words :: Music Review
NoisEmbryo: The Influence of Japanese Noise Music
Music Review by ROBERT JARRELL | 22. MARCH 2009
The spirit of noise is the destruction of fixed ideas. Some people say it is masturbation, but it is fun to watch others masturbate.
B ar Noise opened in Osaka, Japan, in 1995. It played noise as background music and scheduled live noise shows every Sunday. It was a cramped venue, only seating a maximum of twenty people, making live shows unique for any dedicated fan because only few people had the privilege of experiencing them. The owner Katsumi Nozu used to warn new customers: “We are playing various sound, so if you are worried, come with your friends.” The bar represented emerging noise artists such as Nan, Mutant, and Solmania at a transition time in the genre.
Six years after Bar Noise opened and vanished, a music critic for the Austin Chronicle in the U.S. declared in his review of the SXSW music festival: “If you want to see something interesting or hear something unlike anything you’ve heard before, go check out the bands from Japan.” He wrote this in 2001 and witnessed eX-Girl and 00100 perform. He possibly could have said the same thing in 1991, but not in 1981 or 1971. Although Japanese musicians have been creating interesting music for the last four decades, such as free-jazz in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and interpretations of punk and new wave in the '70s and '80s, the most notable breakthroughs occurred during the late ’80s and early ‘90s, predominantly with noise music from Merzbow, The Boredoms, Hijokaidan, and The Incapacitants. These “units” had been around since the late ‘70s, but it took a decade for underground fans and a mixture of alternative/mainstream media to discover them. Since then, noise has come and somewhat gone (but not entirely), and has influenced onkyo and improv, two new genres of Japanese music that have taken cue and expanded on noise's non-music approaches while struggling in an unsupportive music industry.
Noise exists in the underground, where it belongs. It was created by musicians who needed a cathartic outlet and refused to create music that sounded anything like music.
Noise is not exclusively responsible for onkyo or improv’s emergence. Western music has certainly had an influence, but the methods and attitude of noise has served as an embryo, a source for other experimental music to develop from. As the word itself suggest, noise is loud and intentionally irritating, utilizing techniques such as circuit bending, field recordings, and expressionistic distortion. After noise reached its peak in the early '90s it took awhile for Japanese musicians to abandon it while continuing to use the same kind of technology and language to eventually arrive at the restrained beauty of onkyo and conceptual expressions of improv.
Noise, after three decades, still has enough merit to solicit curiosity and interest. It is an intriguing genre because it reveals the Japanese musician’s capacity to simultaneously connect and disconnect to their homogeneous culture and ability to Japanize, without conscious intent, a genre of music that did not exist before. For once it was Japan that created a new form of music without borrowing. Japanese noise musicians were certainly aware of groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, but that was industrial music and did not contain the same kind of purism that noise would come to define.
Noise has a spectacular sensibility — an attitude for being loud, dark, and disturbing on many levels. Reflecting on noise twenty years after its birth reveals how Japanese culture is extremely open, more so than any other Asian country. You might find an occasional punk or alternative rock band in Hong Kong or Thailand, but you don’t find any noise bands. Since noise is very active in America, Europe, and Australia, it reinforces the idea that Japan identifies more strongly and can express itself in modes similar to Western cultures. However, noise is not for everyone in Japan and is probably not known by many. Noise exists in the underground, where it belongs. It was created by musicians who needed a cathartic outlet and refused to create music that sounded anything like music.
One of the apparent cultural traditions present in contemporary Japanese music is ma, the concept of space of time often expressed in paintings, architecture, food presentation, the entrance to a tatami room, and even human relations. Japanese seem to be born with it, yet it’s something they rarely talk about. One of ma’s central concepts is that emptiness of composition is as important as the subject. Many underground musicians have a strong sense of ma and you can hear the emptiness, or in terms of music—the silence—acting as juxtaposition. Recently, silence has become key for many Japanese musicians. An example is Kozo Inada’s “a,” a short track about two minutes long that incorporates both noise and onkyo. The first minute and fifteen seconds of “a” consist of simple recordings of rain, water, and silence that overlap unpredictably and eventually surges into a burst of threatening static. The beauty of “a” is not only the shift from water to static, but how it abruptly cuts off at the point where the static is too intense. The following silence is an awakening as it recedes back to water for the remaining 25 seconds. It’s simple, intriguing, and full of ma.
Inada’s “a” also brings to mind the Japanese process of taming nature. The culture is stereotypically known for being fond of nature and it is sometimes true, but not as true for the Japanese as it is any other culture. The recent transformation of a postmodern city like Tokyo and the Japanese fondness for hi-tech-culture has certainly shifted values. Japanese appreciate nature most when transformed into manicured parks and gardens. They like nature controlled and prefer subdued beauty to the wild. They have a long tradition of transforming forests into art — gardens that are microcosmic paradigms of man’s relationship to nature. It is not a trivial undertaking, not a meaningless space. The Zen garden, for example, is pleasant, but it is also existential and meditative. Inada takes elements of nature such as water and silence and contrast it with noise and electronics to create his own kind of Zen garden with “a.”
When noise faded in the mid-to-late ‘90s and onkyo emerged, it was the calm light at the end of the noisy tunnel. Onkyo, rendered with different sensibilities, adapted the abstract qualities and freedom of noise and developed “sound echo music,” a blending of nursery electronics with field recordings and textural sampling. Onkyo is quiet, abstract, and dreamy, often fragmenting sounds into repeated loops that sound like echoes. It usually contains no beats in terms of drum machines or the like, but often has some form of percussion. Onkyo can be compared to western electronic music such as Mouse on Mars, Four Tet, Boards of Canada, or Two Lone Swordsmen, but without any beat or dance component. The genre is represented best by Miroque, Susumu Yokota ,Takagi Masakatsu, Aki Tsuyuko, Dill, and Cat or Die. Many musicians work within both extremes such as the Kozo Inada example or musicians like Haco, Aube, and Otomo Yoshihide.
The timing of onkyo’s emergence is worthy of discussion because it occurred when Japan (and the world) entered the new millennium, a transition in time and history that is considered to be transformative in terms of technology, information, and spirituality. Onkyo has the quality of spirituality nurturing that is innefable and may be understood better by a future society. I say this because the music feels ahead of our time and certainly has yet to be heard by the masses. Onkyo has electronic and techno qualities, but is not cold or distant. Rather the music contains ethereal, calming tonalities, which are closely tied to similar ambient music of the west (i.e. Jon Hassel, Brian Eno, and Cluster). When I listen to onkyo I feel consciousness expanding, a wordless music utilizing the language of noise transformed into beauty.
A good example of this is Miroque’s Botanical Sunset. One of the tracks, “Hi-fi Wave Bell”, begins with a strange loop of sounds difficult to describe because it is abstract. It could be a prayer wheel or mechanical device that swivels and clicks repeatedly. It sounds slightly cartoonish, yet immediately begs attention as it skips along at a brisk pace for half minute, and then suddenly—silence— followed by waves of beautiful, overlapping bells and gongs. The juxtaposition is striking, but the feeling it induces is the reward.
Why onkyo and why Japan? For anyone who has traveled to Tokyo or any other major city in Japan the question is easily answered. Tokyo represents, by manner of its architecture, efficient public transit system, multi-ethnic fashion, techno aesthetic, and fast paced lifestyle, the epitome of a future society. If a person is in the right frame of mind, it is a pleasure to experience a city like Tokyo, yet there are no doubt travelers and natives whose feelings toward the metropolis are not as optimistic. I imagine that people who do like Tokyo are most likely young and probably grew up with computers, animation, and digital arts. They have most likely been exposed to or lived in urban environments and like postmodern arts. Tokyo, as well as onkyo, captures those qualities very well. Tokyo is a city of the future in the present.
The onkyo musician as a human being communicates how it feels to be alive during such a transition in the new millennium. Listening to onkyo and other new genres while visiting Japan and having the opportunity to meet some of the key musicians, I realize how amazing it is for them to live in a country saturated with tradition while exhibiting a highly creative, technological culture. When in Tokyo, I feel transformations occurring rapidly and onkyo is its musical manifestation.
Improv is a new genre in Japan that emerged shortly after onkyo did. Although the genre name has similarities to improvisation of the free-jazz movement of the early 60s and 70s in Japan, it is quite different in process and has more depth conceptually. It attempts to cross genre boundaries in terms of time and space. Nothing is new, everything has been created before; musicians such as Toshimaru Nakamura and Taku Sugimoto realize this, yet they also know there can still be silence and accidental noise. Like onkyo, improv is derivative of noise and uses performance as a vehicle for creation. Improv can have melody or be absent of it. It can be quietly spacious or noisily active. It references and denies. It attempts. It listens.
Meeting at Bar Aoyama was one of the first places in Tokyo to capture the improvisation scene in its first wave. It comprised The Composed Music Series that was developed by three musicians: Tetuzi Akiyama, Taku Sugimoto, and Toshimaru Nakamura. Sugimoto, considered one of the key members, had the impulse to defy a live concert venue and opted for a gallery atmosphere because he sensed that improv was better suited for that environment. Off Site, located in Yoyogi, was where the second wave happened. The space was better suited for Sugimoto’s ideas and produced more interesting results. At Off Site artists and musicians took advantage of a new type of venue space, one not typical of a live venue. Off Site had limitations that became strengths. One limitation was its location in a private residential block. The other was that the Off Site building was made of wood and had no soundproofing. Sounds could not be amplified or too loud for neighbors to tolerate. It forced musicians to simplify key musical elements. Their solution was to take old forms of noise music’s distorted guitars and abstract samples and go in the opposite direction. It let ambient noise, those found at the Off Site environment (the neighborhood noise of cars, bicycles, footsteps, conversations, wind, opening and closing doors) and combined these with occasional outputs of non-music, silence that is not really silent. It also separated musicians by situating them in opposite parts of rooms and let the audience roam around the musicians during performances. The audience, in a way, became its own mixing board. For example, standing in one part of the room close to Sugimoto’s guitar playing sounded different if you were in the opposite part of the space.
Since Off Site was also a gallery, cafe, and shop, and because it was located in a residential block, it suggested to those who participated in the musical performances that it was an art space rather than a music space. The performances became conceptualized; making it silent in similar ways that John Cage would interpret silence (full of sound happenings such as his piece 4’33”). But 50 years after Cage’s concepts, silence has still not been accepted. Taku Sugimoto has questioned silence and explores the relationship between sounds and silence in hopes of providing a new way of experiencing the imperceptible world. His task as a musician is to use silence as a way to seek something meaningful in a futile world. Art, in many cultures around the world, has become like TV. It doesn’t change us; it is only entertainment. What Sugimoto seeks is something spiritual, real culture, a vertical quality that is as powerful as a tower.
As a denoted genre name, improv has broken away from what traditional improvisational music has defined in the past. For Sugimoto and others, improv is not about reacting/not reacting:
It’s much easier if you react or don’t react to the atmosphere, or the environment. When I am sitting, waiting for the next note, perhaps a train passes. I can decide to play or not. I used to play like that. But I’m not interested in that way any more, so I need to change the plan. Even now I tend to take decisions according to the audience, but I’m searching.
Off Site is an example of the growing trend of sites throughout Japan such as Gendai Heights in Shimokitzawa, also a venue for experimental music and visual art as well as a comfortable place to hang out, drink, and eat. These types of venues often rent gallery space to artists to help support other projects or simply to pay the rent, but they are also supporting experimental musicians and artists by offering a space other traditional music venues cannot. Not only has the underground music changed in Japan, but also the type of venue supporting it.
All of these musicians I’ve mentioned, from Miroque to Taku Sugimoto, deserve respect not only because they are talented, but because making a living as a underground musician in Japan is difficult. There is little cultural or financial support. Most major labels work tightly with the media (especially glossy music magazines) to keep the money machine going and generally support only what sells, which is thousands of bland, unmemorable J-Pop artists. Moreover, the major labels pay music magazines to write positive reviews about their groups, even if the music is mediocre, which a lot of it is. Most of the J-Pop groups sound like each other and don’t express new ideas or compositions, don’t experiment with form or tone, yet music magazines praise them.
Since large labels don’t support underground, experimental music, small clubs are important for musicians to get exposure. But most Japanese clubs are not supportive either. If an underground musician wants to play at a club they are required to buy and sell the tickets; the club takes no responsibility and doesn’t support or take an interest in the musician’s art. Oddly, the ones who are taking notice are young teenage girls who go see underground shows. “It’s unbelievable,” underground maestro and producer Hoppy Kamiyama once told me, “but it’s these young girls who are willing to take chances on underground music.” Where are the college students like there are in America or Europe that support underground music? These fans are missing in Japan and I wish they would make a modest effort to open up their ears and change their listening habits. I wish they could experience Takagi Masakatsu, Dill, Susumu Yokota, and Buffalo Daughter, among others, because this music is imaginative and speaks to the soul.
Foreign audiences find underground Japanese music original and intoxicating and so it has become important for Japanese musicians to tour in foreign countries. Like Japanese film directors and butoh dancers, if a musician wants recognition they need to earn it abroad first and then they can come home and receive recognition. Fortune, however, is not in their sights. Even popular bands like The Boredoms and Violent Onsen Geisha have claimed no financial success, yet they are critically recognized. That seems to be good enough for most of these musicians.
Re-importing a Japanese product is a phenomenon that has been argued about enough to be accepted as a normal psychological component of Japan’s long isolated history. It has spurred the Japanese people not to trust their own taste and to seek foreign approval first. This is both a blessing and a tragedy. Japan’s interpretation of foreign cultures and the cross-culture fusion that occurs is always interesting, yet I find it almost tragic that a Japanese person cannot walk around Kyoto and listen to Takagi Masakatsu’s Pia or explore Koenji (a Tokyo neighborhood) while listening to Miroque’s Botanical Sunset. It would make their world a better place. I’ve listened to musicians like Miroque in Japan and San Francisco (where I live) and have concluded that the music is satisfying in either environment, yet has more impact on native ground, perhaps because the musician has a connection to home. Pia and Botanical Sunset express the beauty found within the chaos of Japan. The music revives the senses. It encourages the imagination to travel and connect to the environment. You get to know the place that surrounds you and the psychology and spirit of the people creating the music. You cannot listen to this music and on some unconscious level not interpret your world in a spiritual or existential manner.
Musicians I’ve already mentioned and other notable artists like Aen, Ju Muraoka, Saguaro, Koji Asano, Kozo Inada, Minamo, 00100, Akasau, Yoshio Machida, Cornelius, eX-Girl, Asuna, and Aki Onda capture, one way or another, Japan’s past, present, and future attitude and have created a new aesthetic that comments on the changes occurring in cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. These musicians mix concepts such as ma with postmodernism and chaos, qualities also expressed in Japan’s architecture, technology, manga, fashion, and various art forms. It’s not trivial music, not even the pop renderings of Cornelius or Saguaro (some of the best pop I’ve recently heard). It’s often profoundly expressive and reveals how Japanese musicians are connecting to their surroundings and the objects that exist within their environment. They’re communicating with it and capture a sense of what it is like to be Japanese, or oddly what it is like to experience Japan in both traditional and postmodern conventions.