Getting Schooled by Moogfest: the University of Artistic Synthesis

Written by Bryan Deng

While the thought of waking up at 9am to attend a lecture doesn’t sound appealing to many college students (and most other adults) it’s one of the reasons Moogfest succeeds in striving to provide more than the average festival. Indeed, the inaugural Moogfest in Durham seems like 5 festivals in one: a music festival, a film festival, an art festival, synthesizer conference, and technology symposium. And just like college, what you end up getting out of it depends entirely on your own involvement and decisions. Just make sure you don’t put off signing up for all the cool workshops!

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IDEO Musical Playground installation – credit: Tommy Coyote

Moogfest Quick Facts:

Moogfest is a tribute to Dr. Robert Moog, who pioneered the analog synthesizer and other technology tools for artists. His company Moog Music is one of the most renowned technology suppliers in the industry.

Previously held in New York City and Asheville, North Carolina, Moogfest has been around since 2004. However 2016 is Moogfest’s first year in Durham, North Carolina, taking place in the “Research Triangle” anchored by North Carolina State University, Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike many of today’s mega-festivals, Moogfest has never been profitable throughout its 12 year run. The festival actually lost almost $1.5 million in 2014.

Camping: No

Capacity: Medium (7,000 ticketed attendees)

Crowd type:  Industry/International/Hipster/ Family

Music genre: Experimental, Pop, Hip Hop, Techno

How To Get There


Where To Stay

Downtown, hotels in the surrounding area


Restaurants downtown, cafes, food trucks open until 2am.


The effectiveness of production and organization varied by each venue, which were spread out over a 1 mile radius from the center of downtown Durham.

The Armory had amazing sound and wide open layout, but was lacking a proper bar, making drink lines 20-30 people long at most shows. Alternatively, the Pinhook was a cozy dive bar with a large open bar but a smaller stage setup. Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub had a great beer garden and tent stage that hosted the Reggae Soundsystem Party on Saturday afternoon. It was a great place to have a midday beer and relax in between performances.

However, my favorite venue was the First Presbyterian Church where the echoing acoustics gave the performing vocalists an ethereal sound. Indeed one of my favorite moments of Moogfest was during Gwenno’s performance when a spontaneous dance party broke out to her Swedish pop music.

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Gwenno at First Presbyterian Church – credit: Daniel White

Artists You May Not Have Heard of But Can’t Miss

For me, the real show stealer was IBM Watson. I know what you’re thinking: how could an AI computer system famous for being on Jeopardy also be a performance artist? During the “Cognitive DJ Battle” workshop, several audience members were invited to the stage to play a sequence of notes which IBM Watson took and ran through a program that changed the sound, pitch shifted it, put effects on it, and reorganized the sequence to create a new, unique melody. It was something I had never seen before: a demonstration of how artificial intelligence could also create art.

Although you may have already heard of GZA, one of the founding members of Wu Tang clan, many didn’t realize that GZA had a 2 day residency at Moogfest – one performance in the Motorco Music Hall on Friday and one on the main stage Saturday, punctuated by a conversation with Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal and a Q&A session. If you ever wanted to ask GZA how he came up with the album name Liquid Swords, this was the time (it was named after a kung fu movie).

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GZA Time Travelling with Hip Hop at The Carolina Theatre – credit: Daniel White

Things To Do

During the day, artists, Duke professors, performers, and other notable figures lead conversations on various topics such as cyborgism, afrofuturism, technoshamanism, new innovations and upcoming projects. Meanwhile visual artists and dancers ran performances and managed their interactive art installations. At night the city of Durham transformed into a diverse music festival spanning multiple stages and bars across the downtown area.

There was also Moog Yoga (Mooga) every morning, workshops where you could build your own synthesizers at the Moog pop up factory, panel discussions, film screenings, live podcasts, and so much more to do every day it ended up being impossible to experience it all.

Moog Pop Up Factory - credit: BSaren

Moog Pop Up Factory – credit: BSaren

Why Go VIP

Moogfest had two tiers of VIP passes, regular VIP and Engineer VIP. Regular VIP includes exclusive access to workshops, hotel rooftop and bar “toasts” with free food and drink, and a VIP only viewing area in front of the main stage. The engineer VIP pass included access to a 2-day synth-building workshop where enthusiasts could build and keep their own unreleased Moog analog synthesizer and sequencer. Overall the VIP experience definitely took care of its patrons and for many would be well worth the extra bucks.

VIP Rooftop Toast - credit: Bryan Deng

VIP Rooftop Toast – credit: Bryan Deng

Final Comments

Moogfest is a profoundly unique experience that is unlike any other festival I have been to. Those looking for dance parties and raves all day and night may be out of luck among the mostly sober industry folk and older crowd, however, those looking for a unique intellectual experience that pushes one to think about the future and innovation will find just that and more at Moogfest. Most performers are there to experiment with new sounds as well as challenge the audience’s perception of the link between modern music and technology. That isn’t to say there isn’t any shortage of dancing. Moogfest attracts talent from all over the world and the music curation spanned many genres both experimental and popular. In the end, Moogfest makes an ambitious attempt to educate it’s attendees about the technology surrounding electronic music production, as well as its larger impact on the world.

Odesza at Motorco Park - credit: Rodney Bowles

Odesza at Motorco Park – credit: Rodney Bowles

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