Durational Sound Installations: Moogfest 2017

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Courtesy of the New York Times

Durational sound installations are site specific musical experiences that incorporate a temporal element to the performance. This implies that the performance lasts a relatively unorthodox amount of time, whether that means two minutes or four hours. “Installation” refers to the specificity of location. While durational installations may be recreated in more than one place, it is important that the artistic output develops a sort of spatial communication with the venue in which it occurs.

This year’s Moogfest featured three durational sound installations, taking place on each day of performances, that took place at the storefront of the American Underground in downtown Durham. Each installation lasted approximately four hours, and would be classified as aleatoric compositions—that is, the artists improvised the installation to a certain degree, leaving certain elements to indeterminate chance. Moor Mother began the sound installation lineup on Thursday, followed by The Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Friday.

These durational sound installations can be categorized by multiple overarching themes of the Moogfest experience—the future of creativity, techno-shamanism, and spatial sound. Creativity questions what it means and what it takes to create a sound installations, techno-shamanism includes what the audiences perception and reactions to the installation is, and spatial sound asks the audience what is occurring in the space between the performers and themselves.

Four hour sound installations are challenging for both the performer and the audience. In the case of aleatoric installations, the artist is asked to perform uncomposed music or noise for an extreme amount of time, which tests their patience, ability to focus, and ultimately creativity. It is as if the commissioner of the installation is challenging the artist to prove their maximum creative output set in time constraints. However, because of the experimental or avant-garde nature of such a performance, there is not necessarily a correct or incorrect way to execute such an experience.

On the other hand, audiences are being asked to give their attention and time to an artist for longer than they may be used to, often to listen to music that has never been played before, and will never be played again. The experience can be equal parts maddening and meditative, but regardless, it is a visceral experience unlike any other, and has a high demand on the body of the audience in a mental and auditory manner.

At Moogfest, each artist played with the PA system arranged in a way that maximized the effectiveness of the installation, and the ability for the sounds to consume the audience entirely. Four speakers were arranged in the corners of the room, facing towards the center, while the audience sat on the floor between the speakers—this arrangement recalled the early performances of the Philip Glass Ensemble, which were also known to drive people a little mad at times.

Moor Mother began her set kneeling at her table of electronics, letting her dreadlocks shroud her face as she composed sparse loops that gradually crescendoed into a wall of sound. In fairly short order, she began screaming into her microphone, nearly inaudibly because of the higher frequencies of the noises she was looping. While her words remained elusive throughout the entirety of the installation, it can be inferred from what was heard and from her discography that her words dealt highly with afro-futurism (another theme from Moogfest this year), and delved into what some may deem “black existentialism,” or the black experience in the United States, particularly at the current moment. Granted, this was within the first half hour of the installation, so the physical restraints of the human voice prohibited her for continuing her vocal musings for very long, especially because of the volume in which she began. By the last hour, the walls of sound descended into a state of cacophonic harsh noise that possessed a meditative quality that reflected a state of reluctant acceptance and tiredness—both with society and the four hour installation.

The Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner offered a different experience entirely, that was far more maddening and anxiety ridden, partially because of the nature of the Haxan Cloak’s music—he has stated that he attempts to create soundscapes that capture moments of death, and they certainly are filled with dread. Personally, his music often makes me feel as if I am descending into the depths of the infamous Mariana Trench. Haxan began while Nick Zinner calibrated his variety of effects pedal for his guitar, creating loops that were far more percussive than Moor Mother’s beginning loops. The loops (and speakers) were so powerful that I perceived my heart rate to be adjusting the beat of the composition. While Moor Mother’s themes and aesthetic intentions were clear and captivating, the same cannot be said for the Haxan Cloak’s eerie creation. While beautiful in its own right, it seemed to lull the audience into a state of purgatory of consciousness. In other words, that awfully funny feeling directly following a nap you did not mean to take.

While both sets of performers maintained a similarly incredible level of focus for each installation, the audience members reacted and received the performances in a variety of ways. Some meditated, some even slept on the floor. People came and went, and very few people remained for the entire duration of the installations. I did recognize one man there both days, who stayed for the entirety of both sound installations to meditate against the wall.

The durational sound installations of Moogfest this year provided an artistic medium to explore electronic music’s themes more in a more in depth fashion that invoked questions about current creative practices and performances, the audience’s role and perception as a member of an artistic installation, and to consider what is occurring in the space between performer and audience.

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