.Remembering Don Joyce, Dada Humanist in Negativland

Friends and collaborators remember the artist's excursions on the fringes of sound.

Last Wednesday, Negativland’s Don Joyce died of heart failure at the age of 71. The next day, a group of his bandmates and comrades arrived at Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. It was just before midnight, the usual slot for Joyce’s inimitable program, “Over the Edge,” which started back in 1981. Considering Joyce’s lifelong irreverence, the group declined the usual funereal motions and opened with a gurgling melee of sound. Then, a guest host announced Joyce’s death, listing each of his absurdist pseudonyms, and said, “Perhaps a loud, mournful squawk from Don’s ‘booper’ feedback oscillator would best sum up the feelings of Negativland.” At that, elegiac scree rang out, modulated into weird permutations, and warily decayed.

It was a fitting tribute to Joyce, an artist remembered by listeners and collaborators for his excursions on the fringes of sound. In broadcasting, he found a natural habitat: rooms stuffed with media, the machinery to manipulate it, and, not insignificantly, solitude. He was conceptually rigorous, credited with coining “culture jamming” and weaponizing the avant-garde’s tape cut-up techniques against the pop arena.

“I called him a ‘Dada-humanist,'” said Negativland’s Peter Conheim. “Love really touched his work. Even through all of the hardcore displays of cynicism and the blackest humor of all, his heart was the size of a football.” Conheim continued, “There’s a tendency to prop people up in hindsight, but everyone who worked with Don already knows that he was a totally singular genius.”

Founding group member Richard Lyons added: “Don’s talent served as a constant motivator as I searched for, collected, and sampled hundreds of hours of the most stupid audio I could find to contribute to his mix. … No matter how much stupidity I hurled in his direction, Don never failed to transform every morsel into something brilliant.”

Joyce grew up in Keene, New Hampshire. He attended Rhode Island School of Design and moved to Oakland in the late Sixties. After a formative stint at KALX, Joyce’s KPFA program snared the attention of Ian Allen — an early member of Negativland who died in January — who connected Joyce with the outliers from Contra Costa County. Joyce’s addition completed the nucleus of one of the Bay Area’s longest-running experimental outfits.

Negativland releases responded to news almost as soon as it broke, a pace that reflected Joyce’ radio routine. Beginning in the late Eighties, the topical sound collages engendered controversy and confusion, embroiling Negativland in high-profile copyright battles and positioning its members as prescient, provocative thinkers regarding fair use and sampling. Joyce contributed to more than 25 Negativland records, many of his “Over the Edge” programs appeared as stand-alone CD titles, and the show clocked more than 5,000 broadcasting hours total, amounting to a voluminous body of work.

Last year, Negativland released It’s All in Your Head, a sample-based interrogation of organized religion and dogma that started independently on-air. The final product — which pits religious pundits against one another until assumptions of faith collapse under Negativland’s inventive arrangements — emphasizes the intellectual diligence that Joyce applied to his work. “His arguments for keeping or ditching things were always amazingly spirited and interesting,” Conheim said.

At home, Conheim said, “[Joyce] had a zone, a sort of hovel, a place where he was literally surrounded in every moment by a tool to make art with.” He slept with the radio on and played multiple television sets at once in the interest of snatching tidbits of sound with a tape recorder.

Derk Richardson, the KPFA DJ whose show was scheduled before Joyce’s, described him as quietly passionate. Richardson added that Joyce regularly gave him crop-circle calendars around Christmas.

“He was a complete outlaw at the radio station,” recalled Conheim fondly. “Since he was on after midnight they kind of gave him a pass.” Richardson emphasized that Joyce “was totally obsessed with creating the best possible radio.”

That’s why Conheim, founding Negativland member Mark Hosler, Jon Leidecker, and kindred KPFA host Doug Wellman appeared on-air in Joyce’s absence. “We couldn’t play it straight,” Conheim said. “It would be contrary to Don’s philosophy to do the usual mourning routine. We had to monkey-wrench it.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated Richard Lyons’ membership in Negativland. He’s a founding and current member.


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