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Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation

by David Novak
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013

Reviewer Patrick Valiquet, University of Oxford

Over the past century theorists and composers of Euro-american art music have spent a great deal of energy drawing and redrawing the boundaries between Music and Noise. For at least the past 20 years, however, Noise has also emerged as a type of music in its own right, branching off from the various genres of progressive rock, punk rock, performance art and experimental music in which noisy sounds have played vital roles for decades. The use of the name Noise for a particular genre became current only in the 1990s, but since then local articulations have flourished in great variety on the fringes of Asian, North American and European indie rock and experimental music scenes. Listeners are loosely connected by student radio, fanzine publishing, tape trade, and the Internet. Although it has become notorious for its most extreme expressions, on the ground the genre complex encompassed by global Noise scenes is remarkably diverse. The label “Noise” has been applied to everything from the hedonistic loop and pedal-driven jams of the American trio Black Dice to the meticulous and often downright formalist explorations of Japanese empty-sampler improviser Sachiko M.

In Japanoise, ethnomusicologist David Novak carves out a relatively thin slice from this ever-expanding range of sounds and practices. His narrative builds out from his own discovery of the genre as a young American indie rock fan and his attempts to trace its sources while working as an English teacher in Japan in the 1990s. At that time, with the help of alternative rock intermediaries in the United States, Japan was garnering a transnational reputation as the home of Noise at its most transgressive. Japanoise, as the local variety was sometimes called, became synonymous with over-the-top performance units like Masonna, Merzbow, and MSBR, each of which took the sound to its ear-splitting limits. For overseas listeners it became emblematic of an intensification in Japan's already deep association with techno-dystopia and deviant human-machine hybridity. Novak followed the movement of Japanese Noise recordings through mail-order catalogs and zines to their sources in scattered urban record shops and tiny performance spaces known as livehouses. There he found a scene which cohered not as a located community of performers and listeners, but as a loose, temporary network of students, businessmen, and expatriates entangled in the esoteric effects of transnational media circulation. Noise for Novak functioned as a kind of aesthetic wormhole generated by globalised markets and international travel, connecting Japanese and American listeners on the basis of a new 'social imaginary' of miscommunication.

The methodological framework for Novak's exploration is largely confined to the book's introduction. He organises his ethnography with the help of a central heuristic that links a concept of cultural “circulation” drawn from the anthropology of globalisation with the technical process of “feedback” employed by Noise performers. From this perspective, Noise can be depicted as a music not just circulating between cultures, but recursively constituted by circulation at every level. Novak loosely weaves together circulation and feedback in both metaphorical and literal registers throughout the book. He uses the conjunction to depict Noise's objects and practices as permanently dislocated and on the move, always belonging elsewhere. He makes clear that he wants his readers to understand Noise as what Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma (2002) have called a “culture of circulation.” “Circulation is not just movement and exchange, but performance and process,” Novak writes. “Its forms do not simply progress from one place, person, or sociocultural context to another. Circulation is a nexus of cultural production that defines the things, places, and practices within its loops.” (pp.17-18)

He seems less committed, however, when it comes to how and why Noise became so circulatory. In an essay he cites, Lee and LiPuma are both more ambitious and more circumspect, arguing that a “transformed set of social imaginaries” is emerging on the basis of global capitalism's  transition “from a production-centric system to one whose primary dynamic is circulation.” (Lee and LiPuma 2002, 210-211) It is not always clear, however, to what extent Novak intends to connect the many practices he describes to any broader change in the public sphere. In some cases he seems to set the contemporary politics of globalisation aside, such as when he later develops a genealogy of feedback touching the early liberalism of Adam Smith, the cybernetics of Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson, and the experimental electronic systems of David Tudor (p.149-161). Here and elsewhere, the balance between circulation's rhetorical elegance and its applicability doesn't always seem to have been struck. At any rate the relatively brief theoretical rehearsal given to circulation in the introduction doesn't necessarily provide the bootstrapping that might be expected to make the concept seem useful across such a wide range of material.

Subsequent material unfolds thematically, alternating theoretical, technical, and historical discussions with anecdotes from Novak's field journals that give the prose a vivid and immediate quality. The first chapter introduces Noise's performance and recording practices, narrowing in on the constructions of volume and harshness that characterised the work of the Japanese artists who defined its Noise scene during its heyday. The strongest material is presented in chapters 2 through 5. Here Novak develops what amounts to an anthropological account of Noise's coalescence as a genre through a discussion of its cartographical imagination, reception and distribution patterns, its historiography, and its organology. Although his overall focus is basically on consumption and reception, in Chapter 5 Novak also provides a detailed account of technical practice. He makes enticing forays in Chapter 6 into Noise's resonances with critical theory, experimental music and conceptual art, without reducing it to something determined from above. In Chapter 7, he relates Noise's discourse of transgression and personal struggle to the changing image of Japan in Euro-american cultural studies, tracing connections between the Japanese and American economies during and after the Cold War, and offering crucial glimpses into the way the feedback between them has shaped Japanese media politics. He contextualises American “techno-orientalism” in relation to the rise and fall of the Japanese strategy of economic recovery through improvement upon American inventions, a drive which saw the invention of the transistor in the 1960s, and new “personal electronics” such as the Sony Walkman in the 1980s (pp.183-188).

These central chapters are exemplary in their sensitivity to Noise's manifestation as a complex of changing cultural practices. In this Novak's book easily stands out against contributions like those of Hegarty (2007) or Voeglin (2010), for example, which gather together particular examples of music and sound art to theorize Noise as a kind of music-transcendent sublime. At their best these studies recall the dialectical approach of Attali (1985), who uses Noise as a metaphor for the transformative potential embodied in Music's changing political economy. But relegating Noise to a domain of fundamental non-musicality can slide quickly into modernist axe-grinding, especially in light of the variety of ways it consistently makes sense as music for performers and audiences. As Novak's research attests, Noise's musicality is confirmed in its practices, its histories, and its material culture. A discourse of negation may be endemic to Noise's “language about music” (p.119), but the leap some scholars seem to take between this and an essential ontological distinction is misguided. Novak succeeds in both avoiding the trap of essentialism and examining it critically. “Practitioners constantly shift the terms of their relationships with other musical forms,” he writes, “and also contest Noise's own separations from Music.” (p.121) This is not to say that “noisicians” (as Novak prefers to call them) do not perform a kind of resistance, but rather that their political ideas about music and technology are changing and ambivalent.

The book's final chapter and epilogue feel slightly less even. In Chapter 8, Novak turns to the persistence of “residual media” such as the cassette in Noise's material culture, highlighting the way these objects both complicate listeners' access to the sounds and give them a means of participation in the genre's social network outside of the Internet. The bulk of the narrative jumps forward a decade in time and the geographical emphasis shifts to the American side of the axis. Novak prepares the reader for abrupt leaps at the end of the introduction, but the turn to cassette culture seems to lack motivation. Rather than tying together some of the book's conspicuously loose theoretical ends, the epilogue offers little more than a brief summary of the ways key noisicians' careers have changed since Novak's fieldwork.

Japanoise originated as a doctoral thesis in Ethnomusicology supervised by Aaron Fox at Columbia University, and accordingly its theoretical engagements are mainly with cultural and linguistic anthropology. This generates, for example, a pragmatic and performative perspective on genre which contrasts with the more sociological and hermeneutic approaches which tend to dominate in popular music studies. The book is also in dialogue with recent historical work on auditory culture and modernity. Its publication as the third in a Duke series edited by Jonathan Sterne with Lisa Gitelman entitled Sign, Storage, Transmission cements its affinities with this branch of media studies. Curiously, however, Duke's branding of the project seems designed to generate interest in the fan market as well. Indeed, it is in the experimental music fan press that Japanoise is receiving the most attention since being published. The back-cover blurb from indie-rock pundit Thurston Moore applauding Novak's “completely shell-shocked” report from the Japanese underground is a case in point. Novak's June 2013 article and online listening list for UK avant-garde music magazine The Wire is another. Novak doesn't hesitate to admit that his own pathway to the genre passes via fandom, and at several points in the book he claims both performance and reception as components of his research method. But one is sometimes left wondering how his own feelings of belonging to the scene and its circulation might have coloured his portrayal. The balance between a spatially and historically dislocated ethnography and one which hides its own privilege seems uneasy.

The trope Novak adopts to refer to Noise's spatial distribution is that of the “underground.” He takes pains in Chapter 2 to theorise the underground as the perspective of a situated outsider upon an occluded territory (p. 67), an opening onto an imaginary network of shops and venues that operates behind ordinary consumer space. He provides little reflection on why he adopted this perspective, however, and likewise purposefully avoids attributing any form of social or subjective basis for the perspectives offered by his interlocutors. “I do not break down [Noise's] forms into separate Japanese and American components,” he writes at the end of the introduction, “or distinguish its publics through frameworks of class, race, and gender. […] My story of Noise is fragmented and partial; it is marked as much by what it occludes as by what it reveals.” (p.26) Indeed, much of what is hidden about Novak's subjects could not be more glaringly obvious: their clearly dominant and often spectacularly-staged masculinity, for example, or their apparently homogeneous urban and middle-class origins. Why is the underground inhabited by these particular people? He also has little to say about the growing institutional power Noise has attained since the late 1990s. Masami Akita, for example, received an honorary mention for the decidedly above-ground Prix Ars Electronica in Austria in 1999. The ônkyo performer Sachiko M won the prize in 2003. Noise practices such as these have been enshrined in many British electroacoustic composition curricula for at least a decade. So while Novak doesn't say whether it does so in Japan, at a transnational level Noise blurs the distinction between the underground and high culture. What does this say about the genre's value and legitimacy, whether aspired to or not?

In spite of these unanswered questions, scholars of global contemporary popular music and art music will welcome the fresh approach Novak seeks to develop in Japanoise, especially those interested in inventive uses of musical media and in the transnational movement of genres. At the same time, because he commits to being “complicit” (p.26) with his interlocutors' occlusions of identity and history, his study leaves more than enough room for further investigations into the genre's diverse sound world, its wide range of social and geographical articulations, and its history beyond the harsh Japanese-American expressions highlighted here.


Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lee, Benjamin, and Edward LiPuma. 2002. Cultures of Circulation: The Imaginations of Modernity. Public Culture 14 (1): 191-213.

Hegarty, Paul. 2007. Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum.

Voeglin, Salome. 2010. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum.