On Moogfest, creativity and making things without fear
I just got back from my third Moogfest, the North Carolina-based festival that celebrates synthesizer engineer Dr. Robert Moog, and the future of creativity and technology. Each year, I use it as a kind of creative reset. I use it as a chance to reflect on the work of creating and exchange ideas with other makers. The most vital part of the event for me has been the daytime workshops, which are small classes with professors and practitioners in music and technology. That means everything from interactive discussions to make-and-take practicals. I use these sessions to workshop areas of coding and engineering where I want to grow, and this year especially, to consider how to compose original music to score for my audio documentary work and in client creative needs.
A few of my favorite workshops from the past few years:
- A hands-on demonstration with Mini-Oramics, an obscure drawn-sound synthesizer invented by often overlooked British sound pioneer Daphne Oram in the late 1950s.
- Composing with EarSketch, using Python to code music; led by a team from Georgia Tech.
- Building a working 8-bit synthesizer with a breadboard.
- Unpacking imposter syndrome with techno DJ Noncompliant, aka Indianapolis’s Lisa Smith. More on this in a moment…
Over the years, one of my simultaneously favorite and least favorite features of the festival is the “Modular Marketplace.” That’s where manufacturers and sometimes even inventors themselves welcome visitors into a playground of synthesizers, sound effects and myriad other gadgetry. After years in civic IT, this room could be a perfect analogy for what it’s like to walk into a male-dominated tech environment. Everyone is having a great time and, I assume, is clearly an expert. And, the gender makeup is not always, on first glance, particularly diverse. It’s only after a little time in there when you realize we’re all muddling through these knobs and patch cables together, more or less. The problem is, it’s not always easy to spend time in there – metaphorically or not.
When creativity meets gatekeeping
After soaking in the chaotic but somehow symphonic overall effect of all those machines being played at once, I noticed a demonstration display featuring a synth theremin. You know the spooky, high pitched wavering tone in Good Vibrations? That’s a type of theremin. Now imagine that tone replaced by hundreds of electronic sounds, from chunky buzztones to shimmering swatches. It’s pretty cool! The theremin is incredibly fun to play: you shape your sounds midair, in proximity to pitch and volume controls. I didn’t know how to play it at first. And anyone watching me could tell. One did. He was trying to help, I know, but when he grabbed the instrument to demonstrate how it’s really played, I seized up, and decided to leave. It’s been documented scientifically that anxiety and stress can freeze your brain – including the parts that control movement! Without the freedom to try – and fail – what was the point? How would I fare on another device with more controls and settings?
I took a walk in the fresh air. I recalled every instance I’ve had a mouse grabbed from my hands, or insider jargon I didn’t know used to describe something I did know about. I went back. Later that weekend, I brought home a theremin. I’m no expert, but I enjoy what it brings to my musical repertoire. And, I’ve broken it out at family parties where people of all ages and abilities have had a chance to enjoy it.
Just make something.
So, back to this year’s talk with Noncompliant. It formed both a basis for the rest of my weekend, and as I head into the rest of the year. A group of us gathered in a space above the 21c Hotel galleries to talk about how we make things, why we make things, and what can stand in our way. Smith started the session – called ‘The Fine Art of Not Knowing What You’re Doing and How to Apply It‘ – by admitting that even hosting the talk required a moment of self-coaching. What did she have to share, she wondered?
And then she unpacked her own career steps, traveling where others were DJing far from home, watching them patiently and learning. It was conversational and interactive. I listened intently as members of the audience recounted counterproductive “gatekeeping” in their respective creative communities, often in male-dominated creative spaces: comedy, music, technology. Smith, inspired, laid down one simple rule that recalled my theremin story: ‘Men: do not grab the mouse out of someone’s hand. Ever!’
The conversation flowed to strategies for establishing a creative practice: committing to write, produce or practice. Just… make… something. Smith described evenings coming home from her IT day job, slogging through an uninspired evening and realizing the next day she’s produced something good. I think we can all relate to this aspect of creativity.
And, she urged us to remember that as we go on to succeed, never ‘pull up the ladder‘ behind you, and support those beginning their own paths.
What would you do if you were not afraid?
Smith asked us to consider. This was the question of the day for me. Whether it’s a leap past a ‘gatekeeper’ or a gate of my own making, I walked out of the talk refreshed. In the elevator on the way down, a group of us continued the conversation, including a woman who was transitioning to electronic music production and doubting her own ability to debut in her hometown performance scene. I excitedly told her about my early days entering into the performance space in an already long-established field.
In environments where gatekeeping is part of the culture, it can be impossible to say, “I don’t know.” This week, Wired Magazine wrote about how social media management has been associated with the idea of “pink collar jobs;” in other words, “women’s work,” largely due to the emotional intelligence – and sometimes emotional labor – often required to excel at it. I tweeted this thread about my observations as a social media strategist, and what can happen when we silo social media’s potential based on these preconceptions.
Every great discovery, every great creation in human history, has been a result of the ability to say “I don’t know.” That sentence doesn’t negate anyone’s expertise. It doesn’t erase your awards or articles. If the things we make are in service to the people around us – whether it’s creating better engagement systems with community organizations, helping a musical production become more emotionally resonant, or something else – that’s who benefits the most. When gatekeeping and “pink collar” diminishing of digital creative work is the mode, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t always feel possible. But “I don’t know” simply means, “What’s next?”
OK, so what’s next?
Today, I’m giving myself the patience and space to try, especially as I work to grow as a digital music producer. I’ve given myself permission to fail, and the willingness to release others when I encounter ‘gatekeeping’ that really represents them, not me. This doesn’t solve institutional inequity. But if you’ve ever struggled to get eye contact in a tech or music store environment, you’ll know what I mean.
As I head into the summer, here’s what I’m thinking about:
- Start now. Establish a practice. As I said in the elevator, every performer you know had their first show once. Turn “I could make that” musing into “I did.”
- Help each other out. I’m proud to be listed in this new directory of women in tech policy. Add yourself and help diversify voices in tech policy media!
- Help expand horizons in your community and beyond. Support local organizations who are dedicated to creating pathways to equity.
When everyone is allowed to try, and fail, and then succeed, that’s when the things we make are the things we need. We can pretend together, or we can make something real together. You know what to do.