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At Moogfest, the music revolution will be synthesized

May 24, 2017 at 6:05 PM EDT
Moogfest, named after inventor Robert Moog, is a celebration of the art, engineering and technology of synthesizers, machines that create sounds electronically. Jeffrey Brown takes us to the gathering for a look at how experiments in technology and music can inspire one another.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The idea, how technology, music and science can inspire one another, and to the creation of distinct new sounds.

Jeffrey Brown is back to take us to an unusual gathering held just a few days ago in Durham, North Carolina.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start with a circuit board, add knobs and dials, solder everything together, and, eventually, if you know what you’re doing, you have an instrument that can do this.

Moogfest, named after inventor Robert Moog, is a celebration of the art, engineering and technology of synthesizers, machines that create sounds electronically. By night, it’s a festival of different genres of music, centered on, as they call them here, synths.

By day, talks, workshops, a pop-up factory, and plenty of hands-on tinkering, twisting, and tapping.

Creative director Emmy Parker says the big idea behind the festival is in the name of the instrument, to synthesize.

EMMY PARKER, Creative Director, Moogfest: We try to create a space where people have the opportunity, even though they’re surrounded by thousands of people here, where they have the opportunity to get lost inside their own minds. And the tools that they’re engaging with, in this case synthesizers, help them, assist them to kind of open new doors to new creative ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: All these gadgets, they may look like fun toys to unlock your inner geek. It’s really part of a revolution in sound that’s all around us, whether we know it or not.

Just one example: a sound you have heard a million times. Suzanne Ciani used a synth to create the famous pop and pour sound of Coke while working in the ad industry in the ’70s.

SUZANNE CIANI, Musician: They’re electronic bubbles. And they’re like the platonic idea of a Coke bottle opening. There’s some perfection there.

JEFFREY BROWN: I never heard that.

(LAUGHTER)

SUZANNE CIANI: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The platonic idea of Coke.

A classically trained pianist, in the 1960s, she started down the road that would make her a rock star in here at Moogfest, as a pioneering musician and composer of electronic music and sounds. This year, she was given the festival’s innovation award.

SUZANNE CIANI: My job was to just work intuitively with the knobs and the dials. So, it was a very friendly — it’s not scary. It’s just getting to know the machine as if it were a friend.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are having a conversation with the machine?

SUZANNE CIANI: Yes. There’s something to be said about all music being some translation of our languaging, our way of communicating. It’s a language. This is a new language.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ciani worked with Don Buchla, one of electronic music’s greatest inventors. Over the years, a wide variety of musicians have seen the potential for new sounds and effects through synthesizers.

Moogfest featured a range of current performers, indie rock band Animal Collective, dance music by 808 State, and the experimental soundscapes of Moor Mother.

Also appearing, the synth band Survive, which created the soundtrack for the hit Netflix drama “Stranger Things,” futuristic sounds matching the eerie tales of the show.

Band members Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon:

KYLE DIXON, Survive: One thing about the show that’s great is that we don’t have to describe what our music sounds like anymore.

MICHAEL STEIN, Survive: As the band, yes.

KYLE DIXON: Or we only have to use a couple of words and …

JEFFREY BROWN: Those words are?

KYLE DIXON: “Stranger Things.”

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Stranger Things,” and everybody kind of gets the sense of …

KYLE DIXON: Yes, you’re like, OK, OK. I get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

In the meantime, scientists and engineers keep coming up with new things for musicians to try.

Dave Rossum designed some of the modules, or components, on this synthesizer.

DAVE ROSSUM, Rossum Electro Music: These modules, we call them universal control voltage generators. That’s a very big batch of words, but, basically, it just means that they’re creating interesting electronic signals, so that we can make interesting notes.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Moogfest, you could build your own synthesizer, at least a simple model.

Comedian Hannibal Buress, who performed at the festival, decided he couldn’t miss this class.

HANNIBAL BURESS, Entertainer: Got to try to do that. That’s the most extreme thing you could do.

JEFFREY BROWN: For some of us, I think that’s right. So, how’s it going?

HANNIBAL BURESS: It was a little tough getting some of the components in initially, but we figured it out, and now we’re midway through. We’re in the soldering phase, which is something I have never done. I’m not a crafty dude. I don’t work with my hands like that. I can’t build a shelf. Or I haven’t done anything like it before, so I’m enjoying the experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: A view of the future was also on display here, including a demonstration of so-called machine learning to create new music.

Google’s Adam Roberts and Jesse Engel showed us A.I. Jam session, an artificial intelligence program that responds to the notes you play with something of its own creation, based on input and analysis of tens of thousands of existing melodies.

Is it now composing this music?

ADAM ROBERTS, Google: yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: yes?

ADAM ROBERTS: Yes, and so …

JEFFREY BROWN: Based on all the information you have fed it?

ADAM ROBERTS: There still was a human incredibly involved in creating that system, deciding what data to train it on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another experiment, called NSynth, is developed through a huge database of sounds of instruments and more, including animals, that form a so-called neural net. It allows merging two sounds to create a new one, even a trombone and a dog.

JESSE ENGEL, Google: We’re just creating the ability to explore and express ourselves in new ways using technology. We’re not just creating tools. We’re creating ways to make new tools as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Technology at the service of music and art.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.

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