Art Talk with Emmy Parker of Moogfest
"[W]e approached the design of Moogfest much like we approach synthesizer design. We asked ourselves this question: how can we inspire people who are interested in technology, music, and art to create new things?" -- Emmy Parker
To musicians and engineers, Robert Moog (rhymes with rogue) is nothing short of a legend. Moog, who passed in 2005, is widely recognized and revered in the music industry for his namesake revolutionary analog synthesizers. From The Beatles to the Beastie Boys, countless musicians have geeked out with Moogs to produce music that will no doubt stand the test of time. The good news is that, in addition to the music and his hand-soldered machines, Moog’s innovative work lives on through an annual festival also established in his name, Moogfest.
Set at the bucolic base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog located the company in the late 1970s, and taking place each April, the festival represents its founder’s exploratory spirit, celebrating the intersection of science, technology, art, engineering, and music. As science writer and musician Claire L. Evans noted in a Huffington Post piece, Moogfest is like “TED filtered through a distortion pedal.” We spoke with Emmy Parker, the Brand Director at Moog Music, Inc. and Moogfest, about the festival’s origins, its future, and what it’s all about.
Janelle Monae in conversation at Moogfest. Photo by Emmy Parker
NEA: So, what exactly is Moogfest? When and how did it all begin?
EMMY PARKER: Moogfest began 10 years ago in New York City as a celebration of Bob Moog and the tools he invented for musicians. Today, nine years after his passing, Moogfest is a celebration of his innovative spirit and the spirit of the company he founded, Moog Music.
NEA: What’s unique about Moogfest?
PARKER: Probably the fact that it's not curated by concert promoters, but by the hardworking and passionate folks at Moog Music. Our business is designing and building electronic musical instruments, not organizing events. So we naturally have a unique format, content, and flow to Moogfest that other more traditional events wouldn't dare consider. It's purely because of our ignorance and naiveté that we ended up putting together an event that seems to have been transformational for a lot of the people that attended.
NEA: In the news these days, you're hard-pressed not to bump into wonky terms like technofuturist, technosophy, futurism, or futurologist. We even run a series of talks at the NEA called Arts Futures featuring boundary-pushing artists and organizations. Moogfest seems to be on to something. What are you all trying to do with this fest? What's the point, if you will?
PARKER: At Moog, we spend our days trying to figure out how to use technology to build better tools for musical expression. Moogfest is an extension of our work in the Moog factory: it's a means to explore how new technologies will influence the way we creatively communicate and express ourselves in the future. The formula is simple--invite a wildly diverse group of ethicists, futurists, scientists, designers, circuit benders, artists, and musicians to take part in a variety of participatory events to encourage a shared discourse. Everyone is a part of the conversation and everyone has a chance to be engaged and thus inspired by what they are experiencing. We hope that people leave Moogfest and feel the overwhelming urge to create something.
NEA: New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, in a podcast interview with his colleague Ben Ratliff, said that the "uniting aesthetic is sound, making weird sounds." Would you agree?
PARKER: How could I disagree with Jon? He's a legend.
NEA: The line-up at the last festival speaks volumes. Artists ranged from headliners like Kraftwerk and M.I.A all the way to Dan Deacon and Flying Lotus. The roster, like a Moog synthesizer, was original and fairly complicated (read: layered). That's not easy to pull off in a small mountain town.
PARKER: You are very right in thinking that we approached the design of Moogfest much like we approach synthesizer design. We asked ourselves this question: how can we inspire people who are interested in technology, music, and art to create new things? We start designing by honoring the accomplishments of those that came before us and build on that foundation to bring forward new platforms and tools for contemporary creators. For Moogfest, we wove together an experience that illuminated where electronic music has been, how we got to where we are now, and where we are going in the future. That's a deep story and there are fantastic artists that can bring it to life.
A rapt Kraftwerk crowd. Photo by Emmy Parker
NEA: Leading up to the curious and genre-bending music, there are a number of stimulating panels throughout the day. Can you give us an example of a typical or standout discussion? (I heard about a session on neural coupling, for example.)
PARKER: More on the music spectrum, I was personally very inspired by the conversation Janelle Monae had with Claire Evans and the sharing from Mad Mike Banks from Underground Resistance. More on the technology side of things, I was blown away by Neil Harbisson, a man who has an antenna implanted in his head, which allows him to hear color by converting light waves into sound. Harbisson's so-called "eyeborg" has drastically changed the way he interacts with the world since he gets an auditory response to everything he sees. This is undoubtedly where we are headed, actually becoming technology to enhance our limited capabilities.
NEA: The festival has morphed over time, becoming in a sense a unique intersection of the key components of S.T.E.A.M, or science, technology, engineering, art, andinstead of math--or in addition to math--music. Can you speak to how that change came about?
PARKER: We are lucky to work for a company that is beloved because of the work of Bob Moog. We feel a strong responsibility to use the power of the Moog brand for good. Science, technology, engineering, art, and music are good in our book, and also [they are] literally the exact topics that inform our work at Moog. So it was a no-brainer. Actually, a happy by-product of Moogfest is that with the help of a brilliant Georgia Tech graduate student, we are developing a STEAM curriculum around a synthesizer called Werkstatt that was developed for a Moogfest workshop.
NEA: How complicated is it to mount/coordinate a festival like this?
PARKER: Extremely. Everyone at Moog has a huge respect for people that do this as their full time job and are successful at it.
Rapper M.I.A. performs at Moogfest. Photo by Emmy Parker
NEA: What was, dare I ask, the geekiest moment of the last festival? The least geeky?
PARKER: Impossible to pick just one, but maybe the twin brothers wearing identical EEG readers that I saw bump into each other because they were so lost in an immersive augmented reality experience. Least geeky was Riff Raff.
NEA: What was, in your opinion, the most memorable moment of the 2014 fest?
PARKER: The sound going out momentarily at one of Kraftwerk's three performances and Ralf Hutter speaking to the crowd in his natural, unadulterated voice. The crowd was in shock.
NEA: I recently read that J Dilla's Minimoog and MPC (a beat machine) will be housed in the forthcoming Smithsonian Museum of African-American History. That says quite a lot about the importance of a Moog and Robert Moog.
PARKER: Actually, that honor says more about the importance of J Dilla and the mark that he left on music production. The Minimoog was one of his most used tools and that would have made Bob satisfied. Bob considered himself a tool-maker and one mark of a good tool is how often it gets used. It's even more inspiring when that tool is used to craft something beautiful--which Dilla did more often than not.
Mike Banks of Underground Resistance participated at Moogfest as a panelist and as a performer. Mike doesn't speak publicly often, but he told me that he was willing to do so at Moogfest because Bob Moog created the tool that he used to feed his family. That was incredibly moving for all of us that play a part in the creation of Moog tools.
NEA: My final question is a fill in the blank: Arts festivals matter because...
PARKER: ...there is an identical creative spark that animates all living things and it's important that we recognize it, encourage it, and celebrate it.
If you liked this feature, you might like our Art Talk with Jevelle Robinson who, along with her husband, co-founded the Florida African Dance Festival.