What is the Norcal Noisefest?

"So what do you mean by noise?"

That’s probably the #1 question about the Noisefest, except maybe "Do you have any earplugs?" The answer to the latter question is simple (yes, we do) but the first question is more complex. People know what noise is in the general sense, but not very many know what noise is in the musical sense. In some ways, the Norcal Noisefest is intended to answer that question by showing people what noise is, instead of simply telling them.

The 2009 Norcal Noisefest, formerly known as the Northern California Experimental Music Festival, is the thirteenth festival in a series orignally started in 1995 here in Sacramento, intended to bring noise music to the public ear. Festivals typically feature at least 20-30 performers; this year, approximately 49 bands will perform at the three-day festival. Since its creation, the Norcal Noisefest has grown from a little-known oddity held at the Guild Theater in Oak Park to a nationally-recognized music festival. The festival has received multiple Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission "ArtScapes" grants and a commendation from the City of Sacramento for its contribution to Sacramento’s musical culture and promotion of Sacramento as an arts destination. Most of the performers at the Noisefest are from northern California (both Sacramento and the Bay Area) but performers come from around the country (and around the world.) This year’s least local performer is CHINAPAINTING, a collaboration between Jim Goodin of Brooklyn, New York and Daryl Shawn of Oaxaca, Mexico. Other out-of-town performers like Chicago’s VERTONEN and Albequerque’s FATHER OF THE FLOOD and RAVEN CHACON will join locals like JOLTHROWER, SUPERZAPPER RECHARGE and HYPNOTIC INJECTION. From elsewhere in California come bands like ACTUARY, LACES, RUBBER O CEMENT, THE TRANSHUMANS, and many more.

Day 1, Friday October 16, takes place at Luna’s Cafe, at 1414 16th Street, starting at 7:30 PM. Luna’s is a small venue, but well-suited for noise and much appreciated by Noisefest regulars.

Days 2 and 3, Saturday October 17 and Sunday October 18, take place at the Greens Hotel, at 1616 Del Paso Boulevard, starting at 2 PM Saturday and 1 PM Sunday. The Greens is a new venue for the Noisefest, and this year marks the return of the Noisefest to Del Paso Boulevard (the 2003 Noisefest was held at 1001 Del Paso and the original Horse Cow Gallery.) At the Greens Hotel, we will perform in a semi-detached courtyard building where performers can play at full blast without disturbing hotel patrons–although most (if not all) of the people staying at the Greens Hotel this weekend will be those attending and playing the Noisefest.

Admission for each day costs $10, and a full-weekend package is available for $40 that includes admission to all days, this year’s Norcal Noisefest compilation CD, a double-sided Noisefest T-shirt, and a commemorative pin that allows admission to all shows. Admission also includes complimentary earplugs.

One problem with an event like the Noisefest is that there are absolutely no commercially successful noise performers, so it is impossible to compare noise musicians with anything you would hear on the radio (aside from college stations like KDVS.) Some people consider avant-garde rock groups like Sonic Youth or Radiohead to be noise, but in some ways they are a fusion of noise and rock. If you took a noisy avant-garde rock song and subtracted the traditional musical elements (melody, harmony, lyrics, chorus/verse structure) you would be left with something similar to noise, but it is difficult to explain a musical form by what it doesn’t have. Put simply, noise is difficult to explain, but easy to experience–as long as you don’t mind the volume. For those who like to stretch their musical tastes to the limit, noise is the final frontier of music. Often, curious visitors who are unfamiliar with noise emerge from the Noisefest with one of two reactions. Some come out very irritated, exclaiming "I didn’t know it was going to be just noise!" Others come out intrigued and inspired, struck by the possibilities of music that doesn’t play by the rules.

www.norcalnoisefest.com contains full details of this year’s Noisefest, including listings of all performers and festival schedule.

Disclosure: William Burg is director of promotion for the Norcal Noisefest.

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October 14, 2009 | 1:54 PM

Great photos, interesting story. Looking forward to it!

October 14, 2009 | 7:12 PM

Noise is in the ear of the beholder just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One definition is noise is any unwanted sound.

October 15, 2009 | 7:09 AM

Speaking as a classically trained keyboard musician, who turned punk, then raver, and then old fart, I *LOVE* events like this!!!!

October 15, 2009 | 2:58 PM

Sounds interesting. I was intrigued by how many photos show people making noise in so many ways. Do instruments have to be used?

October 15, 2009 | 3:29 PM

The term “instruments” is a very broad thing in noise. Noise performer IDX1274′s preferred musical instrument is a bench grinder, used to grind metal noisily and create a shower of sparks. At a past Noisefest, performer Moe! Staiano made a rhythmic staccato by throwing a stack of dinner plates at a brick wall–during an earlier Fest he made noise by placing several vibrators onto the innards of a piano sitting on the floor and letting them skitter around.

Some use high-tech methods, like laptops and MIDI sequencers, while others use traditional instruments like drums, horns and string instruments like guitar and stand-up bass. Some make instruments from scratch, like Art Lessing and the Flower Vato, or modify children’s toys to make sounds their designers never imagined, like CHOPSTICK. Probably the most common approach is using a series of guitar effects pedals–but instead of being connected to a guitar, the sound input is provided by an oscillator, a ring modulator, or just an inexpensive piezoelectric microphone inside a sound source (such as an Altoids tin with some ball bearings in it.) At Noisefest 2001, a performer set up an electric skillet on stage and pan-fried portobello mushrooms in olive oil, with a microphone stuck in the skillet to pick up the sound.

And at Noisefest 2006, the performance by “Living Breathing Music” was based pretty much entirely on the human voice–moans, groans, cries and breathing sounds.

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October 16, 2009 | 11:26 AM

It’s great to see things like this going on in various places around the country. I was just in Washington, DC, for their annual Sonic Circuits Festival which has a heavy focus on noise music, along with free jazz, new music, and psychedelic rock, and capped off with a great performance by Faust. If you’re in the DC area check out http://dc-soniccircuits.org/ for show listings.

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