Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music
1. Scratching the Surface
"Full with Noise,..." is about noise music, specifically the version that has
come to be called Japanese Noise -- itself composed of many different strands.
The first half deals with the question of noise. What is it, whose is it, and
how can we think about it. Also, how does noise inflect our thinking, rather
than being an object; at what point does noise lose its noiseness and become
meaning, music, signification? Or -- is there even a point where noise can subsist?
Mostly, the text below takes the view that noise is a function of not-noise,
itself a function of not being noise. Noise is no more original than music or
meaning, and yet its position is to indicate the banished, overcome primordiality,
and cannot lose this 'meaning'. Noise, then, is neither the outside of
language nor music, nor is it simply categorisable, at some point or other,
as belonging exclusively to the world of meaning, understanding, truth and knowledge.
Instead, noise operates as a function of differance. If this term is
what indicates and is subsequently elided, in/as the play of inside and outside
(of meaning, truth, language, culture....), then we can form another binary
with identity on one side and differance on the other, but with this
difference - that differance is both one term in the binary, and that which
is the operation of the binary. This is what noise is/does/is not. For Douglas
Kahn, noise drifts across the binary empirical/abstract, such that "when noise
itself is being communicated, [...] it no longer remains inextricably locked
into empiricism but it transformed into an abstraction of another noise" .
In other words, noise is (taken to be) empirical, belonging to the world that
is there in itself, a world of sounds without conscious sources. When such a
view is mobilised, by the dadas, the futurists and so on, then noise becomes
second order: a demonstration of the noise that subsists beyond.
As Kahn rightly notes, there is no noise without the thought of noise, and
ideas about sound can therefore "make an audible event called noise louder than
it might already be"  - noises come
from specific places and specific conceptualisations. At some level, the use
of noise is a bid (however unwitting) to master it (at least in Western modernism),
and reduce its quality as noise: "avant-garde noise, in other words, both marshals
and mutes the noise of the other: power is attacked at the expense of the less
powerful, and society itself is both attacked and reinforced" .
This of course includes the "actual" others of the Western male - woman and
the foreign other particularly significant here. For the purposes of this essay,
it is the use of the exotic other that might be at stake. Kahn observes that
the early modernists" love of "the primitive" led them to (in)appropriate so-called
primitive musics, and "thus, the grinding sound of power relations are heard
here in the way noises contain the other, in both senses of the word"
Perhaps this is what is going on in trying to theorise Japanese noise
music, even when rendering this a theoretical agent. Maybe crucial
cultural elements are missing, leading to presumptions about what is
being produced, based on underinformed hearing. This may be so. But
what needs to be added is that if noise is to be noise, then an
authentic reading (of true meaning) cannot be, cannot take place.
More importantly, Japanese noise has its roots as much in free jazz,
experimental rock music and contemporary classical music, as in
traditional or classical Japanese musics. Part of the "noise" that
unites highly disparate musics under the banner of noise music is
precisely a disruption of Western music and its genres.
Japanese Noise music has existed since the early 1970s, and since the
late 1980s has been increasingly influential. This essay concentrates
on the figure seen to epitomise Japanese noise: Merzbow, essentially
the work of Masami Akita, and even then, only a tiny fraction of his
output. The second half of the essay, including the conclusion, is an
attempt to create a Merzbow/theory object -- failing.
II. Scraped Subjectivity
A recent exploratory political document states that "noise is sound which has
a negative effect on people (unwanted sound)."
According to C.S. Kerse, noise is "sound which is undesired by the recipient",
"a sound without musical quality or an unwanted or undesired sound" (The
Law Relating to Noise, 8). Noise, then is subjective, and this is what vexes
the Law, which exists, according to Jacques Attali, as result of the transformation
of noise into music, into a regulated system, which heralds all regulated systems,
all that comes from the buried sacrifice at the origin of society.
Attali: "Primordially the production of music has as its function the creation,
legitimation and maintenance of order. Its primary function is not to be sought
in aesthetics, which is a modern invention, but in the effectiveness of its
participation in social regulation. Music - pleasure in the spectacle of murder,
organizer of the simulacrum masked beneath festival and transgression - creates
Is noise subjective? Could we not instead say that noise has to do
with the subject: that which occurs as/at the limit of the subject;
that which signals an immanence outside of the subject/object divide,
however reclothed in phenomenology? It would not then be enough to
say "one person's noise is another's music" in some liberalist
fantasy - rather we would have to acknowledge the constructedness of
the "subjectivity of noise".
Technical books on acoustics often assert that noise is in some way biologically
coded - 'we' perceive certain sounds as noise because the vibrations are too
close to the frequencies, rhythms, wavelengths of bodily functions. Others are
noise because they are too alien. This is not totally false, but what is really
at stake here are discourses which presume that there is an absolute, shared
biology, layered with personal freedoms of judgement, feeling and so on. Such
a stratification is also not false, but that does not make it natural, nor the
specific layering a given: it makes an apparent end-result (or beginning-result),
where there could simply be process .
If we are to listen to noise as music, noise designed as music, noise
perhaps designed to stay noise, but to be heard in the conditions
music is listened to, then something must give. Two possible models:
firstly, learn to live with it - adopt an Adorno pattern (didactic)
over a Hegel pattern (post-Hegelian, (un)phenomological), unwittingly
championed by John Cage, and argue that we can, as result of
listening to noise, rather than hearing it involuntarily, relearn how
to approach the world and its cultural 'world' (of course, world and
'world' can be quickly reversed); second model - create a situation
which exposes the 'noise-afflicted subject' to remain so - through an
act of sovereignty (something in Bataille that seems to be mastery,
but undoes itself) consign the subject and its supposedly subordinate
vessel to chora-ness.
How to be a body without organs without being a fusion-loving hippie: after
the schizo, paranoid, hysteric bodies, comes the masochist body: retrained and
subjected as the last choice of the subject, the masochist body is "further"
than the schizo body, leaking its internal organs, becoming pathway, becoming
solid, becoming-becoming. The masochist body has the option of losing itself
as organism through restraint, enclosure, containment (whilst also becoming
someone else's body without organs, becoming body of the other): "it has its
sadist or whore sew it up; the eyes, anus, urethra, breasts and nose are sewn
shut. It has itself strung up to stop the organs from working; flayed, as if
the organs clung to the skin; sodomized, smothered, to make sure everything
is sealed tight" . As a result we have
a version of 'the' body without organs: it "is what remains when everything
is taken away. What you take away is, very specifically, is the [masochist]
phantasy, the whole made up of significations and subjectifications" .
Except that not everything has been taken away - the ears remain open.
Is this so the masochist body can hear instructions? Is this because the body
without organs is really about listening?
It is perhaps that the ears constitute 'an' organ that we cannot control, so
to leave 'it' open is to close the possibility of control through closing -
if the ears were closed, the masochist would again be in charge of the soundworld.
The ears become wound.
A suspicion remains that the unclosed ears maintain a link to the
world of sense - whilst the ears themselves might constitute a wound,
it is an enabling wound, one that (like the pain now disallowed as
warning signal) allows the possibility of processing the world into
meaning. To block the ears would also instigate a possibility of
self-awareness as organism, although a sense of panic, if it
occurred, would be the undoing of this. Even so, the end-result, once
we consider the ears as hearing device, whether open, closed,
blocked, unblocked, the body without organs but with ears is a
naturalised one, one that returns us to a primordial condition (even
if a primordiality that was not primordial, but becomes that which is
returned to as if it were primordial).
The body without organs whose ears are filled with noise, however, is more
(or, more accurately, less) of a body without organs: the noise-filled ear is
no longer capable of hearing the voice of reason, the warnings of danger, the
patterning of sound we somehow have always come to believe constitute not-noise.
The body without organs does not hear or listen to noise, but is (in) the hearing
of noise that exceeds the body that first lost in the sound of its muffled breath,
the movement of liquids and gases, the slight panic pulse.
Deleuze and Guattari are right to note that the body without organs is about
the failure to become: "There is no attaining the Body without Organs -- you
cannot attain it, you never finish getting to it -- it's a limit."
The body without organs cannot become itself, or anything else, and the way
in which this specifically cannot happen is through the multiple failure of
hearing/ears: its mysterious amnesty in _A Thousand Plateaus_, its failure through
noise to process sense, the failure to stop processing, the failure to return
to the 'true' body, and the failure that is the return to the "true" body (in,
for example heightened awareness of the body's function -- although even if
this were possible, it would constitute a forcible intervention in the functioning
of the body). The body without organs is the failure of completion, the failure
of this failure (organ resistance). The failure is the process of becoming,
and becoming-failed is the noise of the attempt to get to the body without organs
- the supplemental 'place' where it cannot be, where only it 'is'.
Another story of the ear related by Kroker is one in which "the ear finally
comes into its own. But not the old ear attached to a living head".
The ear moves into (non)being as a post-masochistic organ without a body. But
as we have seen, also an organ without a body without organs.
Noise can be seen as structural: in the realm of law, of good citizenship,
it is "undesired", or "excessive" sound.
In the realm of Law as that which operates rationality, noise is that which
has always to be excluded -- the exclusion having always already been and (not)
gone, in order that the Law exists. This seems to indicate noise as a category,
like the sublime, of domesticated exclusion. But noise can be conceived of as
process. For Russolo, "[the timbre of noise] is no longer an effect bound
to the causes that produce it (motive energy, striking, friction through speed,
bumping, and so on) owing to and inherent in the purpose of the machine or thing
that makes the noise", and if noise
is process, is always a becoming-noise -- or, alternatively, (not) coming into
(not) being as noise, this exclusion (what we take to be in the exclusion) is
undone when noise 'is', as noise is the coming-undone of noise/organised sound.
Most particularly when noise 'is' where it cannot be -- music.
Noise also has to contain judgement: it is 'unwanted'. Can noise be wanted
- clearly that would then define the noise in question as not-noise. If we are
happy with tautology, we can stay there. Or - let us presume that noise is always
unwanted as a function of wanting (desire, if you must) - it might even be "what
you did not know you wanted" -- as suggested by Attali, when he writes that
new music always emerges as noise in what is to become "the old order": "despite
the death it contains, noise carries order within itself; it carries new information";
as of course suggested by that prime mover of de- and re- territorialisation,
the 'capitalist machine'. The unwanted is not a function of some lack-oriented
mysticism about desire, but the actuality of wanting, once removed from subject/object
control. More simply, though, what if you actually do want to hear something
that is noise - in the shape of unorganised, unpredictable, violent (sometimes
in terms of volume) sound? Attali makes the case that 'music' is heading toward
noise, in the form of unavoidable background music
and in its increased standardisation, where "it is trapped in identity and will
dissolve into noise". The judgement
'I want to listen to noise' is a deterritorialised one - it is occurring without
the subject intervening. Nonetheless, it might be the sign of the dying Subject
grasping for some form of Authentic Existence before disappearing (accompanying
the world of "performance art" into a world of hyper-simulated sacrifice).
Music, according to Attali, is "the organization of noise".
Noise has an existence outside of our conscious control, which is partly natural,
partly social environmental: "life is full of noise and [...] death alone is
silent: work noise, noise of man, noise of beast".
Life, then, is rationalised, brought into line, and rigorously limited. A general
economy of sacrifice, murder, waste is lost, in music, "originating in ritual
murder of which it is the simulacrum".
Attali, however, cannot go so far as to see that noise cannot be natural --
that it is the equivalent of the Nature left behind at the signing of the social
contract -- only coming into (not) being as retrospective, excluded and forbidden.
He clearly states that noise is that which is to be excluded, but not that the
endless and impossible exclusion is where noise 'is' -- crossing and not crossing
the line that is (not) there, as with Foucault's transgression line. Why is
death silent? At a literal level it is noisy -- organs becoming extinct, collapsing,
expanding, rotting -- an endless carnival even before the arrival of other creatures.
Death is silent in the sense of the subject not being there to hear it. Is this
what occurs in Cage's silences? Is the hearing subject absented, rather than,
as Cage wished, brought forcibly into the presence of sounds usually unheard?
Silence, however, is structurally speaking, death - the death of the system
of organised sound, priority of voice, meaning, music.
The death that is fully recognised by the system that excludes it. Silence,
unlike noise, does structure, or let come into structure, systems of meaning.
Noise is too much, is excess as the working of excess (not just the excessive
Noise is excluded for being too natural, but also for being unnatural. Rupert
Taylor, in a burst of retrospective utopianism, asserts that "at the same time
man was learning to create pleasurable stimuli to his sense of hearing, in other
words to create music, he was beginning to pollute his surroundings and blunt
his hearing by making more and more loud and unpleasant crashes and bangs, grindings
and rumbles" (The Law Relating to Noise, 16). Much, maybe all considerations
in terms of noise as a social issue presume noise is that which is to be reduced
(not wrongly, but...) -- so that we can return to what is best for us ("like
water and air pollution, most noise is the result of the decision for technological
progress at the expense of the human environment".[28,
29] The "human environment", endlessly
stabilised, is not nature, however, and is not to contain silence. In fact,
contain silence is precisely what it does, offering endless background noise
(sometimes in the form of music) in order to actively silence, argues Attali.
III. Endless Oscillation of the Material
Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) plays the double game of ambience Attali identifies:
omnipresent sound, becoming noise; noise becoming background. Merzbow music
consists of the debris of music, of sound: pulses, feedback, hisses, whirs,
blasts, distortions, pure tones, shrieks, machine noise -- all played extremely
loud. But this music is noise "all
the way down" -- there is no space for recognisably musical sounds to be overlaid
with distortions (as in 1980s music in the wake of punk), just combinations
of noises, that do not settle into a mantric pulse, or continual explosion ("not
music at all, but rather the intensive expenditure of sound and silence").
The listener struggles to find a way through, in or above the noise music but
gives up at a certain point: rhythms are to be found, frequencies to be followed
-- it is not just random, but - eventually "the listener" is pulverised into
believing there is a link. Noise music becomes ambience not as you learn how
to listen, or when you accept its refusal to settle, but when you are no longer
in a position to accept or deny. Perhaps the "experienced listener" can manage
whole albums, concerts -- Merzbow has the answer in the shape of the 50CD Merzbox.
The possibility of mastery, of "learning to hear anew" etc. -- held out as
if possible -- endlessly broken (to keep the possibility open as indefinite
promise) by alteration, by blurring of the strata of sound, is what feeds the
continual excess of noise music. Noise music is the endless sacrifice of art
music didacticism and of restricted economy "noise" (metal, hardcore of all
It seems like a claim could be made for Merzbow to be the avant-garde,
perpetually renewing the art, moving the boundaries etc., but actually noise
music inhabits the failure of the avant-garde to be, to come to be. Schwitters
wanted his Merz to redefine our relation to the material, to value, to
what art could be. This then is brought to the interior, and shores up the
monument of art. Merzbow does not want to live in a house full of crap,
or outside it, neither does it want to live in a new crappy house: it wants
to knock down the house it lives in, to live in it. Even this is too much, though:
Merzbow actually wants to find a rundown house made up of broken stuff, and
break it. Over and over.
The reason Merzbow cannot be avant-garde (or is the avant-garde that cannot
be: i.e., the avant-garde) is that the breaking is static: like Paul Virilio's
speed, Merzbow's destruction of music attains a point of stillness, one
composed of total movement (and like Nietzsche's "moment" of eternal return).
The world of 'the now', this now, always now, comes together as interface, as
the non-place of speed as non-movement.
This in turn signals the possibility of "crash music",
emerging at a new stage of hearing (generally neglected with the presumption
that the digital world is one of images alone), such that we can now take noise/"crash
music" to be "so seductive because of its fascinating logic of an always promised
imminent reversibility: pure ecstasy/pure catastrophe".
This imminent reversibility, occurs as solid, as immanence.
Merzbow eludes Adorno's critique of aleatory music (whilst wilfully staying
within its purview): "today's artists would rather do away with unity altogether,
producing open, unfinished works, or so they think. The problem is that in planning
openness they necessarily impart another kind of unity unbeknown to themselves".
The apparent aleatorics of noise signal an endless closing, a ceasing filling,
but always, at any one time, ceaseless. Noise music (which is admittedly not
the same as Adorno's actual target -- the music of Cage or those who followed
in the 1960s and 1970s, but bearing in mind his even stronger 'critique' of
jazz, I think we might be able to infer a line of tech flight to noise music),
seems to fall into Adorno's trap: in terms of the title which takes on an increased
significance, as we search to impose some form of sense, even if we do not necessarily
seek to do this. Not having any titles would be just as caught within the loop:
the subject now the ineffable abstraction of sound, noise, music etc., or as
with some abstract painting, the subject becomes the Subject, working itself
through on the canvas. The title (in Merzbow's music) sets up a process wherein
it cannot become the subject of the music: there is no metonymy, mimesis, metaphor
to be had - and yet, the title makes it ~as if~ such things were possible -
as with the structure of the 'pieces' (Akita: "When I use words, say album titles,
they are not chosen to convey any meanings. They are merely selected to mean
With this in mind, Merzbow's Antimonument (1991) can be seen as a mission
statement -- both for and against Schwitters, Merzbow attacks the solidity of
Hegelianised Western culture, through five tracks of seemingly arbitrary lengths,
made up of arbitrarily selected sounds, moving along but not. In fact, Antimonument
is quite 'readable' - centred on arrhythmic, treated percussion: the monument
has yet to be left behind -- but this is still music with the music taken out
- hardly any attack in the percussive sounds, distortion, and unpredictable
'interruptions' by hisses, static and so on constituting the material proper.
Akita specifies that the reference to the Merzbau is one of decreasing
relevance: "the name is only important to my early work, which I thought related
to the concept of Merzbau".[39,
40] Antimonument is Akita leaving
the building. The building, the monument that is progressively deserted in Antimonument,
as the tracks grow sparser, is a double one: it is the leaving of a traditional
Japanese music (that Merzbow never completes -- "Japanese sounds and instruments
are used but their character is often purposely extinguished in the mix",),
and also the leaving of the Western monument. Why should he even be near this,
except in a Western-centred model? Because philosophically, musically, politically
and economically, Japan has not stayed outside the Western monument. This despite
a certain exoticist attribution of lack of meaning, of, therefore, an atheoretical
purity -- "Japanese artists use Noise simply as cathartic release without the
philosophical underpinnings"  --
emptying the space to fill it, if not with Western meaning, then with Western
emptiness. Masami Akita is interested in philosophy: in Eastern: "Japanese Noise
relishes the ecstasy of sound itself and the concepts come from the sound. It
is a tradition of eastern philosophy to base theory on real experience" ,
and in Western: in the form of explicit references to contemporary theory (Derrida,
Foucault, and Bataille, whose use is contemporary), and implicit ones: "noise
is the nomadic producer of difference" .
In today's restricted (but generalised) music economy, we have had
the ludicrous 'world music', and also the real world music Attali
hints at: ambient pap. Alongside these particular versions, is
another (anti)global music: Japanese noise music: a refusal through
over-acceptance of Western genre, such that genre does not work:
hence Japanese noise music's different take on violence and sound,
away from heroic (tragic) mastery of or submission to "the horror,
pain etc., of the world" (this despite the importance of bondage as a
reference for Masami Akita). Against generic noise, but with the
noise of genre.
There is a sense of progression in Merzbow's oeuvre, as the materials alter,
and the recording capacities of CD technology allow a greater range of frequencies
to seep in. David Keenan argues that Noisembryo (1994) "is the quintessential
Merzbow release" due to its power,
volume, and force - this, then is what had been aimed at all along, in the teleological
version. Noise, however, does not necessarily have anything to do with these
factors, and their having an apotheosis. The "sheer noise" of the mid 1990s
releases could be described as a different sort of zenith in terms of the fact
that there just is 'more'. Instead of a Hegelian progress, a Sadean, additive
process. This 'more' has to be more than more; otherwise we are just in the
realm of groups such as Whitehouse, whose purpose often seems to be to attain
a position of mastery over noise.
This more than more is, perhaps inevitably, a less: Merzbow can never get to
the zenith, because Merzbow's music is doomed to fall: it is always open to
assimilation as music -- or, it is not assimilable, and therefore it claims
transcendence. Or, in some notional noise/music dialectic, in being on the limit,
it fails to resolve, and fails to fail - because it is noise music, it cannot
belong, dwell. Instead it is dwelling, part of a plateau, rhizome etc., with
'the listener', noise as becoming-noise, as well as becoming-music.
Noisembryo opens with a blast of noise that endlessly mutates across
the album, interrupted by (the noise of?) silence three times. Always differentiated,
this is noise that does not settle, where even the volume -- or mass of sound
-- cannot be perceived as consistent as the pitches of the specific strata are
continually shifting, whilst not at any one time covering the whole range. This
album is noise as the immanence beyond, beneath, above the noise/music divide:
noise as the emptying immanence.
It might seem that some form of communing, however perverse, might be possible.
If so, it is that community which is not realisable, the one 'present' in Bataillean
sacrifice -- Thacker notes that in Music for Bondage Performance (1991) we see
"the body of music filled with excess and volume, presented as the tension-filled
inability of excess to fulfil itself",
and this "body of music "is" the body of listener, the music as material, the
hearing as solid, and the un-communion of these, all at once. Thacker further
claims that noise is the accursed share of the sound worlds, and therefore itself
in the position of that which is to be sacrificed.
But it is Bataille's conception of immanence that is of interest here, as its
dividing off of animal from human stands in parallel to that of noise and music,
with the former term the always (to be) excluded that can return, but which
'we' cannot be. Bataille suggests that the animal is like "water in water",
which seems to be what is happening if immersed in noise, if liable to suggest
some kind of sacrificial wholeness, a form of rescue.
Japanese noise will not get us there, any more than sacrifice. Immanence is
not only what is beyond (performative negativities like object, nature, the
other) but what is (not) beyond: that which is the beyond of the beyond, only
insofar as there is no such place to be.
Bataille: "I am able to say that the animal world is that of immanence and
immediacy, for that world, which is closed to us, is so to the extent that we
cannot discern in it an ability to transcend itself. [...] It is only within
the limits of the human that the transcendence of things in relation to consciousness
(or of consciousness in relation to things) is manifested."
There is no place for the object or the subject's transcendence, coming to
be, getting beyond that coming to be in knowing about it, or being known, when
immanence is the field. The 'consciously' constructed sound of Noisembryo
moves into the smooth space of immanence as it eludes the knowable world of
other noise (of noise 'in the world'), which is held at a distance. This set
of sounds brings the distance near, and this just as much when blasts of 'different
coloured' noises slide across each other, a third of the way into "Part Two"
as when 'the' noise falls away into a distorted drone halfway into "Part Three".
Noise as event, as excess of eventness, because unlike late serialism, it does
not leave gaps peppered with inane atonalities. It is gap, non-tonality.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the non-place of the body without organs is (in)
immanence, and is itself (as immanence) the non-place of desire.
However, they do not see any totally free music being the way, as "a material
that is too rich remains too 'territorialized'"
-- too diffuse, too noisy. Such emphasis on getting outside music has held us
back/in, as "people often have too much of a tendency to reterritorialize on
the child, the mad, noise". We are
back once more with Deleuze and Guattari's still open ears: open but not too
open (not open enough?). These are ears that can learn, that can discern patterns,
and the undoing of patterns, not ears that might be held forcibly open.
What happens when you hit something like ultimate noise (it cannot be described
as pure)? Where is there to go? In order for it to always (fail to) be ultimate,
it must go nowhere, but go it must, dromological. Before the sovereignty of
Merzbox (which is largely older materials in any case), comes Pulse
Demon (1995). The title obliges an attribution of purpose: we know what
Merzbow is up to, maybe he is becoming increasingly Hegelian, and attempting
to map all noise, with this being his exploration of 'the pulse'. I suspect
there are no more or less pulse actions in this album than any other mid 1990s
Merzbow albums. What is indicated
is the arbitrariness of signification, an arbitrariness which serves to highlight
another difference between Merzbow and Western 'avant-garde' music: randomness,
as Deleuze suspects, is not really very interesting, but arbitrariness - chance
as destiny, read as if there were variation (or indeed as if there were not)
- carries noise as process, as that which intervenes 'between' noise and organised
sound. Pulse Demon is undeniably 'organised sound' - it has differentiated
tracks, titles for these, and seemingly significant times: we might get the
impression that if all this noise has been split into 6.42 ("Woodpecker no.1"),
or 24.53 ("Worms Plastic Earthbound"), that the duration might be significant.
But many (possibly all) Merzbow 'pieces' of this period are cut, not ended.
Their beginning is often cut, so there will never be a sense of attack
-- we are immediately in the realm of distortion, hiss, pulse, squawks etc.,
-- of the effects of actions, not the direct products -- noise all the way down.
The organisational frame of the album undoes the possibility of this being 'pure
noise' or even an exploration of duration (very few Merzbow albums consist only
of one track). Instead we are in the curious position of listening as if it
were noise (i.e. because framed as if it were music). Any settling into listening
to this 'stuff' as if it really were either noise or music is very much the
'consolation' Nietzsche hints at in The Birth of Tragedy as being our
way of minimising the otherness of sounds presented in a musical frame.
Such a 'consolation' is not an individual failing, but a systemic success of
failure to fail.
IV. Is Nothing not Enough?
Once again, and still: what if we do not want the consolation (consolation
of noise being music really; of noise being natural; of noise being an escape,
a line of flight that might go somewhere; of noise being a ruse of power)? Noise
can perhaps never escape (it might be the 'as if' escape were possible), as
it comes in with voice, language and meaning.
Derrida asks of philosophy (here, as often, standing for sense, rationality,
discourse, (search for) truth, etc.) whether it can exceed itself: "can one
violently penetrate philosophy's field of listening without its immediately
-- even pretending in advance, by hearing what is said of it, by decoding the
statement -- making the penetration resonate within itself [...]?" ("Tympan",
xii). Derrida's answer is, as always, that the outside of philosophy (or of
organised sound as philosophy) is to be found at work in/on/as the inside of
philosophy - with the inside being the outside of the outside, and the process
that (never fully) establishes the divide. Zarathustra's hammer instead is the
condition of its other, and the othering between Same and Other (xii-xiii),
such that we should be interested in the limit itself, and not what is beyond
it, the marginality of the margin itself, and so on. Japanese noise might be
such a negotiation of the limit, but one that only works as such because it
declares itself outside, is the declaration, the announcing of outside. The
'real' noise in noise music is this (not) crossing of the line that is (not)
there: noise is not the other of the other that equals the same, but the other
of the other as non-line, as what cannot be the same and cannot inhabit otherness.
Where Derrida is outflanked by Merzbow is that Derrida says you cannot get outside,
you cannot consciously undo philosophy with a hammer, therefore you should not
do it -- instead you should not attack directly (xv); should take an interest
in "timbre, style, and signature [as they] are the same obliterating division
of the proper" (xix). Why not do it? Why not do it, knowing it cannot
be done, that your noise is fatally compromised, part of failure?
Merzbow is the getting outside that is not the completion of a new "inside",
but an endless outside, fated to be inside only to fail to ~ever be~ because
of this arbitrary and perverse relation to the inside (of organised sound).
Where Derrida says "no", Merzbow is an immanent "yes".
 Douglas Kahn
, Noise Water Meat:
A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1999),
 Ibid., p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 45.
 European Commission Report: Position
Paper on European Union Noise Indicators (Luxembourg: European Communities,
2000), p. 71.
 C.S. Kerse, The Law Relating to
Noise (London: Oyez, 1975), p. 8. Rupert Taylor also describes noise as
"unwanted sound" (Noise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 22).
 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political
Economy of Music (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p.
30. Originally written in 1977, this text remains vital in assessments of freedom,
control, subversion, radicality, recuperation etc. in terms of human-produced
sound. The argument here that "Japanese noise" is that which specifically exceeds
his argument should in no way be taken as criticism of Attali. One criticism
that could be made of Attali is that he presumes that music has a single origin/reason/purpose.
Music could be said to be always already plural. Such would be the argument
of Philip V. Bohlman's "Ontologies of Music", in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist
(eds.), Rethinking Music (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,
1999), 17-34 -- even if this article provides nothing in the way of ontology,
as understood since phenomenology.
 Arthur Kroker: "Hearing has always
been alchemical, a violent zone where sound waves mutate into a sedimentary
layer of cultural meanings, where historical referents secrete into contemporary
states of subjectivity, and where there is no stability, only an aural logic
of imminent reversibility" (Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music, Electric
Flesh (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). The alchemy is one the body,
the ears, the sound, noise, codings, listening practices etc. and cannot be
definitively described or known, except as a statement about how a particular
society, at a particular time, seeks to encode, to end transformations.
 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand
Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 150.
 Ibid., p. 151 (translation modified).
 The body of organs, of identity
(not forgetting that organs without a body might be more dangerous still) has
privileged the eye, and in contemporary culture, makes this privileging a site
of control: "the eye is a masochistic orifice in the age of panoptic power,
capable of endless discipline and of being seduced beyond bodily subjectivity
into a floating free fall within the society of the spectacle", leaving the
ear repressed, except in terms of receiving "spectacular" sound (muzak, MTV)
(Kroker, Spasm, 49). The body without organs, though, would not free us from
this, but drive us further in, playing masochism beyond jouissance. "Freeing"
the ear would not liberate us, either. Rather, the ear has to become masochistic,
in the Deleuzian sense (see "Coldness and Cruelty" in Masochism (New
York: Zone, 1994), 9-138) instead of being forced to submit. It must then renounce
both control and contract. There is, of course, another story of the eye --
Bataille's, followed up by Foucault, in which the upturned eye, removed, trans(un)figured,
is the site of the loss of meaning. Eugene Thacker assimilates this story with
noise music: "the visuality of Bataille transgressing itself is analogous to
the music of noise" ("Bataille/Body/ Noise: Notes Toward a Techno-Erotics",
(63), in Brett Woodward (ed.), Merzbook: The Pleasuredome of Noise (Melbourne,
Cologne: Extreme, 1999), 57-65). The comparison is perhaps too easy as the ear
does not have the status of the eye, nor is music of noise in itself capable
of the reversibility of the eye, which seeks to be both medium and control of
 Derrida seems to "prefigure" this
in writing that "to forget it [the role of the ear, and of listening] - and
in so doing to take shelter in the most familial of dwellings - is to cry out
for end of organs, of others" "Tympan", (Margins of Philosophy (Brighton:
Harvester Press, 1982), ix-xxix), xvii. This occurs because the ear allows hearing
of one's own self and voice, leading to the non-conception (as unproblematised)
of self-presence or "absolute properness" (ibid.). Derrida, however, in turn,
has not questioned whether an ear can be less than open or closed, and could
in fact be filled. See also Hegel, making essentially the same point: "hearing
[...], like sight, is one of the theoretical and not practical senses, and it
is still more ideal than sight", as it gets the subject to "the first and more
ideal breath of the soul" (Aesthetics, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University
Press, 1975), 890).
 C.S. Kerse, citing Samuel Rosen,
notes that "at an unexpected or unwanted noise, the pupils dilate, the skin
pales, mucous membranes dry; there are intestinal spasms and the adrenals explode
secretions. The biological organism, in a word, is disturbed" (The Law Relating
to Noise, 7)
 Deleuze and Guattari, op. cit.,
 Kroker, op. cit., p. 47.
 Kerse, op. cit., p. 3.
 Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises
(New York: Pendragon, 1986), p. 87.
 Noise is not differance
- it is an emptier of links, relations, processes, not that which holds them
mysteriously together. It is Bataille's "NOTHING", not the nothing that is the
opposite of something, or the reason why there might be something instead of
nothing. It is the thing which stops there having been a reason for something
 Attali, op. cit., p. 33.
 Op. cit., pp. 111-12.
 Op. cit., p. 45.
 The dying subject is not one reaching
out for the answer, but reaching into its disappearance in noise. For Nietzsche,
"the Dionysiac, with its primal pleasure experienced in pain, is the common
womb of music and the tragic myth" (The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit
of Music (London: Penguin, 1993), 115). In looking at tragedy, he writes,
we seek to go beyond its pain, and, similarly "with reference to artistically
applied dissonance [...] we want to hear and long to go beyond hearing" (ibid.).
Rather than take this as the suggestion we might learn from what is difficult,
painful, etc., we could take this as stating the case for not going beyond noise:
the act of listening to noise is one of supplementarity: the beyond of noise
(initially music)is the precondition for listening to noise, so as to get to
"the beyond of noise" (which now is that there is only noise, and that the beyond
of noise is what can never have been attained). In listening to noise, though,
the loss is played over again always for the first time, as opposed to being
the excluded loss of foundation (the "birth of sense"...).
 Attali, op. cit., p. 4.
 Op. cit., p. 3.
 Op. cit., p. 4.
 Michael Nyman notes that Cage
discovers the impossibility of silence on a visit to Harvard's anechoic chamber,
where he still hears his own body (Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond,
2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 25-6. Cage's famous
4'33" "is a demonstration of the non-existence of silence" p. 26.
 This has led many others, as well
as Attali, to assert that noise is life, or nearer to life's "real processes".
Russolo states that "noise [...] has the power of immediately recalling life
itself" (The Art of Noises, 27). This, coming as it does from the "pioneer"
of noise in/as music, could be taken not as a simple naturalism, but as a parallel
with "bare" or "mere" life (Benjamin, Agamben). Noise for Russolo also signals
the life that had already moved on from nature, that is the excluding of nature
- i.e. the city. Masami Akita (Merzbow) concurs: "noise is one of the most primitive
music forms in the modern city" (in Woodward (ed.), Merzbook, 11). Is
this to naturalise noise? Only before we think about music: for noise to be
some sort of fundamental music demonstrates Akita's awareness that the noise
of the city comes as a result of organisation, of power systems, of restricted
economies of signification.
 Kearse, op. cit., p. 1.
 Adorno claims aeroplane noise
ruins walks in the forest (Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1984), 311) -- noise is wrong because not part of true nature, but what
Adorno is also claiming ("despite himself") is that noise is also ruinous of
nature as acculturated Nature - as it is an uncontrolled incursion into a humanised
sphere, immanence in the subject/object field. Hegel argues that to overcome
this "problem", music must moderate "the natural": "the notes [are] not to be
a purely natural shriek of feeling but the developed and artistic expression
of it" (Aesthetics, vol II, 910) - so music is neither too natural nor unnatural
(it is to express what is now left behind as natural).
 Attali, op. cit., p. 20 and passim.
 Amplification - the technological
means for producing noise as volume of sound, as well as feedback systems (if
not the only means) is an essential part of the development of noise music,
which at the risk of being slightly determinist, arises (in the Japan of the
early 1970s) out of the combination of improvised music in the form of free
jazz, and the improvised rock of a similar period, which relies for its effect,
on the power of amplification, the distortions of feedback. Douglas Kahn
with experiments with noise and sound, signals the importance of technological
developments in the alterations in ways of thinking sound, noise, music (see
Noise Water Meat, 2-13 and passim).
 Thacker, op. cit., p. 63.
 Noise music is also the sacrifice
of the "music business", the rendering of it as general, rather than restricted
economy, through its disruptive methods of releasing recordings on many labels,
in limited and peculiar editions, direct sales. Woodward notes "the creation
and production of such items intentionally subverts late capitalism's notions
of the marketplace, the performer/audience relationship and entertainment commodity
production and distribution" ("A Machinic Scream" (33), in Merzbook,
33-6). Before we get carried away with some postmodernistic praise for the artisanal
symbiosis between musician and listener, it is worth noting that concerts are
infrequent, and a literal distance maintained, a distance allowed by the very
processes of subverting "late capitalism". This is a deterritorialisation that
stays one -- i.e. carries no autonomous radicality.
 See Virilio, The Lost Dimension
(New York: Semiotext(e), 1991).
 Kroker, op. cit., p. 54.
 Adorno, op. cit., p. 204.
 Akita in _Merzbook_, p. 40.
 Akita cf. Edwin Pouncy, "Consumed
by Noise", The Wire, vol. 198 (2000), p. 29.
 Op. cit., pp. 26-32. This interview
and overview is a solid introduction to Merzbow, whilst being caught up with
the "musicality of the noise". Pouncey stresses the learning experience, with
statements such as "when the listener has attuned his or her hearing perspective"
(26), "the fact is that to understand, enjoy and eventually reach noise nirvana
through Masami Akita's work, you have to listen to a hell of a lot of it" (27).
These sentiments are echoed by David Keenan's top ten Merzbow albums (The
Wire, vol 198, 32-3).
 Akita, in Woodward, op. cit.,
 Woodward, op. cit., pp. 14, 12-15.
 Akita, in Merzbook, op.
cit., p. 23.
 Op. cit., p. 9 and elsewhere,
as the contributors love repeating it.
 The Wire, Vol. 198, p.
 See for example Never Forget Death
(1992), which warns that "Torture Chamber" (a track of mounting "white noise")
should not be played excessively loud -- i.e. because it is inherently loud.
 "Bataille/Body/ Noise: Notes Toward
a Techno-Erotics", op. cit., p. 58.
 Op. cit., p. 59.
 Theory of Religion, (New
York: Zone, 1989), p. 23.
 Op. cit.
 Op. cit., pp. 23-24.
 Deleuze and Guattari, op. cit.,
 Op. cit., p. 344.
 To be fair to Deleuze and Guattari,
Japanese noise was far from a breakthrough in 1980, although nearly all of today's
"recognised practitioners" were active then. Their unfortunate espousal of the
"influential" Varese is just one example of why caution should be taken with
imagining Deleuze and Guattari as signposts for the future. In one sense this
lack of awareness of the contemporary is itself contemporary -- not in terms
of some sort of "dumbing down", but just in terms of the retro-future we seem
to inhabit in terms of future music (for example in The Matrix, whose
future remains 1985).
 If this seems a very specific dating,
it nonetheless applies to perhaps 20 albums. Merzbow's output is immense: in
addition to the 50 contained in Merzbox, there are another 150+ recordings.
 Nietzsche suggests that if music
can rediscover its links to the emptiness that is "true reality, through an
appreciation of every "phenomenon", then we will experience some kind of catharsis
(see 94, in particular). In the light of the later preface, however, where "perhaps
as laughers you will consign all metaphysical consolations to the devil -- and
metaphysics in front of the rest!" (12), much of the main text suggests a proto-Bataillean
recognition of a fearful, sacrificial, dangerous general economy of "ugly" sound,
brought inevitably into a restricted economy where we "get something from it".
See for example 83-4, where "consolation" with regard to the ineffability of
things is one of "three levels of illusion" (84), not the hidden truth, or goal.
The inevitability of the restricted economy can be seen in the inevitable influence
of Apollo (rationality, wisdom, accumulation of knowledge): "the Apolline lifts
man out of his orgiastic self-destruction, and deceives him about the universality
of the Dionysiac event, deluding him into the idea that he can see only a single
image of the world" (102).
 This despite the ineffability
claimed for noise (and claimed throughout history for "that which goes beyond
language" - music, the image, the world, gods, etc). Woodward's version of this:
"It's almost the inability to definitively describe Merzbow's music with the
limitations of the written word that is the testament to its thrill and power,
intricacy and convolution" ("The Nomadic Producer of Difference", in Merzbook,
 We can compare Derrida's deconstructing
binaries with those Attali establishes through noise and music, as in the following:
"Music responds to the terror of noise, recreating differences between sounds
and repressing the tragic dimension of dissonance - just as sacrifice responds
to the terror of violence. Music has been, from its origin, a simulacrum of
the monopolization of the power to kill, a simulacrum of ritual murder" (Noise,
28). Noise and music blur when sacrifice is at issue, when music is excessive
and essentially ritual, such that "music functions like sacrifice; listening
to noise is a little like being killed" (ibid.).
Paul Hegarty teaches at University College, Cork. He also Dj's
Japanese Noise Music.
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