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festivals 2016

What's It Like to Be the Sound Guys at the Longest and Headiest Sound Experiments of Moogfest?

Moogfest hosted a daily series of four hour performances called Durational Sound Installations, and somebody had to do sound the whole dang time.

Sound guys John Crawford, left, and Dennis Huston, right / Photo by the author

Moogfest, as anyone will be quick to tell you, is not like other music festivals. Besides all the accessible, cool pop-leaning music, there is also a far more conceptual component, and I found myself fascinated in particular by a series of daily performances called Durational Sound Installations. Each day, an artist would play for four hours in a hotel ballroom as a sort of human art exhibit, a performative examination of sound as an artform, an exploration between biological anatomy and synthetic machine, etc. Like I said: Conceptual, nerdy stuff. It was awesome.


On Thursday, Greg Fox kicked it off by drumming (with accompaniment from other musicians playing synthesizers) for four hours, while Friday found Erika Anderson of EMA and Jana Hunter of Lower Dens tweaking effects pedals and playing with an ensemble to create a four-hour ambient soundscape. Saturday the producer Richard Devine put together an electronic set, while Sunday early analog synth composer Suzanne Ciani played around with classic synthesizers and answered audience questions about the technology. Each artist offered a slightly different interpretation of duration—Ciani observed that one approach could be to just put a synth patch on for four hours and walk away, which she did for brief periods—but all stuck it out for four hours. In the same room, ambient musician Robert Rich hosted one of his renowned Sleep Concerts, an eight-hour overnight performance during which the audience is, as the name suggests, sleeping.

I caught different portions of three of the Durational Sound Installations, staying during the longest stretch for a little over two hours of EMA and Jana Hunter. During that time, I noticed people would wander in and out, lying on the floor and soaking up the music or sitting in chairs, but generally staying for an average of about 20 minutes. It seemed to me that the only people really appreciating all of these performances as full installations were the production crew. I wanted to know if they had gotten something out of it that the rest of us hadn't, or, conversely, if they were used to working pop concerts and had spent the whole time bored out of their minds, wondering how they got stuck in the sleep room. I tracked down John Crawford, the stage manager, and Dennis Huston, the front-of-house lead, at the end of the weekend. Crawford has a background in doing sound at bluegrass festivals and now teaches English literature at the University of South Carolina. Huston is a Moogfest regular and audio engineer from Chicago who also plays in a rock band called The Sea Empty.


“I reached out to [Moogfest production head Sean Sullivan], and he and I had a conversation that started around the premise of: 'I don't want to be the guy who falls asleep at the mixing board,'” Huston quipped to me. “So in an ironic twist, he ended up giving me the sleep concert.”

Setup for Robert Rich's Sleep Concert / Photo by Ryan Sides, courtesy of Moogfest

Noisey: Had you ever done sound for something like this? Or was that a new experience?
Dennis Huston: I'm a deep listener, someone who, over the course of my life, I keep my ears open because I can't shut 'em. But as far as these durationals, I don't know if anybody has, unless you're kind of a free jazz or experimental auteur. Because they're hard. On the other hand, there are durational events in things like theater in orchestra. The people who came and slept for eight hours slept for eight hours. But on the other side, it's active listening. Robert Rich has a great sense of humor about it. He knows what he's doing. He's been doing it for years, and people crave this experience because they don't get it. Where would you get this experience? We made jokes about it and kept our hearts light throughout the night, me and the guy recording and the volunteers and Robert. There were funny moments. Like at 5:30 in the morning—nobody anticipated this, but we should have—there was a timer on the lights. They all popped on. I had to dash to the back of the room in my socks and hit the lights. And then everybody just rolls back asleep.


So the sleep concert really worked. What was it like musically?
It was kind of like listening to Thursday afternoon for eight hours. You're in this bubble, and the bubble is the room. People could come and go to go to the bathroom or whatever, but when you were in you were in. We had room mics up all weekend, and we were taking those tracks into the board, and we were joking that instead of applause it would be snoring. And it turned out it was. Not long into it at all. Robert's so cool. He has a background in physiology, and he knows what he's doing. He's trying to affect people in a way that changes the way they perceive what this function of life is, sleep.

What was it like doing the four-hour ones in the afternoons? How would you characterize the different experiences?
They were great. They were absolutely different from Robert's thing. Robert was going specifically for a goal, whereas they were doing a durational thing. Each of them understood this very differently. Like, Greg Fox, you started him at two, he was done at six, and the guy was like sprinting for four hours on the drums. At the end of it he was joking that he should have put in his rider to have someone spoon feed him. They literally should have been spoon feeding him: He would have kept going for another four, I'm convinced. He was a machine. Richard Devine / Photo by B Saren, courtesy of Moogfest

EMA was kind of the same thing, as far as going the whole time. I think Jana could walk offstage, and so could Erika, but they didn't really. And it was similar with Richard Devine. He was great. He was a little nervous, I think about it, like “what do I do with four hours, and should I take a break?” We had sat through the other ones, and they were four hours long. We were like “you can do whatever you want.” And Richard, he got into it. You could tell by like hour three that it's not going to stop. He could take a break, but he's not stopping. I think it gave them room to do something with waves that they don't often get a chance to do in front of audiences. I listened to the artists ahead of time, especially Richard, and it is headspace. And people like to go there, and they can on recorded media. But to actually go and sit in a durational and expand for four hours with the artist is pretty invigorating, pretty cathartic.


And by the time we got to Suzanne: First of all, what a powerhouse! She was so musical with what she did. She's a pro. Other people are young on the technology; she is a master. Don Buchla—at the last Moogfest he actually walked into the room at the Moog Marketplace while I was there, and people freaked out—Suzanne is of that group, the old guard. And her musical aesthetic: I knew the sound from just being in the world and hearing it, but it really impressed me. During the first break we had, I went out and bought a Mother-32 (Moog tabletop synthesizer) because I was so inspired. And then she went into discussion about the 32 and how to use it!

A lot of people seemed to cycle in and out of these things, and it struck me that the only people who were really getting the full form of the art were you guys, the sound guys.
John Crawford: I thought about it from two different perspectives. I do work strictly on schedules and sets instead of doing “well here's four hours, we'll just go and come out the other end and see what happens.” So I had to feel it out in terms of who the artist was. Like Greg Fox, for example, he really wanted to play for four hours, whether that be for contractual reasons or artistic reasons where he just wanted to get in there and start playing and see where it went and see what happened when he came out of it.

Oddly enough, I think one of the only people we had, audience-wise, who stayed a full four hours was during his set. And it was an older woman, probably in her early 60s, that just kind of camped out in a chair and committed to it, and she stayed and had a blast and loved it. Of all the ones we had, that was a weird one for somebody to pick. And for me, kind of not understanding the scene, for that to be the person to go “yeah, this is the one for me,” to really do the marathon listening.


Moogfest exhibit on Don Buchla's synthesizers / Photo by Todd Turner, courtesy of Moogfest

But as a sound guy, my favorite one was Suzanne's yesterday, primarily because of the setup of it (in quad sound). Physically it was a completely different kind of situation, rather than just shooting sound across a room and there's people over there and it hits them and they get it and then they leave. It was about creating a space. And a lot of the work I do as a literature professor is on space, like physical space and then imaginary space in narrative.

So this was right up your alley.
Yeah, it was a thing I just kind of stumbled into, where she's thinking about kind of a physical experience and an artistic experience. It was very cool for me because I actually spent a lot of time wandering around during the shows in the room. A lot of times Dennis was mixing and I was just kind of doing logistics stuff. So I would sit down and read or make notes about my own work.

Especially during Suzanne's set, I would kind of think about how she was trying to spend four hours putting people in a space, and how that, theory-wise, from my end, how that works and if she's being successful. Not like if she's failing as an artist, but if the spatial setup is actually going to work. What is she trying to do? What is she trying to communicate? And I think in terms of putting people in a space, trying to get information from where she is physically to where they are physically—or from where she is mentally to where they are mentally—if that's actually a thing that's working.


With stereo sound there's a left and a right, and somewhere in front of it there's a perfect center that is a person. That person experiences that left and right naturally, the way they experience the apprehension of sound in the real world. And it's kind of a false theory because even if you're standing in a perfect center space, that really takes into account one person. If you add a second person, that setup no longer exists anymore. Even if they're two feet to the right of that center space, they've already completely changed the way that sound setup is designed to work. And in a quad setup, especially once you add 80-something people in the room, you now have 80 positions that are in no way associated to the perfect center of that setup, the ideal position for listening.

That was what was interesting to me, was how she deals with that and the realization that even though it's designed to do that you can never technically do it. We can't all just fold into each other and be at this one perfect spot in the middle. You're always failing at the process just because space is like, screw you. So that was my big thing with hers, is how those physical problems translate into the goal of transmitting a message to people.

Photo by Eric Waters, courtesy of Moogfest

I was thinking about that a bit, too. During the EMA one I moved around the room a bit, and I noticed that the performers would sometimes step off the stage and watch, almost as if these sounds they were creating were something outside their control to observe and study.
Yeah, and getting back to your first question about what it was like to witness the full four-hour process, I began to think about it also in terms of the things that were going on upstairs, the little installations. It did kind of follow that path because, like you said, folks would just kind of come in for 20 minutes and just kind of be there, and there was no start and no finish. They didn't walk in at the beginning of a song, necessarily, and go, “OK, I heard two songs and that's enough for me.”

They may have walked in eight minutes and 27 seconds into some idea that Erika of EMA had and walked out 13 minutes later, which, temporally, in terms of the song, makes no sense whatsoever. They just got a little slice of something, and they experienced it how they wanted to, and then they were done with it. Which is a lot like walking into those rooms upstairs and seeing somebody do something or touching some buttons and going “OK, yeah, that's what I needed, and now I'm done.”

And then for the four hour listeners—the one—it's interesting to wonder whether she got a more authentic or intentional experience with the process than somebody who maybe even only spent five minutes in there. It's interesting to think about what happens in five minutes versus what happens in four hours. Is there any difference in quality? Which is not to downplay the idea that doing something for four hours isn't an amazing and interesting thing, but I don't know that it's necessarily mandatory for all the listeners or all the players even.