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Megapolis Audio Festival 2015: Pushing the boundaries of composition

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This year the first weekend in June brought composers, podcasters, and a variety of other music and audio makers to the Bay Area to attend the infrequently held Megapolis Audio Festival. Previously held in Boston, Baltimore, and New York, the festival went West this year.

The big draw this year was Matmos: composers extraordinaire M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel. Though now based in Baltimore, the duo formed in San Francisco and owe much of their start to the culture and creativity of the city. They opened the festival Friday night with a stunning, and rare, performance "marrying the conceptual tactics and noisy textures of object-based musique concrete to a rhythmic matrix rooted in electronic pop music," as described by their website.

Matmos's work is always on the boundary between noise and music; watching them compose live not only demonstrates how deliberate their work is, but how difficult it is to accomplish. Many times the two would comment on the lengths they were going to set up a track as the audience waited anxiously, and after the fact they'd say they missed something and wanted a redo. It's not just a couple of guys sitting at laptops playing pre-existing material. They capture it in real time and build from what they can get on location. This provides a truly unique experience brought to life by the space of performance. One standout of the show was a new work inspired by the recent riots in Baltimore and their experiences under curfew.

Matmos also rounded out the festival on Sunday with a live taping of the extremely popular podcast Song Exploder, which also took the opportunity to announce its admittance into Radiotopia — a move which will undoubtedly embolden it to go further in explaining the craft of composition. It's a podcast centered on deconstructing how music is made, and there have been some terrific episodes with film and video game composers we have covered here such as Jeff Beal for House of Cards (read my interview), Brian Reitzell for Watch Dogs (read my interview), and most recently Brian Tyler for Avengers (read my essay).

There were some terrific installations held all weekend, such as Pat Mesiti-Miller's piece Convicted Contrast. The piece was composed for headphones and the three movements were divided into interactive listening booths. Mesiti-Miller is a producer and sound engineer for the NPR program Snap Judgment. His talents for telling stories with music and sound were well-displayed; he used the installation design effectively to present the journey of one man in and out of the California prison system.

San Francisco based composer Moldover hosted a workshop to teach people how to build a light Theremin out of a CD case. This was part of a package design for his 2008 release and proved to not only display the work beautifully, but offered people the chance to compose by manipulating light into sensors. The workshop highlighted the diversity of contemporary composition, and showed how thinking beyond traditional instrumentation can offer new ways of thinking about music.

In that same vein, Jordan Gray hosted a workshop on Saturday teaching people how to compose on handheld gaming consoles like the PSP. Using an open source 16-bit tracker called Piggy Tracker composers around the world have been learning how to write music in code that produces audio using the sound cards of video game consoles. This originated from younger generations' love of old video game sound, and Gray proved an impressive teacher who managed to take participants of varying backgrounds through the process; walking out with compositions they could be proud to have produced. Along with instructional booklets and links for resources, Gray may have sparked an entire batch of composers just waiting for their inspiration.

There were many other impressive audio productions such as an audio walk through a local shopping mall, instrument installations in an improvisational spirit, and various performances both outdoors and in. The podcast Here Be Monsters also hosted their live performance Terrible Resonance, which not only shared stories of the impact of sound, but allowed attendees to participate in experiencing what are called "infrasounds" through the assistance of composer Joe Morgan of the band Phantom Fauna.

In all the various experiments of music and sound, Megapolis was a true gathering of individuals looking to expand how we listen and willing to go where others have not in pursuit of musical inspiration.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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