Listen in on KZSU’s “Day of Noise”; Stanford’s annual exploration of audio anarchy
“Crazy sounds made in crazy ways by crazy people”: 10 things to know about our local indie radio station’s day of sonic surrealism this weekend.
(Originally published in 2019/Currently updated for 2020)
If there is one thing that we truly love—above all else—about covering life and culture around the Peninsula, it is the region’s capacity as a vibrant think tank for new ideas.
And yes, while that certainly includes Silicon Valley tech, we’re not ONLY talking about Silicon Valley tech. Whether it’s the pioneering work in photography that Eadweard Muybridge did here over 100 years ago, or Ken Kesey’s acid parties in the woods of La Honda during the ’60s, or Stanford’s present-day forefront discussions on Universal Basic Income, the Peninsula has long been a heady petri dish for ahead-of-the-curve concepts.
This certainly applies to music, as well, most notably—a bunch of acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Joan Baez who originated here and then all made their mark on American (and global) culture in a major way about a half-century ago.
Lesser known, but still belonging to this same wavelength (or rather—sound wave) of innovation and outside-the-box experimentation is Stanford’s indie FM radio station 90.1 KZSU, who for the last two decades (ish…more on that below) has held an annual audio experiment know as Day of Noise: a 24-hour wide-open no-parameters platform for creating sound via everything from top-of-the-line synthesizers to simply banging on things that were found around the neighborhood (and then, seriously, everything in between).
We caught up with the event organizers this week to inquire about the history of Noise, the ideas behind the event and the wackiest things that have happened over the years (they do not disappoint).
So whether you’re new to this audio insanity or just a long-time listener (or if—like us—you’re a Melvins fan stuck in a Maroon 5 Super Bowl halftime show universe) check out some of the Day of Noise history below and make sure to tune in this Saturday. If we’re lucky, someone will mic the bacon.
1.What is Day of Noise, you ask? Let’s defer to Abra Jeffers, the current director of the event (since 2012), who describes it as—“Crazy sounds made in crazy ways by crazy people … It’s 24 hours of back-to-back live experimental, noise and largely improvised music with a broad definition that is used to include things like ambient music, avant jazz, and other non-traditional music forms.”
2. The event was started in 1996 by station deejay Voice of Doom (aka Joseph Brenner) who for a long time ran The Machine, a three-hour evening radio show that featured (by Doom’s description) “Post-industrial interplanetary folk music.” His weekly playlists truly ran the gamut, including the likes of Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, John Cale, Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, Billy Bragg, Bjork, Bowie, Jeff Buckley, lots of poems by Allen Ginsburg and seemingly countless exquisite audio obscurities alongside an onslaught of under-the-radar gems. In October of ’94 Doom ran a 45-minute set on the theme of spiders; other episodes of his show from that era featured curated musical threads on fashion (and anti-fashion), procrastination, transhumanism and xenophobia.
3. Voice of Doom’s vision for a special event involving “24 Hours Dedicated to Live, Improvised Sound” was well-received by then-program director Clayton Glad. In the early years, Doom ran the entire event with just a few volunteers, which meant he was required to be awake for more than 24 consecutive hours to pull it off.
4. The first performer of the inaugural event was Mountain View native and Stanford alum Robert Rich, an early pioneer of ambient music (dating back to the 1980s) who was known around the Bay Area at the time for his “sleep concerts,” in which he’d play throughout the night (10pm-7am) to an audience huddled and dozing in their sleeping bags.
5. This year’s performances include (among many many others) solo electroacoustic outfit Aestral Orient, the experimental electronics of Doug Lynner, Polygloss, return faves ANTIMATTER, the acoustic industrial music of Brenner’s Machinery of Doom, live sampling improvisation by Analogous, and the tropical noise (perhaps via audio from natural disasters) of Vilarsia. You can find the full lineup and schedule here.
6. Abra Jeffers cites her personal favorite performance over the years as the sizzling (literally) performance piece by Brian B James in 2012: “He had a campfire grill frying bacon outside with contact mics on the bacon. He used this and other similarly mic’d objects to create a sushi roll with interesting musical properties and painted a picture that still sometimes hangs at KZSU.”
7. In 2015, a group of U.S. Secret Service agents entered station headquarters DURING Day of Noise while reviewing parts of campus ahead of a visit by President Obama. As KZSU’s co-music director explains it: “The place gets kinda messy and chaotic after 15 hours or so of tag-teamed musicians, and people had all kinds of homemade strange sound generating contraptions piled up or in use (won’t be surprised if someone brings farm animals some day). What they saw when they walked in would’ve made anyone scratch their heads.” The agents entered with swagger and an air of high-horse authority; they left awkward and confused by what they had just encountered.
8. This is the 19th annual incarnation of the event….or maybe the 18th? “There was one year I announced it with the wrong number (the 4th was really the 3rd),” Voice of Doom explains, “and we just kept going from there.”
9. Cuevas cites a long list of how Day of Noise-like audio concepts — or really, noise — have regularly factored into popular music over the past century. He rattles off a list that is as colorful as it is compelling: “Stravinsky and Ives incorporated dissonance and clashing tones into their compositions … the Sun Studios recordings of Elvis with natural tape distortion on instruments and his signature distorted vocal sound …Hendrix’s version of The Star Spangled Banner .. Cobain’s lead sections in Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He has no shortage of examples—Beck, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, David Byrne. “Whether obvious or not,” Cuevas explains, “noise has made it into most of the music that we listen to today.”
10. So why should Peninsula residents tune in? Tell ’em, Abra—“Where else can you find 24 hours of honest-to-goodness live improvised crazy music? You’ll really broaden your sonic horizons if you tune in. The good thing about our format is that if you don’t like what’s currently playing during Day of Noise, you can just wait a half hour and then try it out again for something completely different.”
KZSU’s 20th (probably 19th) annual Day of Noise takes place this Saturday, February 8th, from 12am to 12am.
Tune in on local radio at 90.1 FM. Listen online here.
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