Gray Wisps of Sound

Divided StateSpurious Emissions (Edgetone, 2019)

dividedstate-spuriousThis is synthesizer-driven noise in a gentler vein, a hovering fog. It’s built from understated, patient sounds, an aesthetic close to ambient but with more motion. The backgrounds are built from field recordings and distorted samples — ghost images resembling distorted birdsong, crunchy footfalls, a ghostly railroad crossing, or sparse record-vinyl static.

“Synthesizer” is a loaded word that suggests all manner of dated sounds, but Spurious Emissions doesn’t come across as campy. The occasional sci-fi noises don’t appear as laser blasts. They’re more like pensive, sustained notes, mixing with the gray wisps of the sampled sounds.

“Arboreal Metaphor” turns up the echoing, resonant effects for a broad-landscape view before coalescing into a language of content, scribbled sounds. Most tracks, though, are more in the vein of “Shaman of Static Motion,” which hovers ghostlike, a toneless ambience colored by the occasional electronic buzz.

Divided State is the duo of Andre Custodio, who performs solo noise music under the name Nihil Communication, and Leroy Clark. Both contribute to the synths and the sampled sounds. 

Day of Noise 2019 Video

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.



The use of turntables as noise/improv instruments has long fascinated me, mostly in the sense that I wasn’t sure how it was done.

My interest got piqued by four CDs released in the span of about one year by Martin Tétreault and Otomo Yoshihide, both “playing” turntables. The discs — Grrr, Tok, Ahhh, and Hmmm — document a European tour in 2003, with each CD meant to reflect a particular mood (the titles are hints).

I enjoyed those albums and spent a lot of time wondering how they created all those sounds, and what it really meant to “play” a turntable. Some sounds resembled a characteristic record scratch or the scraping of a finger against the needle. But what were they doing the rest of the time?

Only now did it occur to me to go look.

In my defense, YouTube’s avant-garde catalog was more sparse a decade ago. But in 2017, a quick search for Tétreault answers my questions right away. My French isn’t good enough to follow along with this interview, but the visuals say it all: He uses discs that are wrapped with different textures, giving him different sounds to play with.

He also uses a sound board (as shown in the photo up top), which gives him a few more options.

Well. Now I know.

By the way, Yoshihide and Tétreault had an established musical partnership before those 2003 concerts were recorded. Here’s a sample of their work from 1999.

And if you want to find out a little more about that four-album set, released on the Ambiances Magnétiques label, you can see a few reviews in Zookeeper, the KZSU music database.

Tender Buttons

From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke
From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:

Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

Day of Noise 2015 Is Upon Us

dayofnoise2015Don’t say you weren’t warned.  KZSU’s Day of Noise begins a few hours from now, at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time on Feb. 7.

An all-star army of musicians will be handing off the mic, figuratively to produce 24 hours of sounds, tones, clatter, harmony, improvisation, and whatever else may happen. Performances alternate between two studios at KZSU, so that as one act performs, the next one can set up, keeping the music seamless save for introductions by DJ Miss Information — who in past years has MC’ed the entire 24 hours.

Here are my Day of Noise photos from 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s the lineup. Here’s where to go listen. (Or, in the Bay Area, tune in to 90.1 FM.)

In other words, you are out of excuses. Tune in!

KZSU Day of Noise 2014

I was able to help only for the very beginning and tail end of KZSU’s Day of Noise this year, but it was still a lot of fun.

As usual, a small group of hero DJs made the Day of Noise possible, including Abra (who emceed all 24 hours) and Smurph, who I believe was on hand for most of the sound engineering.

I even manned a sound board this time. The group was Big City Orchestra, a quartet that used styrofoam as its main sound source. They bowed it, poked sticks into it (tuning them beforehand, because they started their set with a droney piece) and ran the sound through all kinds of effects. By the end, it was a wall of noise. It was pretty cool.

Pictures follow. I caught a few minutes of Karl Evangelista and Tom Djll’s band, Revenant, but didn’t get a chance to say hi; their set ended as I was helping set up the audio for BCO.

Here’s the photographic evidence.

Smurph, our head sound engineer, setting up what's normally a meeting room. We use two studios for Day of Noise, so that one band can set up while another is playing.
Smurph, our head sound engineer, setting up what’s normally a meeting room. We use two studios for Day of Noise, so that one band can set up while another is playing.
Brian B. James opened the 24-hour Day of Noise. The potted trees, collected from around the station, were set up in the studio for the sake of the webcast, which we ran on UStream throughout the day/night.
Brian B. James opened the 24-hour Day of Noise. The potted trees, collected from around the station, were set up in the studio for the sake of the webcast, which we ran on UStream throughout the day/night.
The Day of Noise tradition: the autographed T-shirt.
The Day of Noise tradition: the autographed T-shirt.
Revenant (three-fourths of it, anyway): Karl Evangelista, Michael Coleman, Tom Djll
Revenant (three-fourths of it, anyway): Karl Evangelista, Michael Coleman, Tom Djll
Revenant percussionist Nava Dunkelman, captured through the hazy Studio A window.
Revenant percussionist Nava Dunkelman, captured through the hazy Studio A window.
Big City Orchestra setting up. Cheryl Leonard is on the left, and Nina Lynn Hollenberg is third from left ... didn't write down the men's names, unfortunately.
Big City Orchestra setting up. Cheryl Leonard is on the left, and Nina Lynn Hollenberg is third from left … didn’t write down the men’s names, unfortunately.
Cheryl E. Leonard.
Cheryl E. Leonard.
Sticks stuck into the boxes were tuned to specific notes (yes, tuned -- it wasn't easy) and bowed to produce groany tones.
Sticks stuck into the boxes were tuned to specific notes (yes, tuned — it wasn’t easy) and bowed to produce groany tones.
BCO played three pre-planned movements that culminated in stabbing and sawing the styrofoam. It was a heavily noisy finale.
BCO played three pre-planned movements that culminated in stabbing and sawing the styrofoam. It was an appropriately noisy finale.
Syrofoam bits clung to the performers' hands and got everywhere. Probably should have seen that coming.
Syrofoam bits clung to the performers’ hands and got everywhere. Probably should have seen that coming.
Less than 30 minutes after BCO's set, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a lot of elbow grease.
The stuido less than 30 minutes after BCO’s set, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a lot of elbow grease.
3 Leafs closed out the Day of Noise 2014.
3 Leafs closed out the Day of Noise 2014.

KZSU Day of Noise: Saturday, February 8, 2014

Day of Noise: at or 90.1FM, Feb. 8, 2014

Thanks to the efforts of Abra (@abraRadio), KZSU will again present the Day of Noise: 24 hours of drone, electronics, ambient, improvisation, and … well, NOISE!

It’ll be on Saturday, February 8, just about all day. That’s 12:01 a.m. or thereabouts, until just about midnight the next night. Find out more and see the full schedule on Facebook.

You can listen worldwide at KZSU’s Web Feed, or in the Bay Area, you can tune us in on good old radio at 90.1 FM. Listening in the car with the windows rolled down, to spread the noisy goodness, is a particular pleasure (and totally comfortable in what passes for February ’round these parts).

Previous Day of Noise posts on this blog:

Day of Noise 2013

dayofnoise2013KZSU is doing its 24-plus-hour Day of Noise again, starting just a couple of hours before Sunday, April 14.

You can see the whole schedule, and descriptions of the artists, at that link above.

It’s an impressive undertaking managed by some very motivated students who are into drone, electronics, laptop improv, and … well, noise! I love that they’ve filled the entire day with music, including some afternoon hours that will apparently be broadcast at Stanford’s White Plaza.

Do tune in, starting midnight tonight — 90.1FM if you’re within range in the Bay Area, or if you’re not. As my kids said last year: “It’s just noise!

Four-Way Musical Crash

Ron Anderson, Robert L. Pepper, David Tamura, Philippe PetitClosed Encounters of the 4 Minds (Public Eyesore, 2012)

Here’s a frenetic mix of noise and rock and improv, a constant tumbling of sounds, with lots of grating (in a good way) electronics providing a basslike backdrop.

It’s musical dodgeball, a bombardment that starts early in the first track: incoming sci-fi volleys and the fast tremor of Ron Anderson’s guitar. David Tamura’s sax blazes and squeaks with high lung power.

It’s the sax and the guitars spike the energy levels (you might be familiar with Anderson’s frenetic tendencies from The Molecules or PAK) and provide a semblance of rhythm. But don’t picture metal or ferocious speed-punk. In fact, there’s a cross between wildness and musicality in here. Crazy sax or guitar scribblings in one moment, a near-pleasant melodicism (backed by the same crazed, pulsing attitude) in the next.

Even a relatively calmer track like number 5 (they’re all untitled), with its zoned-out buzzing like a synthetic sitar, has the disquiet of David Tamura’s cranky sax and some ominous guitar electronics.

The album is often like a conversation where everybody wants to be heard at once, and in many contexts, that wouldn’t be a good thing. But you have to consider the intent. This music aims to be dynamic and aggressive — they fill the page with scribbles — and I love the bustling chaos it creates. It works.

That said, some points are a bit much. I’m torn as to whether I enjoy Track 4. It’s got an alarm-blare sound that just goes and goes and goes. Some days, I can take it as part of the scenery. Other days, I’m ready to reach through the speakers and rip out somebody’s laptop battery to end the pain. The loops of saxophones and of a keyboard-like sound (as on The Who’s “Eminence Front” — it might be the electric psalterion (harp) played by Petit) can feel either nicely juxtaposed or relentlessly annoying, depending on my mood.

But on most tracks, I enjoy the musical assault, and I like the structures they’ve built with the music. The 10-minute finale (track 8) progresses through phases that could each be described as a descent into madness. One segment has the feeling of shooting down a tunnel, with a pulsing fuzz in the bass spectrum representing the walls speeding past, until it disintegrates into a crunchy, staticky sound bed for the other instruments. It finally gives way to a rhythmic guitar chop that sets up the noisy ending.


The first moments of the album:

Track 5. Zoned-out buzzing that’s still not peaceable:

Track 4, with that alarm blare. You decide:

The “tunnel” from track 8:

Jack of All Noise (NYC Part 4/4)

Pre-show setup. I wasn’t the only one who touched the walls to see if it was real aluminum foil. (Answer: Yep.)

JACK is a new arts space in Brooklyn, an emptied-out storefront innocently tucked away in the hipster enclave of Willambsurg. Here, I got to experience an evening of aggressive noise.

The intention was a CD release show for an improvising trio called Iron Dog, but the theme was aggressive noise, with three like-minded groups playing one long improvisation each.

Mostly geared toward theater, JACK is an eclectic spot. It hosts Tuesday-night readings of French plays translated into English, for instance. And it hosts experimental music, including occasional concerts titled Aural Dystopia — big, noisy improvisation. My friend Dan clued me in about the November installment, and I made plans to go get a taste.

This was the same day as my Central Park tour, so after relocating my things to Brooklyn, where I would spend the night, I took a quick nap before heading into the subway. It wasn’t going to be a complicated trip, but it was still comforting to catch a glimpse of Jim Black — part of the night’s opening act — farther down the subway platform.  At least I’d picked the right train.

I arrived early with the intention of finding an espresso, which turned out to be a little tricky. Old Brooklyn still dominates the neighborhood; Starbucks hasn’t yet overrun the two or three blocks that I explored. I did find a hipster grocery boutique called Brooklyn Victory Garden that gladly sold me a coffee and a dinosaur cookie. You can’t turn down a dinosaur cookie.

The show started with heavy saxophone blasts from Briggan Krauss, a choppy, ragged attack like a helicopter or a half-speed machine gun. That set the tone for the trio Han Blasts Panel, consisting of Krauss (sax, guitar), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Jim Black (drums), with all three adding electronics of various shapes.

We got to hear plenty of Black’s offbeat grooves, which start out tight and then unravel, as if slowing down (as I’d recently heard in his Nels Cline duo). Hasselbring sent the trombone through a variety of effects, and when he shut them off, the pure trombone sound suddenly felt bright and fresh.

Black added electronics played off of a pad, including low, floor-rattling bass tones that worked especially well when Krauss was playing electric guitar. Towards the end, Krauss was riding a one-note groove, settling himself as the rhythm section while Hasselbring soloed and Black contributed those bass notes and some electronics crackles. When Krauss broke out of the groove, Black switched immediately back to drums, and the piece exploded into a new life. Great sequence.

Next up was The Home of Easy Credit, the duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen (sax, vocals) and Tom Blancarte (standup electric bass), who performed a set of sustained fury. They opened with Jensen playing smooth, mellifluous runs on sax, but Blancarte put a stop to that with a hard bass attack, using sticks and fingers to pull out loud, sticky notes, as if he were extracting teeth from the instrument.

(Jensen and Blancarte’s Web domains seem to have been replaced by spam sites, so use caution searching for them. Probably better to look them up on Facebook.)

Jensen’s demonic growls were spooky enough, but it’s a moment of overdubbed syllables, a falsetto harpies’ chorus that she built up from loops and echoes, that’s going to turn up in my nightmares.

Their set included some gorgeous cooldown segments (definitely in the minority) and some moments of mood-shifting that showed an attentive listening that’s the key to good improvisation.

Then it was Iron Dog‘s turn, performing their piece in the dark accompanied by abstract video. Sarah Bernstein played violin and recited poetry for certain passages. Stuart Popejoy played electric bass, usually so heavily distorted and pedaled-up as to become a roar of electronics. Andrew Drury at the drum kit was a treat to watch; I loved his jazz-influenced drumming, but he spent a larger amount of time in a soundmaking space, bowing his cymbals and creating other scraped noises.

Bernstein’s poems are written down, but she selects them on the fly, inserting them into the flow as one would a violent cadenza or a steady backing sound. She did this deftly, and the improvisation overall had a strong, episodic feeling, to the point that I thought it might have had a pre-arranged structure. But it was all improvised, with the group collectively steering the shifts in mood and intensity.

It wasn’t always that way, Popejoy told us after the show. It just goes to show what can happen when a band plays together for a long time, developing an instinct for one another’s moves.

The poems became a focal point, but Bernstein’s violin playing was terrific, too. (Turns out she plays in settings like Braxton ensembles.) At one point near the end, she sawed ferociously, fingers ratting up and down the neck, with the other two gradually building up until white-noise intensity. Another moment that stands out in memory is when Popejoy played with a fingerpicked guitar-like serenity, but with the bass producing a sound like shrieking steam.

As for the poems themselves, there was one about conversation being an accident, something you always wish could be undone. Another was a word collage — “didactic,” “auto,” several others — echoed back. Bernstein would repeat the words at a different tempo so that the echoed loop brought up thewords at unpredictable, incongruous moments. Simple idea, but I liked the sound of it.

The new Iron Dog album is called Interactive Album Rock, and it’s good. So, they’re on my map now, as is JACK.