When RVNG Intl.'s Matt Werth trekked down to Moogfest in May of 2016, one of his main takeaways was the event's open antagonism to an oppressive legislative bill. A couple of months prior, the North Carolina state congress signed House Bill 2—a notorious law that hindered the ability of trans people to use bathrooms in public places.
Many touring musicians decided to boycott the state as means of protest, but Moogfest took a different tact. In defiance of the law, they provided gender-neutral bathrooms at all festival venues. They also foregrounded the issue with a campaign called "Synthesize Love," which included registering voters on-site, and selling T-shirts to raise money for organizations fighting HB2.
A year later, as Werth and I sit in the lobby of an ornate Presbyterian Church that plays host to some of the festival's sets, the political context is a little different. In January, the state changed governors, and many of the bill's provisions were formally repealed. But HB2's replacement bill is seen as a dangerous compromise by local activists—and on a national level, a new president is pushing even more legislation that disproportionately affects marginalized people.
For these reasons, when Werth was asked to be involved with soundtracking a late-night space at Moogfest 2017, he knew he had to do something with a purpose. "[The battle against HB2] was so visual here," Werth remembers. "Moogfest was in the middle of that."
What emerged was a compilation called Peaceful Protest, a nearly four-hour suite of formless music by six artists from the extended RVNG family: Baltra, C. Lavender, Kate NV, Zach Cooper, Raica, and You're Me. The works are longform and wordless, deliberately meditative and abstract—flush with digital marimbas, slowly plucked guitars, and long washes of static.
Werth and his RVNG compatriot Phil Tortoroli also teamed up with some artists and designers to put together a limited physical release (which remains for sale at their retail space on Manhattan's Lower East Side Commend, and Bandcamp), with proceeds going to the LGBTQ Center of Durham.
On the first night of the festival, the compilation played loudly in an old movie theater that functioned as one of the events major hubs. Projected on the screen was the cover of the compilation, its lone words "Peaceful Protest" reverberating as loudly through the theater as the soundtrack's weighty guitar drones.
The following day, we chatted with Werth and Tortoroli about the message behind the compilation, the political potential of ambient music, and how RVNG is trying to turn Commend into a space for social good.
THUMP: How did this compilation first come together?
Matt Werth: Lorna[-Rose Simpson], who's the programming director of Moogfest asked us to put something in the Carolina Theater. That was the very basic prompt that led us to think about how we could elevate the programming.
It was for meditation, right?
Werth: Kind of. It was really nebulous. It was to reflect the possibilities of the room. So we defined it for ourselves. So that's why asking six artists to create work that could be used in that capacity became the definition. Speaking from my experience last year the HB2 referendum that was in place was such a hot button… it was so visual here. Moogfest was in the middle of that.
They had signs on all the bathrooms saying they were gender neutral, right?
Werth: Totally. [The law] has since been repealed, but there are new laws taking its place that compromise gender equality. It's unfortunately cyclical. [The compilation] seemed like a good opportunity to use that space within Moogfest to protest that in a peaceful kind of way.
Was that something you talked about with artists about before they made the music?
Phil Tortoroli: Not every artist. We talked about the space that the music would be played in, and that was a frame for a lot of the artists as they started the composition. From that launchpad, Matt and I discussed further about how we could use the platform for issues that are affecting North Carolina.
Plus, how we could use this platform to align with some of our own initiatives at RVNG and Commend, which are toward social progression. So that developed into thinking about the opportunity to create something physical that we can then sell and use as a way to talk about these issues and give back to a center that's affected by and fighting it.
Do you feel like there's a way that instrumental music can reflect those sorts of things?
Tortoroli: Yeah. Instrumental music will have an effect on people. Personally, it's very calming. There's obviously more aggressive stuff, but even that can be a way of helping facilitate some form of meditation. I think that when you're in those more calm states you can think more rationally about those sorts of issues.
Werth: That possibility of reflection is in instrumental music. But the message within that reflection is also yours to decide. I also think instrumental music has way more collective possibility. You're not tied to one direct message. You're not all singing along to the same lyrics. With this context—and maybe it needs context—you can be on the same page but thinking differently about the same ideas.
The way the compilation premiered last night, with the cover projected in front of the theater, speaks to that I think. It leads people in a certain way. Was that something you thought about?
Werth: It's not totally defining, but it's an indication. It's a signpost.
Tortoroli: It's about giving yourself to the opportunity to reflect, while you're sitting and listening…"What am I protesting?"
"If you're going to link ambient music to politics, I hope it's more active than passive."—Matt Werth
You mentioned the political and social things tied into RVNG and Commend overall, what are those?
Tortoroli: We're leading Commend, our retail space on the Lower East Side, toward using that space for workshops, learning centers and community events. We're starting this initiative called Come! Mend!.
We did a town hall meeting about repealing the Cabaret Law. We're doing one at the end of this month about artist visas and immigrant visas. We're doing another that will deal with ICE and how to handle your rights if you're an undocumented worker. We're doing a workshop in June about fire safety.
We're starting to use Commend as a way of leading our community to more socially aware, socially progressive initiatives—teaching, bringing people together. Hopefully the network can spread that way. New York City is a bubble, and the music scene is a bubble, and the creative scene is a bubble. How do we work with people who are outside of that?
Is that something that's always been in the vision of what you started?
Werth: Not necessarily. We're certainly looking more at Commend as a community space than a retail space—less as a transactional possibility and more as an exchange.
There aren't a lot of spaces in New York like that.
Werth: Because New York is really expensive. It's hard to pay rent based on those principles. We have a really unique situation. We're in a co-op building, so they invited us to be there. Even though there was a barber shop before us, it's part of our responsibility to act toward our collective potential.
The political agenda...I can look back and say it's not part of the RVNG universe so heavily. It's always understated, but there was obviously a real need to shift and be more vocal and expressive about that.
Meaning with the election?
Werth: Exactly. It was catalytic for sure. I don't know if it was the moment. But it was a breaking point for sure. I think there was an instant, a sudden moment the next day. There was a group surge. A big "what the fuck?" moment where we all like, "What can we do?"
There had been community events at Commend and we'd done our part to advocate in different capacities, but maybe more in a holistic, spiritual kind of sense, rather than directly political.
Tortoroli: Part of that goal was always to make Commend into more of a community space. So we were already thinking about how we could make it a space that's for everyone and not just for retail. When the election happened it was like, "we have to do this now."
After the election, I found myself aggressively seeking music like what's on this compilation. How are ambient music and politics connected for you if at all?
Tortoroli: For me the genre doesn't matter, it's all about the intention behind it. [Since the election], I've been listening to more hip-hop than anything.
Werth: Yeah it's hopefully not genre-specific. Obviously, we've released a lot of kinda formless music. If you're going to link ambient music to politics, I hope it's more active than passive.
There's that kind of collective conscious that happens around lyricless music. I don't think you get that in other kinds of music. You can see it throughout history, devotional music has always had a formless or cyclical, mantra-esque feel. There's a power from that, you know?