Imark the times I have attended Moogfest not by the specific year or by roster but, instead, by the musical moments that left the biggest impressions.
There was, for instance, the inexplicably deep bass tone of the producer Pantha du Prince, which rattled a midsize arena in downtown Asheville to the very frame. Or there were the kaleidoscopic arpeggios of Emeralds, which seemed to make a large club sparkle with sound, or the manic, mind-scrambling pace and projections of a Squarepusher set that felt like it made too many neurons fire at once. During the best of its half-decade stay four hours to the west, Moogfest extended an invitation to have your body shaken by big sound, your mind broadened by new possibilities. No, Moogfest never broke even in Asheville, but on that conceptual count, it operated firmly in the black.
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This week, Moogfest will at last arrive in Durham after a year and a half of anticipatory debate, analysis, and excitement. Its journey here, to its third city in a little more than a decade, has not been an easy one. After floundering in New York, Moogfest went through two distinct iterations in Asheville, the second of which generated losses of $1.5 million in 2014.
Still, that event was an audacious one, pairing diurnal panels and workshops with nocturnal concerts that put the day's ideas in loud, vivid praxis. Where many such conferences break those pieces apart (see South by Southwest, or locally, Hopscotch), so that the dreamers and the doers don't always collide, Moogfest had the gall to jam all those factions in one place and facilitate an exchange. At great risk, Moogfest declared that it would be more than a music festival, more than a tech symposium, and more, really, than both at once. Emmy Parker, Moog Music's brand director, labeled the losses "an investment" in that mission.
The ambition of Moogfest 2014—and the financial flop that followed—helped push the event to Durham after county officials refused to up their investment. Organizers have since tapped into a local network of sponsors, boosters, and citizens looking to support a multidisciplinary event that bolsters and burnishes the region's growing tech image.
It has not always been a comfortable fit. Blunders by the city and county in funding Moogfest at much higher levels than the older Art of Cool, which used some of the same spaces only two weeks ago, have led to charges of racism against the city. And the festival's ostensible desire to integrate as much of Durham as possible in this re-launch—from museums and art galleries to Research Triangle Park and rock clubs—has sometimes stretched the organization's framework and the region's infrastructure a bit thin. But these are larger topics, issues that must be addressed systematically by an area experiencing unprecedented levels of growth and concomitant growing pains.
Moogfest spotlights those problems, though it didn't create them.
The welcome news is that, on the ground, Moogfest's debut in Durham has the potential to dazzle again. In the festival's four-day span, you can hear ambient music sculpted from the insects of Burt's Bees Observation Hive and explore the earliest and newest synthesizer technologies. You can tinker with IBM's Watson and listen to cutting-edge thinkers such as Neil Harbisson and Martine Rothblatt ponder the future.
And that's even before you consider the bands, a curious and quirky mix that cuts across genre and generation to link icons such as Gary Numan, Kode9, and GZA with iconoclasts such as Grimes, Blood Orange, and Grouper. You can see one of the loudest bands in the world, Sunn O))), in a parking lot, or one of their descendants, The Body, in a tiny club. Upstart locals like Trandle and Well$ share stage space with proven imports like Lunice and M. Geddes Gengras.
In the next twelve months, Moogfest has significant questions to consider about its future and role in Durham, just as the city has similarly pressing concerns. But this week, Moogfest delivers a lot of opportunities to have your brain bent in the best of ways, to think about topics you've perhaps never pondered, to see bands that truly exist at the bleeding edge of form.
In that regard, at least, Moogfest has rarely missed its mark.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Making the Connection"