A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Novak's Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation

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

Benjamin Harley, University of South Carolina

(Published November 22, 2016)

David Novak begins his study of the soundmaking technique Noise (aka Noise Music, Japanoise) in a “classic underground spot” that is evocative of other cultural studies texts, such as Dick Hebdige’s now famous study Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1). Despite starting his study in such a referential manner, Novak is attempting to understand a phenomenon that goes far beyond style. Utilizing a method reminiscent of cultural anthropologic ethnography, though perhaps closer to what has been recently referred to as critical rhetorical field methods, Novak explores the role transnational circulation, mostly between artists in Japan and North American, played in the genesis of Noise.

As a genre of composed sound, Noise cannot easily be described as music; compositions vary from elaborate melodic jams to sonic assaults that lack form and structure. Most Noise is created through the construction of  feedback loops formed by circuiting together mechanical audio equipment in order to create loud and often times unnerving sounds, but Novak explains that some Noise is acoustic and some Noise has structure. In short, Noise is hard to define not only by its sonic qualities but also by its history. Its temporal existence began somewhere between the 1960s and the 1990s, and its geographic existence began somewhere between North America and Japan. The one thing that Novak seems to be certain of throughout the book is that Noise exists through its circulation.

As Novak himself circulates throughout the Noise scene—going to venues and record shops, talking to artists, reading ‘zines, and gathering cassettes—he examines the soundmaking style of Noise not simply as a musical genre but rather as a global scene comprised of seemingly disparate publics. Novak interrogates the utterances and feedbacks that circuitously created this musical culture and argues that Noise could not exist independent of its circulation. The transnational circulation of Noise and the type of feedback this circulation produces are not simply the background for exchange but rather the agents that “constitute culture” (17). For Novak, culture is not found in the creation and reception of art objects but rather in the circulation, mutation, and reiteration of those art objects among both members of a public and among publics themselves. Culture is not found in the mix of bodies and discourses; culture is the mixing of bodies and discourses.

The importance of this intermixing for Novak is most clearly articulated near the end of his Chapter Five, “Feedback, Subjectivity, and Performance,” in which he explains how audio feedback functions mechanically in the creation of Noise before he “plugs into feedback as a metaphor for cultural exchange and reciprocity” (140). Novak describes the production of Noise as the creation of a system in which each node feeds into the soundmaking system. None of the nodes simply alter the sound in the way a distortion pedal alters the sound of a guitar; instead, the noise of Noise is created by the feedback of the entire interconnected system. The change of an individual node does not simply distort the sound but rather “changes the productive conditions of the whole system” (148).  Likewise, systems of circulation both among humans and among human and non-human agents also create feedback systems; in these systems, as in the technological creation of Noise, manipulating any particular node will change the feedback. Novak explains that manipulation can create positive feedback, which creates something new—like a sound—by distorting systems, or negative feedback, which increases productivity by allowing the system to continue unmolested.

The intercontinental exchange of Noise—primarily between Japan and North America—illustrates how the circulation of information between particular nodes, in this case different music scenes, creates new information that is produced by neither node independently. Specifically, the two competing histories of Noise’s creation articulated in Chapter Four, “Genre Noise,” demonstrate how Noise emerged not from individual production but from communal exchange. In this chapter, Novak tells the story of two bands who “are claimed as the original creators of Noise by different audiences and at different points in circulation” (119). The first of these bands, the Nihilist Spasm Band, formed in Canada in the 1960s. Through the haphazard circulation of their albums, Japanese youth found the band and categorized them as Noise. In the 1990s, the band toured Japan with other popular Noise artists, but they found that the genre of Noise was too serious to describe their music, which they believed to be a parody of authentic musicianship.

While the Japanese were being introduced to the Canadian “godfathers of Noise,” American audiences were being introduced to the Noise of the Japanese inventor of the genre: Merzbow. That the artist who created Japanoise would be Japanese made sense to American audiences, but Merzbow does not see himself as the progenitor of the genre. Instead, he believes he is part of a countercultural tradition spreading from William S. Burroughs to industrial music. In this way, both the Nihilistic Spasm Band and Merzbow see themselves as the continuation of a Bakhtinian understanding of genre, be it parody or experimentalism, whose trajectory is already plotted. However, by being circuitously circulated transnationally, each artist transcends the linear genre distinction they believed themselves to be a part of and becomes part of a larger cultural assemblage. This assemblage functions in the same manner as the Noisician’s mechanical soundmaking assemblage in that there is no clear genesis. The music may have started with the Nihilist Spasm Band, Merzbow, or even the jazu-kissas Novak describes in his Chapter Three; we cannot be certain.  Since they are intricately connected, the maps and histories of such a circulated culture cannot be definitively demarcated; as each node of the system changes, the system changes as well.

Since the system is always changing, it is impossible to get a definitive understanding not only of the history of Noise, but also its culture and values. As Novak explains in his Chapter Two, “Sonic Maps of the Japanese Underground,” mappings and tracings of the scene are always creating new paths that reflect the values of the outsider. Any attempt to map Noise is made increasingly difficult since, in the genre, everyone is always an outsider. For example, American and Japanese distributors selectively chose artists for Noise compilations, American artists designed the covers for compilations based on Japanese exports including cityscapes and pornography, and Japanese artists resisted the connotations that these compilation covers push onto them. In each of these actions, the system of Noise culture is mapped, and in each action the other nodes that constitute Noise culture react to that change, demanding that a new map be created.

Just as the nodes of this community of Noise artists change the larger system of Noise, the node of Noise changes the larger economic and productive systems of which it is a part. Novak explains in Chapter Six, “Japanoise and Technoculture” that despite their reliance on technological means of production, many Noise artists feel the need to resist technoculture. That the human is seceding sovereignty to machines is demonstrated in the Noisician’s inability to completely control the music she is making. Further, the Noisician’s use of outdated and often broken electronic equipment demonstrates a fear of a cybernetic future that relies on the boom and bust cycle of capitalism in which “technology must endlessly be broken and replaced” (195). Capitalism demands that technology, culture, and artists be constantly destroyed in order that something else be created; however, the disasters of such a cycle have been witnessed in both North America and Japan, especially in the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Novak argues that the art project of Noisician’s, ranging from shows to cars with rigged stereo systems that blast noise at volumes that make the car undrivable, create positive feedback within this destructive neoliberal capitalist system. Instead of reifying such consumer culture, allowing it to run more efficiently, Noise creates something new from the circuits, questioning the entire purpose of the exchange.

Noise challenges neoliberal capitalism in two major ways. First, the circulation of Noise cassettes, a phenomenon born in the 1980s but enduring to this day, subverts the commodification of music by relying on barter rather than exchange. Since the circulation of tapes is based on trade, then the worth of each tape must be determined by examining the tape in its singularity; further, since the tapes are rewritable, the singularity of any particular recording is also extremely ephemeral. In his Chapter Seven, “The Future of Cassette Culture,” Novak explores the ways in which home recording and non-exchange circulation subvert the music industry and create cultures based not on the circulation of commodities but rather on the production and circulation of gifts. Such practices are not entirely subversive for Novak, who explains how Noise, which originally functioned as an anti-music, was eventually rationalized and transformed into its own musical genre. Nonetheless, any positive feedback that creates something new from the circuits of neoliberal capitalism is a positive change.

The second way that Noise challenges global economic systems is through its fierce emphasis on the individual experience of the music, which isolates the listener from the commodified world of the social. In his Chapter One, “Scenes of Liveness and Deadness,” Novak demonstrates how, even during the live shows, Noise “is geared toward isolated receptions of sound” (30). Though the shows take place in public and the music is circulated throughout publics, the experience of Noise is deeply personal and affective. Novak explains that despite the shared spaces and texts, Noise is so overwhelming and emotionally jarring that it focuses each listener’s attention “on internal confrontations with the sound of Noise” (37). Noise becomes difficult to commodify because its value is based almost exclusively on personal interactions with the sound.

It is the study of sounds, be they music or anti-music, that make this book as sharp and insightful as it is. Novak has much to add to rhetorical discussions of publics, circulation, capitalism, and culture, and he articulates these additions clearly. Specifically, by moving from a nodal conception of publics to one where culture is created within circulation, Novak provides a new understanding for the importance of distribution networks and ecologies. Still, such theoretical insights do not distract Novak from his primary goal of trying to understand Noise. Predictably, at the end of the book Novak claims that Noise music is ultimately unknowable; he has failed in his goal. However, Novak succeeds in giving a new depth of understanding to a particular global audio phenomenon, treating that subject with respect, allowing his interviewees to co-create knowledge with him as a researcher, and creating new theoretical insights for the field of rhetoric.

If scholars in rhetoric take nothing else from this book written by a professor of the Music Department of UC Santa Barbara, they should take as an example Novak’s interactions and descriptions of those people he observes, interviews, and researches. Novak takes great care to understand the cultural interactions of his subjects, while also discussing their relationships to space, objects, and bodies. His goal is never to relate any biographies or cultural memoirs, but he does allow others to co-create his knowledge of the noise scene as he himself “spiral[s] into the particular sounds, sensations, and things of Noise and spin[s] back to its scenic networks and stories” (27). In short, Novak’s unusual and overlapping ethnography of this group on the margins of music and art parallels the goals Michael K. Middleton, Samantha Senda-Cook, and Danielle Endres articulated for rhetorical field methods in that it pays attention to the roles played by culture and bodies in regards to communicative action. Novak’s book critically interrogates not only the circulation of  Noise but also the publics through which it travels and the publics against which it operates. In the end, Novak leaves us with a picture of Noise that seems subversive to dominant ideologies in both North America and Japan, but the genre also comes across as thoughtful, community-centered, fun, and beautiful.