The Most Extreme Music in the World

A review of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, David Novak, Duke University Press, 2013.

japanoiseI am an adept of extreme audio practices. From teenage youth to adult age, I went all the way from progressive rock to experimental music to various forms of electronica and to sound art. I explored the universe of sound with an open mind and a taste for novelty. But when I encountered harsh Noise, also known as Japanoise, I hit a wall. Here was something completely unexpected. There was no precedent to what I experienced, and there was no beyond. Here was a music without beat, drum or rhythm, without tone, tune or pitch. Noise music is exceedingly difficult to describe. Its components – extreme volume static, amp distortion, Larsen effects, audio feedback, industrial hissing and screeching, only give an idea of the bits and pieces that enter its composition, but their description cannot convey the impression made on the auditor.

Describing noise

Here I have to borrow the words of David Novak, an ethnographer and long-time observant of the Noise scene, listening to a piece by Merzbow. “The track begins with a one-second blast of sound, which shifts sharply downward in pitch before abruptly cutting out, as if taking a breath before releasing the long, harsh, continuous scream of Noise that follows. Sounds are split between the left and right speakers, creating two separate but interrelated layers of texture; other sounds are quickly panned between the two speakers to create a sense of movement in the flat landscape of the stereo field. Filters sweep across the distorted sound field, rippling through a stream of harsh frequencies. Beneath these timbral changes, there is another loop of sound, which repeats a two-second fragment of muted static. The distorted feedback begins to break up as some amplifier in the chain reaches the limit of its capacity. A microphone feedback is introduced in the background, and the sound begins to short out as a thin hissing sound momentarily fills both channels. A new loop lurches into both channels at once, emitting a spitting chatter for two seconds and then submerging into a low hum. A vocal sound, like a moan, appears underneath the layers of feedback; it is unclear to me whether this is actually the sound of a human voice or some resonance created in the feedback process, or by a filter, or another pedal. Suddenly the Noise just ends, leaving me suspended in the buzzing stillness. A final burst blasts through the system, as if I’ve been unplugged from myself.”

If Noise music is difficult to describe (you have to hear it to believe it), Noise performances make for vivid descriptions. Here again, are some excerpts from David Novak’s Japanoise. “The performance seems to emerge from within the technical arrangement of the gear: sounds just begin to emanate from the pile as Greenwood (the Noise musician) reaches around, plugging things in and turning knobs. He straps on a rubber military gas mask containing microphones, concealing his face entirely, and attaches other electronic pieces onto his body. He dashes back and forth in front of the equipment he has amassed in the center of the floor, turning on switches, pushing buttons, pulling cords out of one area and pushing them into another, pulling things apart. Occasionally he bends forward at the waist, drops to his knees, reels backward, or falls to the floor in front of the heap of gear, a shout becoming audible from inside the mask. Holding onto some piece of the assemblage, Greenwood jerks his body back and forth violently in front of his machines. It is unclear how the machines function–which pieces are altering the sound, which are not, and which are disconnected or never worked at all. As the performance builds, sections of the pile of gear collapse or are pulled out and thrown to the side of the stage. Somehow, this dismantling process doesn’t seem deliberate–though it must be–as he smashes things together, punching parts, grabbing cords, and moving the telephone receiver around in a buzzing feedback loop.

Extreme performances

The origins of Japanoise are shrouded in obscurity and have since become the stuff of legend. Hijokaidan, a Kyoto group, became infamous for their early performances during which they augmented their Noise by smashing up stage equipment, shattering floorboards and attacking the audience with fire extinguishers. Yamataka Eye, another performer, was also known for his extreme practices. During one performance, he cut his leg open with a chainsaw and terrorized the audience with flying chunks of metal. In the most infamous episode, in 1985, Eye destroyed a Tokyo club by driving an abandoned backhoe through the room. Enticed by rumors of blood and auto-destruction, audiences grew in number and in determination to be assaulted by sound. Artist profiles and mythologized tales of performances were disseminated in fanzines while cassette tapes documenting live recordings and bedroom studio experiments were bartered across oceans. These artifacts were quickly consumed by like-minded listeners in America, Europe and elsewhere, prompting the moniker “Japanoise.” North American tours, especially by Merzbow and Masonna in the mid-1990s, allowed select fans to experience Japanese Noise live and relate legendary stories for those who missed the chance. In the following decade, videos of Noise concerts began to circulate on the internet, and materials as well as information about the genre and its key performers began widely available. As live Noise became extinct, discourse began to proliferate on the dead body of sounds, including academic treatises and movie documentaries.

As other late converts, I encountered Japanoise in a Japanese context, and for me there was no question that Noise was a Japanese genre. Of course, I knew it had branched into other countries and cultures – like many devoted fans, I acquired the “US-Japan Noise Treaty” CD, and I heard of extreme sounding practices coming from post-soviet Russia. Through Youtube videos and the Sub Rosa anthology, I also discovered Chinese Noise, which bears a direct influence from Japan’s–one founding member of Torturing Nurse, one of my favorite act on the Shanghaiese avant-garde scene, is from Japan. But what I discovered in Novak’s book is that “Japanoise” was in fact an American invention, which became Japanese through a familiar process of gyaku-yunyu or “reverse importation”. Japanoise surfaced in North America from within a larger framework of reception that included not just Noise but “noisy” Japanese music. Many recordings picked up by North American audiences in the 1980s were by punk, hard rock, and hardcore groups from the Kansai region, especially Kyoto and Osaka. Overseas networks of independent music distribution began to magnify some aspects of the local underground scene. The invention of the term Japanoise further supported the North American belief that the distant Japanese Noise scene was bigger, more popular, and more definitive of the genre. Learning that they had become “big in America”, Japanese artists reacted differently. Some, such as the underground rock band The Boredoms, rejected the Noise moniker and went on to produce progressive rock or “puro-gure“. Others, such as Yamataka Eye, emphasized the avant-garde aspect of their production and accented the defining features of the genre. Yet others went on unaffected by the noise surrounding them, continuing their dogged pursuit of antisocial, antihistorical, anti musical obscurity.

Is the Japanese brain wired differently?

There may be cultural explanations for Japanoise. It is said that the Japanese brain is wired differently, and that Japanese speakers process certain sounds such as insect noises using the left brain, which is also the dominant language hemisphere of the brain, whereas most humans use the right brain, which also serves to interpret music. And indeed, the sound of an insect is as much appreciated as the song of a bird, and the Japanese language has many words (gitaigo: mimetic words) to describe sounds from nature. On a hot summer evening, the roar of thousands of cicadas screeching together can be as deafening as a steaming machine. Similarly, the crystal echo of a glass bell softly ringed by a soft breeze brings a sense of freshness in hot summer days. Japanese traditional music also comes into a category of its own. Gagaku, the imperial court orchestral music, is strangely dissonant and may sound like noise to the newcomer. Many sounds from Japanese traditional instruments fall outside the realm of music: the sharp clap of the bachi plucking the shamisen’s cords; the wind-like character of the shakuhachi flute; the atonal sounds of drums, gongs and clappers; etc.

But again, Japanoise comes into a different category, closer to the machinery sounds of industrial Japan than to the sounds from nature or musical expressions. If there is a cultural explanation to be made, it is not by invoking the theories of Japanese distinctiveness or nihonjinron, but rather the idiosyncrasies of the Kansai region and especially from the city of Osaka, where many Noise bands originated. As David Novak notes, “Osaka’s citizens have historically been recognized within Japan for their outspoken aggressiveness, direct local language, hedonistic enjoyment of leisure, and outrageous sense of humor. Given this outgoing expressive character, it was not surprising that extreme, intensively performative musical styles were associated with the city.” Japanoise also finds its origins in the otaku culture of people obsessed with a narrow field of subculture, and who go to great lengths to feed their obsessive interest with all the materials and information they can get. Once he distances himself from the group, the individualist in Japan lives in a self-centered world and maintains only minimal contacts with his peers. Although there are many bands in Japanoise, the most striking performances are made by solo performers like Masonna or Otomo Yoshihide. Noisicians also sometimes turn their back to the public, or operate from behind a screen. Nobody can be more distant from the rockstar idol than the Japanese noisician, who avoids media contacts and disseminates his sound recordings through audio cassettes or CDRs that don’t enter commercial circuits.

New musical forms have always first been heard as noise

Another way to “explain” Japanoise is to use the categories of art history and avant-garde aesthetics. As Novak notes, “in the annals of musical history, from Stravinsky, to jazz, to rock, to rap, new musical forms have always first been heard as noise.” Modern artists have often taken the exact opposite of accepted norms and conventions, and music is no exception. Claiming that “we don’t care about music anyway” (as does the title of a French documentary about the Japanese avant-garde scene) is a sure way to gain entrance into the annals of music history. The music of “no music” only reproduces the “anti-art” slogan of the Dadaists or of Marcel Duchamp, who rejected cultural conformity and devised the opposite of established art forms. And indeed, noise music finds its ancestry in the futurist avant-garde of the early twentieth century, when artists recorded or transcripted the sound and fury of war and industry.

At this point, cultural critics often make a reference to Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. For the French public intellectual, noise can prophesy social futures and become an oracle of cultural change: “what is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.” Social change implies noise: the clamors of revolutions, the hubbub of modern cities, the mechanical blast of industry, are the symphony that accompanies the advancement of mankind. Noise is the foundation of human expression before it becomes absorbed in the forms of cultural production. It is the irreductible element that will forever resist the recuperation by the system of late capitalism. But, although Attali’s essay remains popular in Japan, it cannot account for the emergence of Noise as a form of expression. Japanoise is not a sound residue or a white noise that exists outside of technological mediation. It circulates along various transnational routes and feeds back into existing musical practices.

At the edge of circulation

David Novak’s aim in writing Japanoise is not to offer a history of the genre. As a cultural practice, Noise escapes history. It cultivates anonymity and obscurity, and obfuscates its inscription in stable, unbending supports. Groups frequently change name and lineup, labels eschew publicity, and artists reject technological advances such as computers or digital equipment. Even by the early 2010, many well-known Japanese Noisicians do not yet have websites, and only a handful of Japanese labels have developed web-based sales portals. Noisicians’ rejection of digital technology is illustrated by the anachronistic revival of the audiocassette, which has become the token of a mail-based exchange system. In relying on this old media, noisicians are reconnecting with the origins of the Noise culture, antedating the birth of the internet. They are returning Noise to its marginal position at the edge of circulation. For Novak, the figures of the circuit, of the feedback loop, and of the saturated distortion not only define the sonic features of Noise as a musical form. They constitute the theoretical apparatus of his book, and allow him to expose the genre in the same terms that define the sound processes used by Noisicians. Beyond Japanoise, the model offered by David Novak can be used to outline a new theory of culture in the global age. Global culture is formed in circulation through feedback, amplified reception, and distorted re-emission. Its fragmented publics are connected through productive mistranslations and biased perceptions. Like noise in information theory, cultural products that circulate through global channels can be very loud, but they do not convey a useful signal.


If You’re the Average K-Pop Fan, This Book is Not for You

A review of The Korean Popular Culture Reader, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe Ed., Duke University Press, 2014.

KPop ReaderWhy publish a reader on Korean popular culture? Because it sells. This is the startling confession the two editors of this volume, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, make in their introduction. They are very open about it: their scholarly interest in Korea’s contemporary pop culture arose as a response to students’s interest in the field. It was a purely commercial, demand-driven affair. As they confess, “Korean studies had a difficult time selling its tradition and modern aesthetics in course syllabuses until hallyu (Korean Wave) came along.” Now students enrolling in cultural studies on American or European campuses want to share their passion for K-pop, Korean TV dramas, movies, manhwa comics, and other recent cultural sensations coming from Korea. Responding to high demand, graduate schools began churning out young PhD’s who specialized in such cultural productions. Course syllabuses were designed, classes were opened, workshops were convened, and in a short time the mass of accumulated knowledge was sufficient to allow the publication of a reader.

Teaching Korean pop culture on American campuses

But the average K-pop fan or drama viewer will surely be taken aback by the content of this volume. If they are looking for easy clues to interpret Korean dramas or the latest fad in boys bands’ hairstyle, then they will probably drop the book after a few pages. There are magazines or websites for this kind of information. As scholars, the authors have loftier interests and higher ambitions than just discussing whether Girls’ Generation really empowers young women or instead reproduces sexual cliches, or why the ‘Gangnam Style’ video generated so many clicks on Youtube. In fact, in another candid move, the editors confess what they really think about K-pop: it sucks. Or as they put it, “Thus far, Korean popular music has yet to produce one single progression of chords that has created a ripple effect of global critical response without the aid of inane music videos and excessive use of hair gels.” Yes, you read it right. For a book devoted to Korean pop culture, with a section on popular music that discusses artists ranging from Seo Taiji to the girls band 2NE1, this is the strongest indictment one could make.

But the ambition of the editors, and of the authors they assembled, is not only to sell books. They have a hidden agenda: they want to show that popular culture matters, and that it is no less noble and worthy of study than manifestations of high culture. As they see it, a discipline should not be judged by the prestige associated with the social reality under consideration, but should be valued from the perspectives and viewpoints it brings on seemingly arcane or mundane topics. There is even a general law at play here: the lower the culture, the higher the theory. The commoner your research topic, the more dexterity you have to prove in using difficult concepts and arcane prose. Conversely, commentaries of high cultural productions can accommodate a bland style and a lack of theoretical references. You may use Bourdieu or Deleuze to comment on photography and other minor arts, but paintings from the Italian Quattrocento or Baroque architecture demand more conventional writing tools. Some critics, such as Slavoj Zizek, have become masters at commenting low brow cultural productions with high brow philosophical references.

So the solution of the authors is to trick students into enrolling in their class with the promise of studying catchy topics such as K-pop or K-drama, and then to brainwash them with a heavy dose of politically-correct theory and academic scholarship. Lured by the attraction of pop culture, they are given the full treatment associated with the cultural studies curriculum. This can be summed up by three injunctions: contextualize, historicize, theorize. The aim is to contextualize contemporary Korean culture within its local and regional or global environment, while historicizing its colonial and post-colonial legacies, thereby leading to new theorizing about global cultural futures. Another move is to broaden the scope of phenomena under review to the whole spectrum of popular culture. The Korean Popular Culture Reader therefore includes chapters on sports, on cuisine, on advertising, and one video games. Conversely, there are no chapters on cultural heritage or on folk productions associated with traditional Koreanness: crafts, calligraphy, ceramics, Korean painting, pansori, seungmu dance, etc.

Contextualize, historicize, theorize

The first injunction to contextualize is taken very seriously by the authors. Cultural artifacts are not symbolic signifiers or self-referential texts that could be subjected to a purely formal, textual analysis. They are social facts, and should be explained as such. The authors refrain from sweeping assumptions about Korean popular culture as expressing essentially Korean cultural traits or as being naturally in tune with other Asian peoples’ aspirations. Instead, they look for archival evidence and locally grounded causalities. They seek neither to defend nor to attack popular culture, but rather attempt to place it in a context and describe how it works. Beyond apparent continuities, they uncover historical ruptures and shifts, and insist on the singularity of each domain of cultural practice. They are also careful to situate Korean popular culture within its regional, global, and transnational context. As the success of hallyu illustrates, Korean pop culture is now represented on an international stage and can no longer be understood narrowly through a model of national identity.

The chapter on the failure of game consoles, and the rise of alternative gaming platforms played on computers at home or in PC bangs, is a fine example of social contextualization. Home computers caught on in Korea for the same reason game consoles didn’t: blame Confucianism and the heavy focus on education. Parents bought their children computers to run educational software and improve English skills. Similarly, PC bangs offered young people a public space that was outside the remote reach of parental surveillance or elder supervision. PC bangs have thrived by giving young people the chance to translate online relationships into real-life ones, or to team under the leadership of a master player to attack a castle or win a battle in role-playing games. The Korean professional game player, who excels in MMORPG games and becomes a worldwide celebrity but who cannot speak English, has become an iconic figure in game-related media.

The political potency of the melodrama

Analyzing street fashion and movie cultures in 1950s’ Seoul, Steven Chung shows that Korea’s compressed modernity takes place against the background of global cultural circulation that cannot be reduced to a unilateral Americanization process. The 1950s was a remarkable decade for movie stars, and the roles played by actor Kim Sung-ho illustrate the ambivalence toward familial patriarchy and political authoritarianism. The political potency of the melodrama is nowhere more apparent than in North Korean movies, with its aesthetics of socialist realism and the overbearing gaze of the benevolent leader in hidden-hero narratives. Bong Joon-ho’s movie Mother strikes Korean viewers with the discrepancy between the iconic status of the two main actors, Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin, associated with motherhood and with idol stardom, and the role they endorse in the narrative, an abusive mother and a half-wit son.

The book cover featuring the glitz and chutzpah of Korean contemporary scene–with a picture of a live concert–is there to deceive as much as to allure. In fact, only nine chapters out of seventeen focus on the contemporary, and only two essays address issues commonly associated with the Korean Wave–one on K-drama fandom and another on girl bands. Many contributions to the volume deal with the colonial or post-colonial past, as contemporary Korean popular culture remains intimately connected to the history of colonial modernity. It was during the early part of the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) that the first instantiation of the popular emerged. The idiom “popular culture” is not easy to translate into Korean, but the words inki or yuhaeng, taken from the Japanese, suggest the mix of individualism, commercialism, and cosmopolitan ideals that stood at the core of Korean colonial modernity. The history of cultural transfers, collage, plagiarism, and creative adaptation is repeated in many sectors, from popular songs to manhwa and even to Korean cuisine, as processed kimchi and makgolli appear to own much of their popularity to their adoption by the Japanese consumer.

At the origin of modern Korean literature, we find love of the romantic kind, translated into Korean as yonae or sarang. As Boduerae Kwon writes, “It was by leaning on the concept of romantic love that Korean literature tutored itself in the art of writing, nurtured the awakening of individual consciousness, and sharpened the powers of social critique.” Boy meets girl was a new concept in early century Korea: as a new import into the Korean language, yonae required a pose that suited the novelty of the word.” North Korea relied on its own set of concepts and ideologies, such as taejung (the masses) or inmin (the national citizen). It is no coincidence that both Stalin and Kim Il-sung recognized the power of film and considered it not only the most important art form but one of the primary means for creating a new art of living as well. “Cinema was used as the primary technique and medium for the construction of socialism and the creation of a national people,” writes Travis Workman, who uses Baudrillard and Debord to show that socialist realism was in many ways more real than really existing socialism.

The stoking of male fantasy

As much as they put popular culture into context and trace its historical development, the authors put cultural phenomena in theoretical perspective. The book is not too heavy on theory: most of the savant references and conceptual discussions are put forward by the two editors in the short introductions preceding each section. But all authors share an ambition that goes beyond the mere description of cultural facts. Cultural studies is predicated on the premise that the cultural sphere has replaced the socioeconomic sphere as the main site of political struggle and ideological production. At the same time, popular culture is caught in a process of commodification and commercialization that makes it incapable of articulating a coherent worldview that would effectively challenge domination. Perhaps most striking in Korean pop culture is the absence of the transgressive element. K-pop acts, or more specifically female K-pop singers, are visual stars who epitomize the “stoking of male fantasy” while cultivating a shy innocence and mild appearance. Although Seo Taiji upset the established order in the 1990s with his school-dropout status and signature snowboard look, “there was no profanity, no sexism, no use of any substance, no piercings, and no tattoos.” This lack of rebellious impulse is what may have conducted the editors to formulate their damning indictment of K-pop.