Overload and Collapse
A new book charts the rise of an artform so loud and harsh that "music" may not be the word for it. Scott McLemee brings the noise.
The most intriguing author’s note I’ve seen in a while appears on the back cover of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press) by David Novak, an assistant professor of music at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Following those obligatory institutional coordinates, we read: “The fieldwork for this book involved attending all-night parties that were so loud, he sometimes lost his balance and had to have his hearing checked after a year.”
More remarkable, perhaps, is that he still has any hearing left. Novak became interested in the Japanese phenomenon of "Noizu" in the early 1990s, after a period of teaching English, and polishing his Japanese, in Kyoto. The term is a neologism in Japanglish (cf. Franglais) referring to the underground movement or milieu devoted to producing -- and enduring – squalls of atonal electronic sound blasted at incredibly high volume. Noizu stands in relation to hardcore punk or extreme heavy metal band something like the roar of a jet engine does to chamber music. Connoisseurs call the sound “harsh,” at least when they are praising a performance or recording. The "noisician" works with a set of electronic boxes that distort, echo, or clip the frequencies of a sound; they are sometimes connected to one another according to a plan, and sometimes by chance. “Outputs go back into inputs,” Novak writes, “effects are looped together, and circuits are turned in on themselves. Sounds are transformed, saturated with distortion, and overloaded to the point that any original source becomes unrecognizable.” By the end of the performance, “the circuit is overturned, the gear is wrecked, and the network is destroyed.”
The point is to create, in Novak’s words, “the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable” -- sometimes blasting the audience into “a state of hypnosis, dreaming sleep, or trance.” Enraptured or not, performers and listeners alike must get tinnitus.
Both the author’s teaching position and the book’s subtitle contain the word “music.” But the question of whether Noizu is a category of music is a question of taste and, even more, of definition – including self-definition, since there are people in the Noizu scene who insist that it is an experience utterly distinct from music. The ambiguity of its status is heightened by the existence of an enormous body of recorded Noizu, including the limited-edition boxed set in honor of Merzbow, perhaps the best known and certainly the most prolific of Noizu artists. It contains 50 CDs. He has issued several times that many over the past three decades, so presumably it is a greatest-hits collection.
Seeing Japanoise in Duke’s catalog reminded me of being in a Greenwich Village record shop with a seemingly exhaustive selection of arcane musical sub- and micro-genres from around the world. It had a bin marked “Japanese and other noise music” This was in the late 1990s, which Novak indicates was the peak period of media exposure for Noizu within Japan itself, after a couple of decades of existence deep underground. For a long time Japanese noisicans performed in tiny venues and distributed their recordings on cassette tapes which circulated by mail through an international network of avant-gardists.
By the time it established a niche at that specialty shop, Noizu was available on CD. Despite having never heard of the Japanese scene, I felt like I’d already heard plenty of “noise music” over the years. There was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a notorious double album of guitar feedback released in 1975, which was either an homage to experimental composers like Stockhausen or Reed’s way of fulfilling a recording project in the most hostile way possible. In the 1980s, bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubaten tested just how much ear-splitting mayhem could be incorporated into something still vaguely recognizable as a song. For that matter, Noizu sounds like something the Dadaists might have come up with the Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago, if they’d had the amplifiers and gadgets.
Novak knows all of that -- and plenty of other examples of aestheticized sonic chaos, besides -- but insists on the specific history and context of Noizu. He draws the distinctions a little too fine at times, but does so in the interest of creating a “thick description” of Noizu: an ethnographic treatment of it as the product of Japanese conditions, even (or especially) in regard to its international circulation.
No matter where you go in the world, the audience for extremely loud electronic noise is likely to remain pretty small. But the existence of “livehouses” – tiny performance spaces, scattered so randomly that nobody is likely to find one without very specific directions – meant that a gathering of twenty people might seem like a crowd. Combine that with an incredibly intense mode of listening fostered by clubs where jazz fans assembled after World War II to listen to new albums in reverent silence. Then add countless small, highly specialized record stores whose owners develop an exhaustive familiarity with the history of a given sub-niche.
The product, in the case of Noizu, was a scene far more lively and attentive than anything available to, say, the American creators and consumers of what the rock critic Lester Bangs celebrated as “hideous noise.” Novak describes a process through which the rumors of a vital Japanese subculture came to excite artists and musicians abroad (who had no idea of just how small that subculture was), while Noizu’s growing renown in the wider world consolidated its status as something both artistically credible and distinctly Japanese.
Feedback is generated when a sound system begins to amplify and intensify its own output, which makes it an apt term for both the noise of Noizu and the cultural process through which it transformed itself from a marginal variety of performance art into a recognized and distinctive aspect of Japanese culture.
Novak indicates that devotees can recognize the particular way a given noisician sets up the devices in his rig, and I have no reason to doubt it. Part of a cultural feedback circuit is the formation of very distinctive modes of subjectivity – in this case, one capable of experiencing sound so loud that it seems to knock the breath out of you as a manifestation of the sublime. In its penultimate chapter, Japanoise draws out the parallels between Noizu as a kind of extreme physical encounter with technological power and apocalyptic themes in postwar Japanese culture. Novak identifies the arc of a noise performance as one of “overload and collapse”: an aesthetic duplication of “how a mechanical society feeds human energy back into the machine and measure[s] just how deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded in this cycle.”
Japanoise draws on interviews with performers of and listeners to Noizu, both in Japan and abroad – and, of course, the author’s own extensive exposure to its harsh pleasures. The one thing conspicuously missing from the books is an analysis of the part played by music journalism in creating the cultural feedback. There really ought to have been a chapter on the fanzines, where the terms for understanding and discussing Noizu took shape. But Novak does emphasize the revival of the cassette tape as noisicians’ preferred means of distributing their work. It is unmistakably a reaction to the immateriality and hyper-availability of digital culture.
The phrase “overload and collapse” also suggests the experience of the “lost decade” (or decades, depending on who you ask) of unemployment and stagnation following the collapse of the Japanese stock market in 1989. That raises a question about what manner of unholy racket we can expect to well up elsewhere in the world, as artists come to terms with, as Novak puts it, "deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded" in the feedback systems all of us live in.
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