Megapolis Festival Celebrates the East Bay's Sonic Boom 

A three-day audio festival unites artists, musicians, and podcasters for interactive events in Oakland dedicated to creative experiment with sound.

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At 2 a.m. one night in the spring of 2009, Nick van der Kolk and about eight other people snuck into an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Boston. The group wandered around the eerie facility while van der Kolk played recordings of taped interviews he had conducted with former psychiatrists who had worked at the institution.

The surreal listening tour was one of many interactive events of the inaugural Megapolis Audio Festival in 2009, which featured workshops, performances, and installations all rooted in sound. Van der Kolk, who co-founded the festival and now hosts the popular podcast Love + Radio, said the organizers wanted to put on similar events that blend audio work and storytelling in innovative ways. "We thought it would make sense to get people talking across various sound disciplines," he said.

Megapolis, now in its fourth incarnation, is coming to Oakland and San Francisco this week with more than twenty events and performances designed to connect radio producers, documentary filmmakers, performance and visual artists, musicians, and academics. All the events are, in some way, tied to creative uses of audio technology. After previous festivals on the East Coast, Oakland was an obvious choice for this year's Megapolis, organizers said.

In addition to Oakland's pioneering experimental music scene, propelled in part by Mills College, the East Bay has also become a hub for radio and podcasting. Downtown Oakland is home to both Snap Judgment, National Public Radio's renowned storytelling show, and 99% Invisible, the hugely popular podcast about architecture and design. That podcast's host, Roman Mars, also recently spearheaded the launch of Radiotopia, a national collective of independent, story-driven radio shows that has further boosted Oakland's reputation in the booming podcasting industry.

"The Bay Area is such a mecca for art and experimental art in particular," said Shani Aviram, a composer and sound designer and member of the Megapolis organizing team. The festival is about "blurring the lines between music, sound art installations, and narrative documentary," she continued. "I really like the idea that all of these things can be fluid."

In this way, the June 5-7 festival — which is primarily located in Oakland venues — offers live radio and music performances, interactive audio art projects, and workshops where participants can do hands-on experiments with sound. Several free art installations throughout the weekend invite direct audience engagement. At E.M. Wolfman Books (410 13th St., Oakland), Convicted Contrast — a piece composed for multiple interactive listening booths featuring headphones — explores one man's experiences in the California prison system. At Ridge Space (634 15th St., Oakland), an installation called Ion will feature hanging light bulbs that create sounds in response to viewers' movements in the space.

In terms of participatory workshops and classes, the festival features many events, including a yoga class that integrates ambient drone noises; a soldering workshop where participants can make unique musical instruments; a group zine-making project based on audio pieces; a workshop that teaches people how to build an FM transmitter; and a class on building solar-powered audio electronics.

Experimental performances also promise to offer bizarre and inventive shows loosely based on sound. That includes hair braiding on live radio; a demonstration of sound production derived from brain waves (via neurological device); and live haircuts recorded with magnified sounds.

On the evening of June 6, there will also be a block party show at Black Ball Universe (230 Madison St., Oakland), with headliner Fantastic Negrito of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Contest fame. And on June 7 at the Omni Commons (4799 Shattuck Ave, Oakland) — which is hosting a number of the festival's workshops — Mars from 99% Invisible will do a live performance with a podcast called Song Exploder, in which musicians dissect their songs instrument by instrument.

Sam Greenspan, an Oakland-based member of the festival organizing team and a producer with 99% Invisible, said Megapolis is designed to foster collaboration between creative people who share a passion for audio work: "We're really excited about bringing together musicians and storytellers and people who otherwise work in sound who embrace experimentation and want to push the medium forward."

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