Stay to Feel It or Leave
Noise performance is a spectacular mode of liveness, which seems especially extreme when contrasted with the disciplined listening of experimental music performance. Noise performance is musical experimentation writ large: the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable. Despite the scene-like sociality of its performance contexts, Noise’s liveness is embedded in distinctly individual— even if diffused and refracted—sensibilities of sound. Listeners stress the subjective embodiment of Noise’s overwhelming volume. Its extreme loudness has become definitive of its special live performance (although similar aesthetic fields, as I discuss later, are common to popular music, especially heavy metal and hardcore punk music). The sensation of volume produced in Noise performances overwhelms listeners and performers alike. Although they encounter this overwhelming volume together, the separation of their emotional responses plays down the collective space of experience, instead focusing attention on internal confrontations with the sound of Noise.
The ability to produce overwhelming volume is perhaps the most obvious difference between Japanese and North American performance contexts. In North America, most Noise performances take place in nonprofessional venues, with hastily assembled and underpowered equipment. In some places, the demand to confront audiences with volume can lead to literal confrontations over the production of sound. I have attended performances that were shut down by club staff and repeatedly heard both musicians and audience members complain that the sound system was not loud enough for Noise. Sometimes performers deliberately test their equipment at a quieter volume during their soundcheck to turn up to fully distorted levels in performance. Arguments over the appropriate volume level can even lead to physical confrontations with concert staff: one performer, frustrated with the club’s unwillingness to turn up the PA, simply walked over to the sound engineer and pushed him over, saying, “This is how we need to sound.” In contrast, Japanese shows are conducted in live-houses where the staff is expected to create the best possible sound environment. Even the smallest clubs in Japan are equipped with absurdly powerful equipment and trained live sound engineers. This allows concerts to take place at crushing volumes, which bolsters the international reputation of Japanese Noise performance as the purest and most powerful context of Noise.
Japanese Noise is strongly identified with extreme live performance, and groups like Incapacitants have become symbolic agents of Noise’s liveness in transnational circulation. Despite the fact that many overseas listeners have never attended a Noise show in Japan, Japanese and foreigners alike regularly describe Japanese Noise as the furthest threshold of its performance style. Japanese Noisicians are particularly famous for the intensity of their live acts. It is not uncommon for sets to end with a performer collapsing on the floor, smashing a piece of equipment, or pushing over a tableful of electronics. Not all performers have such demonstrative stage acts. Many performances are conducted from a seated position, with the performer hardly moving at all beyond what is necessary—reaching out an arm to turn a knob in a minute gesture, or moving a contact microphone slowly across the surface of another object. But Japanese Noise established its reputation through its most radically physical performers, particularly Incapacitants, whose ultradynamic shows have become legendary. For most Japanese artists, overseas tours are rare, and Incapacitants have only played a handful of shows outside of Japan. But although most North American fans may never attend a show by these artists, knowledge about their performance is widespread. Stories of over-the-top shows help distant listeners connect recordings to the liveness of the real scene—which, for most fans, whether in Japan or North America, is always elsewhere.
Incapacitants generate an intense emotional energy (figures 1.1–1.3). Mikawa Toshiji and Kosakai Fumio react expressively to every sound, convulsing with frantic gestures as if possessed by their own Noise. Mikawa compares the group’s live shows to sporting events like professional wrestling, whose performers stage a conflict that produces the feeling of violence without actually engaging in any kind of truly violent confrontation. He says that about twenty minutes into the shows—which is usually near the end of many Noise performances—he is overtaken by a rush of adrenaline akin to a runner’s high. Although he says that his movement does not directly affect his sound, Mikawa claims that the sound is felt differently when he moves: “I move a lot, don’t I? But it has nothing to do with the sound. Probably I would be able to produce the same sound without moving. But it would be different—probably to the audience, it would be totally different” (Mikawa 1999:25). Mikawa’s performance is enfolded into his own experience of listening. Witnessing his movements, too, changes the experience of the sound. His Noise does not actually change through his gestures, but it is felt differently. Mikawa vibrates with the brute force of his own sensory overload, enacting the responses of a body out of control. His performance is immediate, visceral, and outwardly directed, but self-consciously reactive at the same time.
In their live performances, Incapacitants embody the private sense of being overwhelmed by sound. They show the effect of Noise on their own senses, even at the very moment of its creation. This liveness short-circuits the distance between the listener and the sound, folding them back together in its affective feedback loop. Noise emerges simultaneously “out there” and “in here,” inside your body. The audience member does not simply hear this sound in space but reacts to its sensations within a private sensory world. Noise’s liveness is a circuit of energy that is purely internal and admits no outside space; in this, it is less like listening to music and more like the sensation of an electric shock. Liveness becomes an involuntary encounter with the feeling of Noise within one’s body. Incapacitants transform these profoundly individuated sensations of personal overload into an observable performance.
Mikawa’s physical reactions mirror the involuntary response of the listener, and the changes in his gestures follow an inexorable buildup in the power of the sound. Mikawa and Kosakai progressively increase their movement over the course of the performance, slowly expanding the intensity until their bodies appear out of control. Mikawa may begin trembling, stabbing pedals with sharp, violent gestures, while Kosakai starts to shake violently and begins doubling over, his body wracked with spasms, shouting into a mic that emits screeching feedback. As the Noise builds, Mikawa grips the flimsy table holding his gear and begins to shake it—or rather, the table begins to shake when his shaking body takes hold and tries to steady itself—and the pedals begin to bounce up and down and crash into one another. Finally, he pushes down on the table, and the folding legs first buckle and then slide underneath, and the table collapses. Mikawa is on top of his gear, amazingly still connected as he sprawls across his electronics, his body undulating in spasms as his hands continue to strike at pedals, now on his knees holding one up in his shaking hands, turning the knobs until the sound is at a peak, wide-open distortion at full volume. He ends the performance abruptly, perhaps by cutting off the power on his amplifier or by disconnecting a cord in his setup by collapsing across the pedals on the floor.
1.1. Incapacitants. Photo by Jon Spencer.
Incapacitants feed their internal physical reaction to sound back into the soundmaking process. Their liveness becomes an involuntary encounter with the private feeling of Noise: it is separately felt but experienced by all within range, whether performers or listeners. Incapacitants perform a mode of sensory feedback that Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the “double sensations” of the body, which “catches itself from the outside engaged in a cognitive process; it tries to touch itself while being touched, and initiates a kind of reflection” through which people recognize their bodies in the process of embodiment (Merleau-Ponty 1962:93). They embody the overwhelming effects of their own sound and bring their physical responses into the loop of soundmaking. Mikawa and Kosakai become immersed in this disorienting environment and are inevitably overcome by Noise. In an ideal performance, says Mikawa, “you will reach boiling point, and then when you build up sounds, you won’t be able to tell what’s what” (Mikawa 1999:25).
1.2. Mikawa. Photo by Jon Spencer.
Incapacitants’ extreme performances stand in stark contrast to their personal ordinariness (figure 1.4). Many Noise fans, even those who have never seen the group, have heard that Mikawa works a bureaucratic job in a major Japanese bank. His offstage life, they say, is exceedingly mundane. He dresses as a typical sarariiman (corporate worker, “salary man”); he commutes to work from a suburban home; he coaches his children’s soccer coleague. Kosakai, who works in a government office, is equally approachable and friendly off stage, despite his possessed demeanor while performing. This knowledge about Incapacitants’ workaday existence has become legendary among Noise fans. The quotidian life of a Japanese banker becomes a blank slate of social normalcy, against which the power of Noise is revealed through its transformative effects on the humble bodies of ordinary people.
1.3. Kosakai. Photo by James Hadfield.
The ordinariness of Incapacitants confirms that anybody—any body, no matter how unlikely—can be swept up into the power of Noise. There is something classically comical about the physicality of the duo, with tiny Mikawa spasming and collapsing on one side of the stage, flanked by the comparatively huge Kosakai flinging his arms into the air like a giant, shaking a fed-back, wailing telephone pickup, his broad stomach shaking and vibrating. These physical disparities, and the open secret of their ordinariness outside of this underground world, simply reinforce the overwhelming power of Noise’s liveness. By showing their two vastly different and separate bodies producing and simultaneously being overtaken by sound, Incapacitants confirm the bodily disorientation of listeners. Even those who generate this sound in live performance are folded into a liveness that exceeds ordinary life.
Getting Into It: Volume, Power, and Emotion in Noise
1.4. Incapacitants before their first appearance in New York City,
May 2007. Photo by Natasha Li Pickowicz.
The sensations of Noise’s liveness are amplified by the individual embodiments of its performers. But off stage, listeners, too, stress individual conditions for feeling the sound. At a Hijokaidan concert at Kyoto’s Taku Taku, I witnessed a man suddenly begin to thrash around in the back of the room about twenty minutes into the performance, eventually crashing to the ground. Unsure if he was in the throes of an epileptic fit, I looked over to see local Noise performer Hayashi Naoto sitting on top of the man, holding him down so that he would not continue to strike out, apparently involuntarily, into the crowded space around him. After the performance, I learned that this man often came to Kansai Noise shows and was an old acquaintance of Hayashi and others. Hayashi brushed off the abnormality of his reaction, saying simply, “He got into it.” “Getting into” the liveness of performance, of course, is a marked ritual of musical sociality. Just as the search for obscure recordings distinguishes a specialized listener, the choice to “get into” Noise performance highlights an individually embodied knowledge. Noise etches hard lines between those who inhabit its unapproachable space of sound; between those who feel it—even if that feeling is involuntary—and those who do not. In some ways, the sense of participating in a powerful musical experience is made “live” as much by those who choose not to “get into it,” but to “get out of it.”
Noise performance breaks down the public scene of live music audiences into their subjective encounters with extremely high volume. The only choices are to stay to feel it or to leave. At the beginning of many Noise performances, the audience splits in two: in an instant, some press closer to the stage and the speakers, and others retreat to the back of the room. 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 forced from its presence. Unlike the nuanced contours of a good live sound mix, which brings a crowd together in a shared public atmosphere, Noise concerts flatten the space with overwhelming loudness. Extreme volume divides the common social environment of music into individual private thresholds of sensation. A really good Noise show confuses you, separates you from your acquired knowledge, and makes you wonder what’s going on. It is easy to know that a Noise performance will be loud, but successful Noise performances still feel shockingly and unexpectedly so.
1.5. Masonna at Festival Beyond Innocence, Osaka, 2012. Photo by Kumazawa Telle.
In 1994, I went to see Osaka Noise artist Masonna (figure 1.5) perform in a small underground club in San Francisco. Like many North American independent music fans, I was familiar with noisy bands such as Boredoms, Melt Banana, and Ruins, whose records I had listened to for years, had already seen perform live on North American tours, and like many others, believed were exemplars of Japanoise. I was expecting an over-the-top, virtuosic display of fast, loud, code-switching rock deconstruction, so I was surprised to find the stage practically empty, with no instruments anywhere to be seen. After a few minutes, the background music on the PA cut off, and a tall, thin man, with long hair and huge sunglasses practically obscuring his entire face, walked on stage, carrying a microphone on a stand. He immediately pulled the mic and stand apart and whirled the stand around in one hand, grabbing the mic in the other, then smashed the stand down to jettison his body into the air; landing on the stage on his knees, he began to shout. I had seen such onstage theatrics before, of course. But the Noise that emerged was unlike any voice I had ever heard, any sound I had ever heard. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but then I never thought about liking it or not. I was witnessing it, feeling its intensity, receiving it, dealing with it. Sudden, crushing blasts of pure distortion whirled into my ears, and the Noise was just happening, sweeping into my mind.
Masonna transformed his voice into Noise, feeding the microphone back through a process of extreme distortion. His shouts became clipped bursts of overloaded sound, doubled and extended by a delay that displaced the sounds into stuttered blasts of static. These vocal sounds fused into a rattling background of harsh metallic fuzz, which was created by frantically shaking a highly amplified box filled with coins. I could not parse this sound into its constituent parts, as either the result of electronic processing, amplification, or “natural” voice—his voice was distortion, and distortion was his voice—and then it suddenly stopped, and a strange decompression and blankness seemed to rush into the room. Masonna dropped the mic and walked off stage as quickly as he had entered, and I slowly recovered myself. The entire performance had lasted only four minutes, but I felt as if I had taken a long journey, fallen asleep, or passed out, and was just coming to my senses.
Even in the crush of the crowd, this kind of loudness foregrounds individual experiences of Noise. Masonna’s performance forces listeners to check themselves, to feel the limits of their physical reaction: “How long can I take this? Am I enjoying this feeling? Is this what I am supposed to feel?” I was driven within myself, paying close attention to my sensations to understand what I was experiencing. “What does this person feel that he needs to make this kind of Noise?” asked one friend after witnessing a Masonna performance for the first time. But questions of artistic intention quickly feed into other, more personal questions: “What do I feel, and why am I here to listen?” Years later, Yamazaki told me that he believed Noise is “a natural feeling for humans,” and that any listener could understand it immediately on hearing it. But, he stressed, the feeling of Noise does not move “from inside to outside”; it is not a form of musical self-expression that communicates the inner feelings of a musician to an appreciative listener. In Masonna performances, Yamazaki said, “I create the tension by myself. The audience just submits to it.