Dispatch: Asheville Electro-Music 2016

Experimental electronic musicians convene in the mountains of North Carolina
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Above: ambient musician Paul Vnuk delivers cascading electronic loops assembled live onstage at the Asheville Electro-Music Festival.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a hotbed of electronic musical activity, in part because Bob Moog loved the area and settled there in the late 1970s. Along with Moog Music, Asheville is now home to the Bob Moog Foundation and modular synth manufacturer Make Noise. It has hosted three Moogfests and the virtually identical Mountain Oasis Festival, which between them have staged the likes of Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails, Keith Emerson, Moby, Thomas Dolby, Giorgio Moroder, Massive Attack, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Brian Eno. For the past four years, however, Asheville has also been home to another musical event on a smaller scale: the Asheville Electro-Music Festival. Although performers travel from all over the world to attend and play at Asheville Electro-Music, most of them are acts you’re much less likely to have heard of unless you’re tuned in to the online community at Electro-Music.com.

Asheville Electro-Music is an offshoot of the annual Electro-Music Festival taking place every autumn in Huguenot, New York. It is the brainchild of Greg Waltzer, an organizer of the New York-based festival who moved to Asheville in 2011. The North Carolina-based festival is an effort spearheaded by Waltzer and his wife, Hong, who took responsibility for many of the animated projections that accompany the performers, alongside video artists Michael O’Bannon and Joe Howard. Every year, all the performers not only play for free, but they also cover all their own costs for attending the two-day event.

This year’s festival took place at White Horse Black Mountain, a popular music venue in the Asheville suburb of Black Mountain, on the afternoons and evenings of May 6 and 7. Friday afternoon began with a history lesson from the Bob Moog Foundation’s Marc Doty, who spoke about underrated instrument designer Harald Bode. As the day stretched on, each of a dozen acts had half an hour to make their best impressions on the audience. Highlights of the evening included Paul Harriman, who makes the trek annually from the U.K. to perform his environmental soundscapes on the Eiganharp Alpha, and Syracuse-based synthesist Robert Dorschel, whose laid-back grooves combine impressive skill, humor, and showmanship.

A performance by my quartet Waveformation was very well received, too. We describe our music as post-ambient multidimensional polymorphic expressionism, and we’re probably the only band on Earth with three Haken Continuum players. The night’s standout performance, however, may have been the one by synthesist Michael Peck, whose emotionally dark and brooding electronic compositions were distinguished by disturbing imagery and escalating intensity.

As on Friday, Saturday’s performances ran from 2:00 in the afternoon until nearly midnight. Honors for the afternoon’s best set go to Paul Vnuk, Jr., Recording magazine’s technical editor, whose music combined analog synthesis, acoustic and electronic percussion, and live looping. Perhaps the most accomplished band at the festival was Spacecraft, a Nashville-based ambient music trio with a sizable back catalog, who contributed to the soundtrack for the 2001 film Vanilla Sky. For the second year in a row, electronic storyteller Joe Belknap Wall regaled the crowd with a weird and humorous tale accompanied by a live soundtrack performed on his iPad. The musician who really brought down the house, though, was Atlanta-based Kevin Spears, whose virtuoso performance on the electric kalimba supplemented his improvised loops and grooves.

As always, all of Asheville Electro-Music’s participants had a terrific time, enjoying one another’s music along with the rest of the audience. The event also gave them an opportunity to relish their collective camaraderie, catch up with old friendships, and show off whatever gear they’ve acquired. This year saw a growing number of alternate controllers such as the LinnStrument and Roli Seaboard, and you could scarcely throw a rock without hitting a Moog Voyager. Plans are already underway for next year’s Asheville Electro-Music Festival, but in the meantime, the city looks forward to hosting the first international Haken Continuum conference, ContinuuCon, which will take place on June 9–11.