson and Liam Byrne

For their eight-hour “sleep concert,” performed to a horizontal audience on mattresses, Valgeir Sigurdsson on electronics and Liam Byrne on viola da gamba, with other musicians, conjured a concentrated, sustained hush bridging the Baroque and the minimalistic. It was a mixture of electronic drones and string murmurs, mostly minor or modal and often using the glassy tone of bowed harmonics. Admittedly I slept through most of it, but each time I woke up the ambience was of something poised and delicate being held aloft, ever so carefully. Sigurdsson and Byrne also performed a piece called “Dissonance” in the surround-sound setup. It seemed to place listeners on a soundstage in the middle of a Hollywood soundtrack orchestra. It was by turns decorous and processional, while at times interrupted by interjections of stereo-traveling static or a bass tone that had escaped a dance club: juxtapositions that didn’t quite make sense.

— Mouse on Mars with Spank Rock

What was billed as a “techno set” at the Carolina Theater gave Berlin-based electronic duo Mouse on Mars (with a guest rapper, Spank Rock) the opportunity to stack up frenetic beats and riffs, then gleefully knock them around with aural slapstick: wobbling pitches, goofy sound effects, sudden swerves and skids. A second performance brought the new Mouse on Mars album, “Dimensional People,” to the surround-sound setup at the Armory, where the subtleties of its mix came through. But its long introspective passages left a full dance floor impatient.

— Wes Borland

Bird calls, backbeats, spoken-word samples, noise overlays, tentative and not-so-tentative guitar melodies: Wes Borland, Limp Bizkit’s guitarist, brought them all to his four-hour durational performance (with Alex Rosson on drums). A drone held it together, but this was a rocker’s musical marathon; when in doubt, a 4/4 beat and a solid chord would get everyone through.

— Psychic TV

Psychic TV has been led by the wildly prolific Genesis P-Orridge since the group was formed in the post-punk ferment of 1981. Its Moogfest set could almost have come from 1968, with hand-played drones, basic fingerpicked chords, feedback-tinged guitar and human-paced crescendos that all pointed back to a predigital era. The video backdrop was a bright, kaleidoscopic “light show” collaging religious imagery, classical paintings and highly irreligious imagery. The band wasn’t afraid of shaky moments, or noisy ones, on the way to its grand peaks.

— Jenny Hval

Sweet-voiced and deadpan, Norwegian songwriter Jenny Hval led her group through eccentric more-or-less pop songs, including those from her 2016 album “Blood Bitch,” that obliquely and sometimes directly addressed the interfaces of desire, commodification, language, technology and femininity. At one point, she and her band members all played tinny looped melodies from their cellphone speakers; another song began by reeling off the countless Spotify playlist titles using the word “chill.”

— Honey Dijon

Disc jockey and producer Honey Dijon propelled a late-night dance party with pounding, euphoric house beats topped with neatly repositioned vocals: aspirational at first (Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan) and, by the end of the set, deeply raunchy.