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Musicians orbiting the local electro music scene are going to send a Black Mountain music room into deep space May 4-5

For the third year running, the Asheville Electro-Music Festival will be held in Black Mountain, at White Horse Black Mountain on Friday-Saturday, May 4-5 (tickets are $15 per day, $25 for both days). More than two dozen musicians exploring the limits of electronically generated sound will test new ideas on instruments and software, some of which didn’t exist a few years ago.

A lot of what’s called electro music falls in the groove, ambient, trance, fusion, tribal and “space” music categories. But a lot of it doesn’t. As a genre, electro music is hard to pin down because so many musicians do so many different things with it. It’s in film scores, TV commercials and on spots all over the Internet. Live, it’s so improvisatory that what you’d call it really depends on the how the performer is feeling that night.

“It’s hard to nail down, this music,” festival organizer Greg Waltzer said last week. “Some of it you can try to describe, but even when you do, there’s no guarantee that the artist will do it that way this time. They may use this opportunity to stretch out a bit. There’s never been a definition for what we do.”

Waltzer, an Asheville resident, started the festival 12 years ago in Philadelphia before it moved to upstate New York. He left Philadelphia in 2010 “because my wife wasn’t happy with the weather in Pennsylvania” and moved to Asheville, a place they concluded would be a good place to live.

Asheville has a rich history in electronic music. It hosted the first three Moogfests, as well as the now-defunct Mountain Oasis Festival. Appearing at both festivals were synth-heavy bands such as Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails, Brian Eno and Massive Attack.

“A lot of people think of Asheville as being a mecca for electronic music because of (Moog synthesizer inventor and now-deceased Asheville resident) Bob Moog. We’re trying to do our own thing (with the festival), but this is a good place to do it.”

Moogfest and Mountain Oasis were coincidental to why Waltzer moved here. Nonetheless, he recognized a market for the music and missed staging a festival, so much so that he started one here in 2012, held in Asheville’s Masonic Temple. He had it there for four years before moving it to White Horse Black Mountain three years ago.  

As a regional event, the Asheville Electro-Music Festival and its predecessor grew out of the online community at electro-music.com, a site where musicians talk about and collaborate on music and gear. Members – Waltzer estimates there are tens of thousands of them – seek help with technical and musical problems and peruse an extensive list of archived articles. On the website they can post music, sell instruments, write reviews, stream sound, trade patches and get help building their own synthesizers.

Several of the websites followers wanted to get together and share their music, inspiring Waltzer to create the festival in Philadelphia. Then as now, “we’re all attracted to unusual, experimental, electric and noncommercial music,” he said. “We love music technology, and we love innovative ways to make music, especially electronically.”

Like the performers in Black Mountain next weekend, the website devotees tend to share “a fierce independence and love for doing it your own way,” Waltzer said, “rather than feed the norms of the music industry.”

Music synthesizers like those you can upload to your phone have come full circle. When Moog was making his first ones, all synthesizers were analog, using circuits to create sounds and made popular by bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. During the 1980s, digital synthesizers were the thing because, like computers (which they essentially are), they were easy to use. Bands such as Talking Heads and Hall & Oates worked digitally synthesized sounds into their music. Now synth acts like Daft Punk and Xeno & Oaklander have warmed to the analog sound, which many musicians prefer for its infinite malleability and retro sound.

“Part of it is nostalgia for the old days,” Waltzer said, “but part of it is having a different way of thinking about music and being self-directed and (making the sounds of) different instruments that people have played for years.”

Composers use synthesizers of all stripes to produce music for film and TV, as well as commercials and Internet spots. Nearly any sound that occurs naturally in the world, whether by chance or instrument, can be simulated by a synth. Producers use synthesizers because they’re far less expensive and temperamental than orchestras and ensembles.

The two-day event at White Horse will feature 14 artists or ensembles each day. About half are from the area and the rest are from all over the U.S. (the event has featured international musicians in the past). The musicians pay their way to the festival. This isn’t a money-making operation, Waltzer said. Everyone there is there because they love the music.

In keeping with the cooperative nature of electro music, no one coming to the festival is considered the headliner, Waltzer said (the list of performers on the festival website was set randomly, he said). Many of the musicians are well known in their regions, including those from the Black Mountain-Asheville area, he said.

Each presentation will be about 25 minutes long, so if someone doesn’t care for what they’re hearing, they can be assured that something new is coming up soon, Waltzer said.

"What makes (the festival) really unique," said Asheville performer Chris Stack, " is that the musicians are really performing for the other musicians, so they're really bringing their best. There's a very real sense of camaraderie, with lots of opportunities to mingle with the musicians who are very open and willing to share insights about their craft."

Many of the festival attendees will likely make the trek to the Moog Music factory in Asheville to watch the synthesizers being put together (visit moogmusic.com for tour hours). Waltzer and others used to organizer tours, but too many of the festival-goers have been to the factory to make putting a tour together worthwhile, he said.

“Certainly Bob Moog has been a huge influence on almost everyone” who comes to the Asheville Electro-Music Festival, Waltzer said, “both in terms of his inventions but also his spirit.”

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