Music at the Edge of Circulation

by David Novak

6 June 2013

Is Noise, an underground music made through an amalgam of feedback, distortion, and electronic effects, Japanoise? Is it even music at all?
"Eye destroys machines in the legendary Hanatarashi performance at Toritsu Kasei Super Loft, August 4, 1985." Photo by
© Satoh Gin 
cover art

Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation

David Novak

(Duke University Press)
US: Jun 2013

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (footnotes omitted) by David Novak. Copyright © Duke University Press, 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Chapter 1
Scenes of Liveness and Deadness

There are about forty-five people in here, bathing in the blast of Noise right now: a group of older fans, some college kids already holding CDs they’ve purchased from the merchandise table, a handful of foreigners (mostly Canadian and American), and a lot of familiar faces among the regulars, local performers, and store and label owners here for the show. These all-Noise concerts usually happen about once a month in Tokyo, in different venues. The livehouse, 20,000v, is set up like any small hole-in-the-wall rock club, a poorly maintained, boxy room in the basement—actually, two floors down in the subbasement—of an anonymous building on the main shopping street in Koenji. It’s about a hundred square feet, and there are huge black wooden speaker enclosures chained to the ceiling on either side of the stage; flyers on the walls for both current and past hardcore, scum, punk, and Noise shows; a tiny bar in the back by the toilets selling cups of beer; and a little table near the door where recordings by the evening’s performers are sold.

I stand about halfway toward the front of the room, slightly to the side of the stage, in line with one of the huge towers of speakers. MSBR is on stage now, and he is very interesting to watch. His body movements are much more conservative than those of the energetic eighteen-year-old Long Islander Viodre, whose thrashing set preceded MSBR, but his hands are always moving: constantly adjusting pots and faders, starting and stopping sounds, changing them, pushing against pedals, and switching them off and on with the base of his hand. In comparison with tonight’s other performers, MSBR’s Noise is more multilayered and rhythmic, and he is almost completely still as he sits in the center of an earsplitting whirlwind of sound. He cuts in and out of an analog delay, shuttling through a spacey blur as he shifts out of one timbre and into another, never letting any texture linger for more than five or ten seconds. Everyone is rapt, falling into the steady flow of sound. No one talks; no one could talk if they wanted to… Besides, it costs ¥4,000 (about US$50) to get in, so you can’t afford not to get it—you just listen.

Indeed, everything about this audience shows that they already know what they are doing here, as they stand scattered about the floor of the club, now watching the next band, Nord, blasting through the speakers, two huge thickets of incense burning on stage as blue light illuminates the performers from behind. The low-end vibrations are inside my chest, forcing my lungs to compress as I exhale slightly, involuntarily, along with the blasts of sound. Nord is so heavy, pounding deep drum sounds, droning moans with electric clatter over it all, and as the atmosphere intensifies, growing louder, the lights begin to come up—white, glaring spots in my eyes as their set crashes to an end.

Finally, the famous harsh Noise duo Incapacitants takes the stage. It’s so loud I can’t breathe—they vibrate the air inside my mouth, in the back of my windpipe, as the volume grows and grows. I fear for my eardrums despite the wadded-up balls of wet toilet paper I stuffed in my ears as the set began, and I retreat a few meters to the back of the tiny room where it’s slightly—barely—quieter. Two or three others have done the same, but most press closer to the center as Mikawa and Kosakai crash their sounds against us. One Noise musician I recognize is right up in front, directly in front of a speaker, bouncing his head and shoulders back and forth, and occasionally thrusting his arms out in front of his body toward the musicians, vibrating tautly in place.

Mikawa is crushing a contact mic under a bent square of steel, tilting it back and forth to shift the oscillating loops of feedback emerging from his system. Kosakai shakes the mic in his hand in front of his Marshall amp, his entire body rattling and jerking as if he is holding onto part of some powerful being that is trying to escape his grip, as a quaking stream of high-pitched noise spins out of the speakers. Mikawa leans over in front of a smaller Roland amp, each of their heads down on either side of the stage, faces to their tables now, leaning on them, shaking them—or are they being shaken? Kosakai crashes to the floor in a jumble of electronic parts as his table collapses—the lights come up harsh and bright, shining right at us. Suddenly the sound is cut, the lights switch off a second later, and we are left in a strange void of darkness and silence, soon broken by sporadic applause and shouts of approval, as the performers shut off their amps and abruptly stumble off stage, exhausted, tripping over the morass of wires on the floor.

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Noise is about liveness and deadness, both in performance and in the technologically mediated sound of recordings. Live Noise performances can produce extraordinarily powerful embodiments of sound that help audiences imagine a community of Noise listeners, both locally and as a global “scene.” How can we understand these experiences of sound as part of Noise’s circulatory context? Listeners most often encounter Noise through individual experiences with recordings, and even the liveness of Noise concerts is geared toward isolated receptions of sound. The feedback loop between liveness and deadness, then, is about the co-constitutive relationship between performance and media in the lives of listeners. But this loop runs parallel to another kind of feedback—between making sound and feeling its effects. Liveness is about the connections between performance and embodiment, which transform passing moments into repeatable encounters of listening. Deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences with recordings as a new aesthetics of sound and listening in the reception of Noise.

In this chapter, I illustrate Noise’s liveness and deadness in several different contexts of experience. I describe liveness in the places of Noise performance, in the embodied practices of Japanese Noisicians—particularly the legendary Incapacitants—and in the affective experiences of individual listeners. Liveness is further embedded in Noise through the production and circulation of media. Noise recordings were foundational in the growth of performance networks, especially in North America. Noise is embedded in techniques of production that aestheticize its overwhelming sound into recorded qualities of loudness and harshness. Finally— although, of course, there is no end to this loop—the sonic values of deadness in Japanese “harsh” Noise recordings become a poetic resource for listeners, who reanimate the scene of live Noise performance. The density of the experiential relationship between recordings and live performance in Noise follows from the displacement of musical communities and scenes in circulation. Where is the real place of Noise? What do the sensations of liveness and deadness mean to different Noisicians and listeners? What kinds of emotions are produced in the sensational liveness of Noise? How are recordings woven into translocal receptions, especially for those far from any accessible live scene? How does recorded media help listeners connect their isolated listening to social performance?

Ethnographers often privilege live performance in narratives of musical culture. For many researchers, live music is where authentic musical experiences happen, and performances represent sites of dialogue and interactivity that stand in stark contrast to the displacements of recorded media. Thomas Turino attributes an especially heightened musical sociality to “participatory performances,” especially flexible, improvised gatherings (jam sessions, sing-alongs, etc.) where the collective “doing” of music is stressed over the “end product that results from the activity” (Turino 2008:28). Live music evokes an immediate—and apparently unmediated—experience that is musically authentic, culturally distinct, and sometimes politically resistant. Amateur performance is the foundational source of continuous, collective sociomusical knowledge, and its transmissions may contain the remnants of a traditional oral “music culture.” Recordings, on the other hand, rationalize music beyond the productive space of social relations into separate forms of “studio art” that are passively consumed.

The experiential binaries of this scenario do not offer much to redeem the participatory experience of mediated listening or justify the centrality of recordings in everyday musical life. Musical circulation becomes a mediated kulturkreis: live performance stands at the bull’s-eye of creative production, but its social force is gradually diffused through waves of technological mediation. At best, recordings become disembodied placeholders for authentic culture. At worst, they are a virtual dead end that dislocates people from the living realities of music. Certainly, the physically and temporally immediate context of performance gives live music a deep social presence and a sense of “here and now” in face-to-face interaction. But social experiences of live music can be profoundly individuated and often depend on embodied knowledge acquired through personal experiences with recordings. Just as performance is not always productive of social co-presence, “dead” recordings do not necessarily separate listening communities into atomized consumers.

Recordings and performances constantly overlap in perceptual space but spin out into different contexts. In his influential book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Society (1999), Philip Auslander showed that contemporary live performance depends on the integration of technological media to create its cultural presence. Meanwhile, liveness is inscribed in studio production techniques that sonically represent the copresent space of musical communities in recordings (Meintjes 2003; Porcello 2005). Media, then, are not just the remote end product reflecting the original context of musical production. Recordings make sense of music for listeners, and constitute different socialities of performance and musical community. And just as online virtual worlds do not need to correlate to offline contexts to become real places, recordings do not have to connect “back” to performance practices to actualize musical experiences (Boellstorff 2008).

It is important to recognize that liveness is not a natural by-product of live performance. Liveness is not simply the transcendent feeling of “being there” at an exceptional concert among an appreciative audience. It is an affective relationship between embodied experiences of the “real” world and individual “virtual” encounters with technological media. As Jane Feuer (1983) argues in her work on live television, liveness cultivates a feeling of immediacy and interaction with televisual events. Liveness helps viewers actualize the extreme fragmentation of space inherent in broadcasting and allows them to share the experience of a media event even as it happens somewhere else. In this, liveness is both a technique of media production and a social habitus that naturalizes technological mediation through embodied practices of reception (Couldry 2004).

In bringing these relationships of musical place, performance, and media to the surface, the subjects of Noise put a great deal of stress on “the scene.” The context of the local music scene has been central to historical imaginaries of independent music and exerts a powerful hold on its publics (Bennett and Peterson 2004; Kruse 1993). For scattered listeners who do not share face-to-face interactions, the idea of the scene can evoke a “diasporic,” even “tribal” network of participants, which can bring musical sociality into a globally mediated context. The notion of the scene was especially useful in complicating earlier notions of musical sub-cultures that imagined alternative social identities through art, fashion, and language (Hebdige 1979). Will Straw (1991) used the term to describe the social construction of local communities in decentralizing practices of circulation. In his useful formulation, a scene is not a physical site or network but a fluid and flexible mode of performance that helps listeners navigate the industrial contexts of music production. Yet music scenes sometimes boil down the essence of a local community to a singular authentic site, where unmediated social relations are musically enacted. This is not to deny the symbolic power of the scene. The very idea is deeply motivating for fans who imagine, listen for, seek out, read about, talk about, and poetically conjure an original space of liveness, which appears to somehow transcend its own mediated networks.

But in Noise, deadness makes the scene live. Its listeners perform musical worlds through recordings: they repeat their sonic experiences, or put them on pause; they turn sociality up or down, or shut it off; they trigger individual memories and imagine impossible continuities between disparate places and times. But they also bring a sonic imaginary into cultural circulations, which extends beyond their own private audition. They conjure places across the globe, possibilities buried in the past, and feelings beyond social representation. Listeners slowly connect their own private sensory knowledge to the broader discourses of Noise, and more—they feel these sounds and emplace them in their own lives in ways that create new worlds of experience. And, as I will show, they can use these experiences of recordings to enliven the place of performance, by feeding their isolated listening into the scene.

Feeing the Space of the Livehouse

In Japan, a small music club is called a “livehouse” (raibuhausu), a Japanese neologism that describes a site in which raibu (“live,” meaning live musical performances) take place. In many ways, livehouses set the tone of music scenes in Japanese cities. The spatial fit between a livehouse and an audience is very important to the affect of liveness, because the feel of any performance is affected by the size of the venue. Noise is almost always performed in a relatively small livehouse, and occasionally (but rarely) in outdoor concerts or multipurpose art spaces. Because organizers take a personal risk in paying the venue for tickets in advance, attendance is important and carefully managed. In several years of fieldwork, I rarely saw a local Noise “live” sell out, but neither were the tiny places much less than full: with occasional exceptions, Japanese Noise audiences vary from around twenty to fifty attendees. Most livehouses of this size are not dedicated to a single kind of music but accommodate many different fringe music audiences. As a result, Japanese livehouses become “big tents” for a diverse range of overlapping underground scenes.

The energetic, “packed” feeling of public space in Japanese cities creates a famously dense, focused ambience, and this affect follows through to the feel of its performance sites. In his study of Japanese hip-hop, Ian Condry describes the deeply social context of the genba, the “actual place” of live music where cultural production is “made real” in affective experience (Condry 2006). This sense of place is crucial for creating local social identifications for global genres like hip-hop, which are often constructed through recordings produced elsewhere. The focused attention of listening in an enclosed space helps construct the boundaries of a local audience as well as a separation from the general public. In Japanese cities, small livehouses sometimes occupy basements or higher floors of office buildings with little overflow into the outside world, rather than in street-level zones set aside for entertainment. The “actual place” of local performance is clearly delineated from ordinary life: you are either in or out.

Foreign performers are often impressed (and sometimes confused) by the close attention Japanese audiences give to performers. Many have commented on the intensity of livehouse spaces, despite the fact that audiences were not necessarily any larger than at home. One Chicago-based musician who frequently performs in Japanese venues described this atmosphere in terms of the density of feeling in the small rooms: “In a way, playing in Japan feels pretty good as a musician, because the place is always packed—there might only be fifteen people, but it’s packed—and you sort of feel like, ‘Wow, there’s a scene happening here!’ I mean, it’s not much when you look at how many people live in Tokyo, or when you go to see a basic rock show in a bigger livehouse. But there is a feeling of some sort of connection with a scene, even though it’s small… because everyone is stuffed into the same place, whether it’s a big place or a small place, people are always stuffed in.” In a Japanese livehouse, even a small audience can occupy the space in a way that feels crowded, creating the feel of the scene, just as the crowd creates the feel of the city. The liveness of these moments promises the continuity of sociality beyond the walls of the livehouse, feeding back into the everyday lives of the listeners. Liveness is created simply by being in these special spaces, where people return over and over again to embody the scene. Livehouses conjure and narrate musical worlds through this experience of repetition, which depends on the longevity of local performance spaces.

Local clubs are crucial in many histories of popular music, and are sometimes viewed as the actual source of new musical styles. Although there have been few clubs dedicated exclusively to Noise, there are some especially significant spots. For example, since the late 1980s, the live-house Bears has been an important site for Noise, hard-core, experimental music, and extreme rock and has almost singlehandedly enabled the survival of underground music in Osaka. The tiny club, located in the back streets of the Namba district, is owned and managed by Boredoms guitarist Yamamoto Seiichi, who tirelessly accommodates an endless series of extreme performances, from teenage newcomers to the classic “old school” Noise of its annual Noise May Day. Other clubs in Osaka, many of them larger and better equipped, have come and gone over the years. In the meantime, Bears has slowly become famous as a center for Japan’s experimental rock, punk, and Noise. “Even if the building got burnt down,” says Yamamoto, “we would continue it in a shack” (Yamamoto 1998). Bears’ reputation was crucial for spreading the word about Osaka’s Noise boom in the 1990s, through musicians’ stories about the club and compilation recordings (such as the Japan Overseas cd Bears Are Not Real).

But livehouses do not often generate this distinctive sociality by being distinctive in themselves. The music scene that travels best is produced in anonymous spaces, where liveness can be reassembled and remembered in many different environments. Many livehouses deliberately cultivate a neutral, temporary state of occupancy. Unadorned black-painted rooms situate the audience between two blocks of speakers; the PA reamplifies the onstage equipment in a sonic field that emulates a gigantic home stereo system. In Japan, when people temporarily invest their energy in a particular spot, that place is described as a tamariba: a “haunt” or “hangout” that is both a space of gathering and a transitional cultural formation, like a temporary social club. A tamariba creates a point of occupancy between place and event and between public and private sociality. This is the liminal liveness of a waiting room, the feeling of standing in the crowd at a food stall or newspaper stand, or a gathering of acquaintances on a street corner.

The sensibility of liveness can be developed only through the repetitions of personal experience. Liveness helps audiences “realize” an undistinguished performance space as a chosen site of heightened activity. When people assemble in livehouses, they briefly inhabit what Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” which “liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere” (Bey 1991:100). Liveness is the affective context of these momentary “uprisings” that violate historical social narratives with unique moments of experience: although they cannot happen every day, over time they “give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life.” These repetitive but special encounters with music become a kind of circulatory placemaking. Liveness leads people from the heightened musical space of the livehouse to isolated moments of quotidian listening and back again.

Performing Liveness: “You Won’t Be Able to Tell What’s What”

Performers become immersed in Noise through an emotional sensibility that connects their individual performances to overwhelming experiences of sound. In thinking about the virtuosity of live Noise performance, I unwillingly drag one particular memory to the surface: the moment I attempted to scream together with the Hijokaidan vocalist Hiroshige Junko in an open session at the No Music Festival in London, Ontario. Someone had suggested that we improvise briefly as a pair; Junko agreed, but I had forgotten my instruments and gear. I foolishly decided that I would just grab a microphone, seized with the idea that it would be great just to scream along with the famous Noise screamer. But I was struck dumb a few milliseconds later, when Junko opened her mouth and emitted an amazingly earsplitting sound. Instantly overcome, I tried my best to make some kind of noise: after all, I thought, how hard can it be to just scream? But I could hardly hear myself at all. My weak, undifferentiated sounds underscored the intensity of her volume; the pure harshness of her timbral focus; the mix of constancy and deliberation with the shocking sense of being overwhelmed and out of control. In other words, I was experiencing the deep affective consciousness of Noise’s liveness, so apparent in Junko’s incredible scream. Her screaming, I knew in a sudden flash—and then with a wave of nausea and humiliation, as I became conscious that we had just begun our “collaboration”—wasn’t just screaming, and Noise wasn’t just “making noise.”

Topics: noise | noise rock

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