The Megapolis Audio Festival is the traveling circus of festivals; it pops up in a different city every year, attracting sound nerds from near and far for a weekend filled with curiosities. This year, downtown Oakland played host to the celebration of the art of sound, and Fusion dropped in on sessions devoted to reclaiming a musical technology on the endangered species list and to playing sounds directly from the brain.
On Saturday, a dozen sets of eager ears gathered around a table filled with transistors and bits of wire, listening to instructions on how to use the soldering irons before them. Moldover, a local artist and musician, was teaching them how to make a CD relevant in our modern age, transforming the case into a functioning theremin, an electronic instrument first patented in 1928 that relies on antennas to make music. He says the idea came from receiving the ‘coolest business card ever’ — a functioning circuit board — from a friend a few years ago. So, for his last album, he designed a circuit board CD case in which the circuitry spells out the track listings; with the addition of a few buttons and light sensors, it became its own musical instrument. For those whose brains were left scrambled by that description, here’s a video of Moldover explaining and demonstrating his CD-box-based instrument:
Now he’s teaching the skills he learned to others in hopes of demystifying the art of making noise. “We think of it as voodoo, but when you learn some soldering or coding, it’s like, oh yeah this is not alien, it’s really no big deal,” he said.
The festival, examining ‘the sonic landscape of the sprawling urban environment’ was itself spread across several different downtown Oakland venues and offered a veritable feast for the ears. The Stork Club on Telegraph hosted a performance by a band called Enchephalophone, where the melody was played by the brainwaves of neuroscientist Thomas Deuel, via a mad-scientist-looking hat which translates electrical output into musical notes.
That was followed by a live podcast from Here Be Monsters, investigating the body-shaking infrasonic frequency range. “The range of hearing tones varies per person and also varies over the course of our lives,” Jeff Emtman explained to the crowd. “It’s not that we can’t perceive infrasounds. It’s just that they are weirder, more difficult, a little more complex.”
That might as well have been an explanation of the content of the festival altogether: delightfully weird.
Megapolis seemed to attract the curious from every corner of the country. I talked to people from Austin, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles all of whom seemed to find out about the festival by the oldest audio technology of them all: word of mouth.
Todd Whitney, didn’t have to travel far from his desk at KALW, where he works as a reporter and producer on Crosscurrents, to participate in one of the workshops. “Building stuff with my hands always kind of stressed me out,” he said as he put the finishing touches on his new custom FM transmitter. “We think this stuff just floats in the air, but there really is infrastructure that’s necessary to make it happen.”
The build was led by two Megapolis veterans, Brett Balogh and Hethre Contant. Here from Australia, Contant is a PhD candidate at University of New South Wales in media arts. She first learned about the festival in 2009 on a school message board, road-tripping with classmates to the first festival in Cambridge that year, and has been involved in one way or another ever since.
What attracted her to study radio arts? “It was just my calling” she says with a smirk, her fiery orange hair braided back in a loop de loop atop her head by Braidio host Veronica Simmonds, another presenter at the festival who braids guests hair as she interviews them live on air. Contant says audio is an effective way to build communities. Looking around the table at a group of smiling faces who were strangers just a few hours ago, I can’t help but agree.
As we look for ways to rest our weary screen-burned eyes, audio feels like a natural secondary mode of consumption. While Megopolis and the community it has built might pride itself on existing at the fringe, the art presented this weekend is already very much a part of our everyday sound scape; in fact, it some cases it is the art creating that soundscape. Because our culture is obsessed with the visual, these magicians are heard and rarely seen, keeping them out of the spotlight, which for the moment, seems perfectly fine with them.