Definitions of music typically emphasize the deliberate manipulation of sound for aesthetic and emotional effect. The Oxford English Dictionary online (2014) offers the following: “The art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, expressive content, etc.”; and “[s]ound produced naturally which is likened to music in being rhythmical or pleasing to the ear.” What, then, do we call sound that is generated by human activity but with no intention of being beautiful, harmonious, rhythmic, or emotional? Or that tests the listener’s endurance and [End Page 141] patience, rather than induces pleasure? Noise. Although it is a word that has been used to deride and delegitimize innovations in musical form, “from Stravinsky, to jazz, to rock, to rap” (228), it has been appropriated as a badge of honor by an underground subculture of performers (“Noisicians”), listeners, and retail and recording outlets. David Novak’s terrific book, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, provides a definitive, multifaceted account of this anti-music and the transnational community that embraced it from the 1970s to the 2000s, while also providing insights into the global circulation of sounds and aesthetic sensibilities that are of broad interest to ethno-musicology, media studies, and the anthropology of globalization.
After reading Japanoise, it feels sort of strange reviewing it for a music journal, because most Noise performers and fans are rather insistent that Noise is not music and does not claim to be. Yet Novak makes clear that to some degree Noise cannot escape being classified as a genre of music, if for no other reason than that the technologies and modes of delivering it are identical. “To give Noise the power of its total difference, it had to remain meaningless and separate from all other musical genres, even from ‘independent music,’” he writes. “Yet by being recorded and circulated, Noise was fed into the discourse of musical genre and eventually became recognized as a meaningful form of music in itself. . . . Recordings allow listeners to act as if Noise were a kind of Music, while simultaneously knowing that it is not” (120, 123). Performed by a wide variety of people—from white-collar corporate employees to trained musicians to engaged political activists—using analog technologies, effects pedals, and outdated consumer electronics in various states of (dis)repair, in cramped spaces either far above or way below the street level in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, Noise “gathered uncategorizable sounds and located them in the ears of a single group of listeners” (108). Noise’s “perennial newness” makes the typical historical narratives of stylistic evolution that define musical genres impossible (20).
Using feedback, circuit overload, and sometimes their voices, Noisicians offer their listeners (and themselves) an extreme transcendent experience. For fans, the “harsher” the Noise, the better. Among North Americans, “Japanese Noisicians are particularly famous for the intensity of their live acts,” maintaining continuous “overwhelming volume” with little concern for dynamics or the distinction between individual sounds (37, 55–56). Novak notes that Noise performances usually begin with audiences splitting into two groups: those who “retreat to the back of the room” and those who cluster near the stage and speakers to take the Noise in at full volume. “Listeners must decide, almost immediately, whether they can tolerate the overwhelming volume. Those who remain must find a way to appreciate this sound—to construct some valuable framework of personal experience through it—or they are [End Page 142] forced from its presence” (43). For all the deliberate artlessness and spontaneity of Noise performances, though, Novak recounts a moment when he recognized a musicality to Noise and realized that all Noise is not created equal. Pressed onto a London, Ontario, stage to extemporaneously perform with vocalist Hiroshige Junko, Novak thought, “How hard can it be to just scream?”
My weak, undifferentiated...