Japan Books: Japanoise - Music at the Edge of Circulation
by Johannes Schonherr, March 2014
In the 1990s, New York's East Village was a vibrating place. Rents were still affordable (though barely so) and in the many clubs around, from CBGB's to the Knitting Factory to the Gas Station, plenty of radical musical experiments were taking place.
Slowly, however, rumors went around the neighborhood of a totally new music coming from Japan: Noise.
Hardly anyone knew exactly what that meant but there were plenty of new "noisy" bands from Japan coming to town. The Boredoms from Osaka were certainly "noisy" and they had already been discovered by Sonic Youth and played as their opening acts at a number of club concerts. John Zorn was working with the Ruins and invited them to the Knitting Factory. Noise rockers Zeni Geva came to town.
Fanzines and Records
One of my routines while living in that neighborhood at the time was stopping by the basement-level See & Hear magazine store on East 7th Street. It offered expensive vintage American punk rock cult items from the 1970s in the back aimed at wealthy collectors but in the front you could find a plethora of current fanzines: Answer Me!, Film Threat, Gutter Trash - See & Hear had them all.
Suddenly, in about 1994, a new kind of publication appeared on their shelves. At roughly about the same time, Exile Osaka and Ongaku Otaku became available. Both dealt with the new music coming from Japan and covered Noise to a great extent though not exclusively.
Ongaku Otaku was the product of one Mason Jones based in San Francisco who seemed very authoritative on the new Japan music. He certainly knew his stuff and traveled to Japan regularly.
Exile Osaka on the other hand was an irreverent zine published straight out of the city were the real stuff happened - Osaka. It was written and published by Matt Kaufman, a New Yorker from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn who worked in the daytime as an English teacher and went to the clubs at night. He informally met up with the musicians, talked to them, drank with them and otherwise just seemed to freely fool around with whatever was cool and dandy in Osaka at the time. Great, fun reading.
It didn't take long and the first real Japanese noise records appeared on the shelves of East Village record stores. In 1995, Mondo Kim's opened on Saint Mark's Place, a veritable department store of underground culture covering both music and movies. The store featured a whole section devoted to Japanese Noise staffed with strongly opinionated Noise nerds. Rudely opinionated, I should have said as those store clerks displayed quite an attitude. That at a time when even most of my Japanese friends living in the same neighborhood had never even heard of the term "Japanese Noise".
Now, what actually is Japanese Noise, aka Japanoise, to which the monicker soon shortened? It's not experimental rock with lots of noisy feedback sounds thrown in like, say, Boredoms. It's also not ear-splitting droning repetitive psychedelic sounds like the ones by Les Rallizes Denudés or Zeni Geva though it might, vaguely, come close at times.
Japanese Noise is, to put it shortly, a merciless barrage of harsh and extremely loud sounds that may (emphasis on may) reveal their textures after repeated hearing. Seeing, or say, enduring a performance live is certainly the best way to experience noise the way it is meant to be heard. Though those live performances might last only a few seconds in some instances before all sound equipment on stage is destroyed.
See below a video portraying one of the most famous Noisicians (as they call themselves), Takushi Yamazaki aka MASONNA.
Masonna - god of noise
In his book Japanoise - Music at the Edge of Circulation, David Novak writes: "Noise performance is musical experimentation writ large: the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable."
Masami Akita aka Merzbow offered a perfect example of what that meant with his record Venereology. It was one of the earliest Japanoise records available in the U.S., released in 1995:
Jump to 2014. Masonna has injured himself just too many times during his performances to continue the extreme way. Merzbow who always championed fantasies of extreme violence in all imaginable forms and who went full frontal producing his own sado-maso inspired ultra-violence videos has by now discovered the plight of the yakitori chicken. A few years ago, he became a PETA activist focusing on that very concern.
That doesn't mean that Noise has run its course. But the hype and excitement Noise caused in the 1990s seem to have largely evaporated.
Japanoise - Music at the Edge of Circulation
Now may be the perfect time to look back on Noise by reading a book on it (while perhaps listening to some of the records). The above quoted Japanoise - Music at the Edge of Circulation by David Novak would seem to be the natural choice.
Published in 2013 and written by an obvious admirer of Japanoise who did more than ten years of research, traveling to concerts, meeting up and talking with almost every notable musician in the field, you might expect something like an in-depth history of Noise ranging from pre-WWI Italian Futurist atonality to Dada to Lou Reed's 1975 proto-Noise album Metal Machine Music and on to British / Australian Industrial music. All of them were fore-runners of Noise.
This was however not the route Novak chose. He decided instead on focusing on the global circulation of Noise, on the impact marginal recordings had over time when they were encountered by musicians working in totally different contexts.
What unified, in a way, all those musicians was that they tried to react to the industrialized noise dominating their own cultures, the noise of factories and modern cities. On the other hand, they all tried to set themselves apart from the mainstream music industry of their respective countries, tried to get radical and in-your-face.
Thus, obscure North American or European sound experiments found their way to Japan and were there radically worked over and fed back into the global exchange. Back in America, those Japanese recordings were heralded as something totally new and different (which they were of course) and then American musicians would react to those records and come up with their own answers to them.
All those exchanges took place far outside of the commercial music industry as Noise has always been on an extremely marginal fringe. No big-shot producers, no money men. The musicians were absolutely free in what they wanted to do - and their shows and recordings proved that they were under hardly any restrictions from any side. They could go as radical as they wanted and frequently that's just what they did.
The 1990s brought a sort of "breakthrough" for Noise. It became cool to listen to Noise both in the U.S. and in Japan. The word was out. Suddenly, a lot of the musicians involved claimed they were not part of Noise at all. The new categorization as just another potentially commercially viable part of the music industry was perceived as detrimental to their individual modes of expression and thus rejected. Successfully so. Noise, today, is still a sound on the absolute fringe. Unlike rock and rap, it has so far evaded all big-scale commercialization.
Novak's book is densely written and his descriptions of Noise events he witnessed read almost like poetry. But from there, he often shoots into purely academic spheres.
Noise itself however is a very visceral experience and the abstract academic approach the book takes might not make for an entirely satisfying read for people interested in the music itself and its background. Make sure to read a sample chapter or two before purchasing.
Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2013