The 2020 edition of KZSU’s Day of Noise happened back on February 8. “The best day of the year,” according to Abra, who diligently organizes the whole affair every year, including catering. I helped out during the midday hours, running sound (under the direction of Smurph) and announcing acts on-air.
We also streamed the event live again, engineered by Jin. You can find the recordings here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.
San Kazakgascar: Jed Brewer (guitar) and Colleen Kelly (cello). Not pictured: Jaroba James (sax, bass clarinet). Brewer’s chiming guitar anchored a pleasantly droney set. He’s also behind the band Swimming in Bengal
Blood of Chhinnamastika, whose brutal analog assault is always a Day of Noise highlight.
San Kazakgascar, setting up with help from DJ Smurph (green shirt).
Ernesto Diaz-Infante, who started his set by digging in hard. 30 minutes of pure guitar attack.
Doug Lynner, giving us gradual washes of analog circuitry.
The duo known as Captains.
Chris Brown, professor emeritus of Mills College, performing under the name Tangled Web. Photo taken from the control booth; the haziness is due to the thick, decades-old glass separating the booth from Studio A.
This is where the live video stream was processed and uploaded. The computers and monitor were tucked safely in a corner of Studio A. Guitarist John Davis on the monitors.
Annual tradition: The Day of Noise T-shirt, signed by all the artists.
R Duck’s pedal configuration.
R Duck, who also does a regular show on KZSU: “Sound Wheels,” Tuesdays at 4pm..
I’m still surprised at how deeply I mourned the lost of KFOG, a radio station I hadn’t earnestly listened to since about 2008. Even in the years leading up to then, I would tune in occasionally only for the “10 at 10” show (which inevitably lost some luster after Dave Morey retired), nothing more. College radio and avant-jazz gripped my soul around the turn of the century, and I’ve mostly left the classic rock world behind.
But KFOG wasn’t a normal rock station. For its first 15 years or so, DJs had a lot of leeway. The station did have a rotation and a specific “sound” — it had parameters. But the occasional deep album track was permitted, even encouraged. Weekly theme shows dug deep to fit their themes. It was on the eclectic “Headphones Only” program that I first heard 10cc’s epic “One Night in Paris” and Thomas Dolby’s shimmery, floating “Screen Kiss.”
More importantly, KFOG grew up with me. The station switched to a rock format in 1982, my sophomore year in high school. It became our soundtrack, and it stood out as superior against the four or five similar options on the dial. I carried KFOG with me through college, becoming a fringe member of the “fogheads,” as fans called themselves.
This was the kind of community that commercial radio no longer tries to foster. Late in the ’80s, the station ran a poll to pick the top 1,045 songs of all time (matching the station’s 104.5 frequency on the dial). Local rock stations did this all the time, with “Stairway to Heaven” always coming in at No. 1. Not this time; KFOG listeners picked “A Day in the Life.” And the top choices from major bands were deep cuts that I had never encountered. The top Supertramp song was “Hide in Your Shell.” The top CSN (and sometimes Y) song was Graham Nash’s “Cathedral” — and holy cow, I had no idea Nash had ever written something so intense.
KFOG was never a perfect blueprint for my tastes. They didn’t like prog rock; I didn’t like Led Zeppelin. But we were sympatico in that dance of discovery that radio can be so good at. As I started dating my wife, she would comment that I seemed to own everything KFOG played. It wasn’t remotely true — but they could easily spin four or five songs in a row that were on my shelves, and I would always point this out just to annoy her.
By the mid-’00s, KFOG began succumbing to corporate blandness, and the decline kicked into full gear by the time Dave Morey left in 2008. I stopped listening shortly after.
But if you don’t know: Cumulus Media, KFOG’s final owner, understood the station’s impact and gave it one last farewell. Radio stations don’t normally get that. When KFOG switched formats in 1982, it simply switched. It was planned and pre-publicized (as opposed to a WKRP-style coup) but also abrupt. That’s the business. In contrast, KFOG’s final night — Sept. 6, 2019 — was a marathon of old shows from the archives, the familiar voices of old friends long gone and tunes that I had not heard for 10 or even 20 years. It was all pre-recorded, but the shows were selected with a fan’s ear. It was closure.
All this reminds me of another high school memory: reading William Faulkner and his famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even though I honestly wouldn’t enjoy hearing peak-era KFOG for hours on end, so many of my musical choices tie back to those early days. The KFOG I loved has been gone for nearly two decades, but it’s different to know that it’s now gone. This is what it really means to move on, I suppose.
I love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.
Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.
The piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.
I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.
Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)
I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.
But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”
The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.
In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is brighter, like sunlight bouncing off glass. He uses the vibraphone (Chris Dingman) as the foundation, but it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” chord.
On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.
Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.
KZSU’s Day of Noise — 24 hours of live on-air performances in the studios of Stanford’s college radio station — came and went last month, but you can see and hear the whole thing. Jin, who’s videoed and photographed the event for the past several years, went all-out this time, with two cameras per studio and lighting filters to boot. The full 24 hours were streamed live in two 12-hour segments (YouTube sets a 12-hour limit on streams) that are available now.
Bonus: That’s my voice at the start or Part 2. I was asked to stall for time, to make sure no music got lost as we made the transition between video streams.
Smurph, who handled sound engineering for all 24 hours, made an audio recording of each act separately, and you can find those files on KZSU’s Day of Noise web page.
It’s here again: The KZSU Day of Noise, 24 hours of live noise/improv performances, broadcast across the free airwaves, streamed over the Interwebs, and stored for posterity on YouTube.
From midnight to midnight (Pacific time) on Saturday, February 9, 2019, musicians will be performing live at the KZSU studio, playing laptop electronics, analog electronics, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, and whatever other noisemakers they decide to bring. Artists will perform for 30 or 60 minutes apiece. See the full lineup here.
In the Bay Area, tune in to KZSU on the good old-fashioned radio at 90.1 FM. Elsewhere in the world, stream the show live at kzsulive.stanford.edu. We’ll probably have a live video feed running as well (in the past, it’s been on YouTube).
The last few Days of Noise have been archived on the KZSU site in both audio and video forms, so you have plenty of material to get acclimated for the big event.
We have loads of fun putting this on every year, and I’m so grateful to the KZSU staffers who make it happen. Abra masterminds the whole thing — many thanks to her for keeping the idea alive — while Smurph does the bulk of the audio engineering and Jin documents the event in video and photos. Other DJs like me chip in where they can, moving gear, delivering food, giving directions over the phone. And the musicians have loads of fun. Please do tune in, any way you can.
I’ve posted Day of Noise photos a few times before. Have a look:
The Day of Noise us upon us! Or, it will be, in a few days! Click the image above to go straight to kzsu.stanford.edu/dayofnoise/2018 to see the musicians who will be playing live, on-air, from midnight to midnight Pacific time on Saturday, Feb. 10.