Review | Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation by David Novak
Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation. By David Novak. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013. [x, 292 p. ISBN 9780822353928. $24.95.] Illustrations, bibliographical references, index, companion web site.
Reviewed By Nana Kaneko
When considering potential topics for an ethnomusicological study, Noise is probably not one of the first genres that come to mind. Noise is obscure, ear-shattering, and in some cases, downright unbearable. What could this amalgam of feedback, distortion, and electronic effects possibly tell us about culture and national identity? In Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, David Novak explores the underground Noise scenes in Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo) and North America (New York City, San Francisco, Providence, and London, Ontario) to demonstrate how Noise serves as an object of transnational circulation with an emphasis on the “cultural feedback” that generates and sustains it. Throughout the book, Noise with a capital “N” is used to identify the specific sounds, places, times, and people that Novak encountered during his extended period of multi-sited fieldwork from 1998-2008, all of which taught him to “recognize its cultural presence” (5).
One of the most intriguing inquiries that Novak addresses in this book is the question of to what extent Japanoise (a term that surfaced in North America in the 1990s to generalize Japanese Noise groups under a single classification) is actually Japanese. In the alternative, underground media networks of Noise in North America, conceptually separate from mainstream ideas of “Cool Japan” consisting of J-pop, Japanimation, technological efficiency, excess cuteness, and fetishistic violence, Noise continued to develop as a Japanese phenomenon with the assumed belief that the Japanese Noise scene is greater, more popular, and more well-defined as a genre. Novak argues that Japanoise is not a singular local entity or simply a result of foreign misappropriation, but rather, it is a reflection of “an intricate historical relationship with the United States, through which Japan has been constructed as an antisubject of Western modernity” (24). He claims that Japanoise is linked to Western mediations of Japan’s global modernity in the wake of post-war economic revival and was brought to fruition through mediated feedback between Japan and North America.
Novak cleverly uses the term “feedback” to describe cross-cultural communication and circulation, highlighting how circulation defers and distorts communication. This enables him to address recorded media and performance in popular music in ways that go beyond common discourses in popular music studies centered on reception and popularity by asserting that circulation in relation to feedback allows circulation itself to constitute culture. Puns continue to deepen Novak’s central argument that Noise lies at the heart of global media circulation as he suggests that “output is always connected to input in transformative cycles of feedback” (17), feedback is circulation at the edge, a special kind of being-in-place that marks the transition between something and nothing (19), and repetitions, delays, and distortions of technological mediation can complicate historical narratives of popular music (20). While distinctly different in context and approach, each of the seven chapters in this book explores the technologies of Noise and the ways it circulates through and distorts various networks. Although unmentioned in the book, Novak has created a useful website with supplemental media (http://www.japanoise.com/media/) to enhance his textual descriptions, giving readers a better sense of the sheer noisiness of his ethnographic research.
Chapter 1, entitled “Scenes of Deadness and Liveness,” describes the place of liveness in sites of Noise performance, embodied practices of Japanese Noisicians, the affective experiences of individual listeners, and the production and circulation of media. Novak posits that “deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences with recordings as a new aesthetics of sound and listening in the reception of Noise” (30), effectively arguing that liveness is not just about the “here and now” and face-to-face interaction of live music, but also a kind of individuation that depends on embodied knowledge acquired through personal experience with recordings and virtual encounters with technological media (deadness) (32). Livehouses (raibuhausu), small music clubs that are tucked away in basements and higher floors of office buildings, are central sites for Noise performances in Japan. The intensity of these packed, tiny spaces renders livehouses as undistinguished (i.e., temporary and easily reassembled) sites where liveness is created and people can repeatedly return to embody it and feed it back into their everyday lives as listeners.
Novak’s discussion about the virtuosity of live Noise performance and the association of Japanese Noise as extreme, radical, and overwhelmingly loud in comparison to North American performance contexts is particularly memorable. He reluctantly recounts a moment when he attempted to scream together with the Hijokaidan vocalist Hiroshige Junko at the No Music Festival in London, Ontario, only to realize that he could hardly hear his weak, undifferentiated sounds which paled in comparison to the intensity of Junko’s incredible scream. Novak argues that the ability to produce overwhelming volume is what sets the Japanese Noise performance context apart from North American ones. Livehouses in Japan are more tolerant of intensely loud and performative acts where staff members are expected to cater to the performers’ requests, and are better equipped with powerful equipment than North American venues. This makes them optimal sites of liveness where intensely concentrated circuits of energy shake through everyone in attendance.
Functioning as a way to connect conceptions of liveness to subsequent chapters that focus on material media such as recordings (Chapter 2 and Chapter 3) and cassette culture (Chapter 7), Novak defines deadness as “a direct embodiment of technological reproduction in individual experiences of music” (49), which can feed back into the liveness of social performances, creating “the foundations of modern musical subjectivity” (58). Surprisingly, Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut’s influential article, “Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane” (2010) is not cited in this chapter nor the book. Although Stanyek and Piekut contextualize deadness in relation to the revivification of celebrities through technological means for profitable posthumous performances, this article could certainly contribute to this chapter as an added example of the relationships between liveness and deadness in an increasingly technological world.
Chapter 2 maps the circulation of underground music through a description of the ways that Japanese people navigate and find inconspicuous record stores bearing obscure records that serve as entryways into the underground Noise music scene. Although “the search for hard-to-get recordings helped to place Japanese Noise at the furthest edge of underground music” (84), compilation albums of Japanese underground music represented the Japanese Noise scene in a globally legible way that contradicted local perspectives, often angering and frustrating the Japanese performers featured on the compilations. This chapter aptly tackles the challenges and contradictions between the misrepresentations of Japanese Noise and the centrality of these misrepresentations for transnational cartography.
“Listening to Noise in Kansai” (Chapter 3) is based on Novak’s previously published article, “2.5x6 metres of space: Japanese music coffeehouses and experimental practices of listening” (2008), which describes the emergence of Noise as a postwar history of Japanese media reception through a comparison of modes of listening in postwar jazu-kissa (a musical café for listening to new forms of music) with those of a “free space” called Drugstore, which was central to Noise’s development in Kyoto in the 1980s. This chapter is perhaps the most historical and descriptive, demonstrating how listening to recordings nurtured transnational circulation and the reframing of musical knowledge.
In contrast to depictions of particular sites of listening, Chapter 4 tackles one of the most challenging questions that this book evokes: Is Noise a musical genre? Noise is a “glorified” miscellaneous genre and the sounds and performances that fall under this categorization are too inconsistent to succinctly categorize. Noise is “always emergent and endlessly new” (199), and while it is an anti-genre, it ultimately can’t escape musical classification. Novak asserts that Noise “can only retain its difference by becoming equivalent to Music through the technological format of recordings. Recordings allow listeners to act as if Noise were a kind of Music, while simultaneously knowing that it is not” (121). Noise is present in most musical sounds, but it is not rendered musical unless it fits into musical structures, so how is Noise a musical genre if it aims to challenge form and structure? Novak traces the development of Noise as a genre by drawing on two archetypical Noise groups – the Canadian group Nihilist Spasm Band and the Tokyo-based Merzbow – to illustrate how its generic history emerged in the transnational reception of recordings. He takes the genre question further by positing that localized genre names such as J-pop assume a “cultural separation from global centers of production” (130) whereas Noise “allowed Japanese performers to stress the universality of their work” (130). Ultimately, Noise challenges musical categorization, but “it constantly conjures up the purity of musical origins and insists that listeners continue to dream of uncategorizable sounds buried within the overproductions of musical media” (138).
Chapter 5, “Feedback, Subjectivity, and Performance,” is difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with technological jargon since it is heavy on technical terms for distorted amplification, and not as accessible as some of the essays in Greene and Porcello’s Wired for Sound: Engineers and Technologies in Sonic Cultures (2005) that address the role of sound engineering technologies and practices in shaping contemporary world music. Novak contextualizes feedback as part of Noise’s electronic sound and the technical structure of its performance systems, a metaphor for cultural exchange and reciprocity in social science, and a rewiring of creative identity. He opens the chapter with a description of Ikeda Keiko (a.k.a. Timisoara), the first mentioned female Noise musician, as she sets up her sound equipment, but never returns to a discussion about her later on. Gender is briefly touched upon in Chapter 3 when jazu-kissa are described as a social space that undoubtedly privileges men as master listeners, although these sites were briefly aligned with feminist politics in the 1960s, and Novak clarifies that women are distinctly present as listeners and performers at most experimental music events in Japan. However, I was left wondering whether Timisoara’s gender impacts her performativity and the ways she is perceived by the audience.
The discussion about feedback as something that can fail, revealing technology’s creative power and potential for unpredictable change as well as highlighting the human element of the human-machine relationship, leads into Chapter 6, “Japanoise and Technoculture,” which describes Japanoise as a humanistic critique of technoculture. This is a fascinating chapter with effective connections made between the man-made disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in post-3/11, technoculture as a technological crisis essential to the global politics of cultural identity, and moral violence in science fiction. Novak questions the role of culture in the context of technological crisis and whether Noise can be political, describing Japanoise as a humanistic critique of technoculture, in which, “technological crisis becomes essential to the global politics of cultural identity” (173). As a symbol for personal resistance to technology, Japanoise “tapped into global anxieties about posthuman subjectivity, which were difficult to resolve under existing terms of cultural resistance” (175). In comparison to Lysloff and Gay’s Music and Technoculture (2003), which tends to emphasize the machine elements of the human-machine relationship with a focus on technological impact and change, Novak successfully humanizes his discussion about technoculture by situating it in the context of Noise’s complex embodiment of technological violence.
In Chapter 7, “The Future of Cassette Culture,” Noise’s inaccessibility as a means of motivating circulation between Japan and the United States is brought full circle through a discussion about the anachronous revival of Noise cassettes in current circulation. The cassette culture enabled the rise of independent music in the 1990s allowing for a shared, user-controlled distribution of recordings. Novak argues that today, cassettes represent a different goal of imposing “technological, social, and aesthetic limits on the omnipresence of new media, which can return Noise to its marginal position at the edge of circulation” (199). Noise cassettes are symbolic of the “hard-to-get” qualities of their circulation, putting pressure on online culture as an object that cannot be fully absorbed into new media and requires systems of distribution based in face-to-face encounters (222). It will be interesting to see how the state of this revived cassette culture changes over the next few decades as the original cassette culture recedes further behind Internet media, and Internet-based systems become increasingly nostalgic.
Novak succeeds in highlighting the cultural implications of Noise in ways that productively broaden scholarly inquiries about music and culture. This book is an invaluable, groundbreaking contribution for ethnomusicology that is applicable to scholars across disciplines with interests in transnationalism, technology, and globalization.
Greene, Paul D. and Thomas Porcello. 2005. Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Lysloff, René T.A and Leslie C. Gay, Jr. 2003. Music and Technoculture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Novak, David. 2008. “2.5x6 metres of space: Japanese music coffeehouses and experimental practices of listening.” Popular Music 27(10): 15-34.
Stanyek, Jason and Benjamin Piekut. 2010. “Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane.” The Drama Review 54(1): 14-38.