<Book Review>
Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation
David Novak
[Durham: Duke UP, 2013. (304 pp., 51 illus.) ]

David Novak starts this book with two innocuous but crucial words – “This place”. We’ve come to expect the place to be central to studies of popular music and subculture – the nightclub, the bar, the studio. In this case, Novak continues, “This place is a classic underground spot”, where a concert is about to happen, featuring Noise: a genre that defies classification and rebukes listeners with equal ferocity. Produced using feedback, effects boxes, and a minimum of planning or formal training, Noise’s harsh walls of scraping, screaming, and rumbling became one of the signature Japanese exports of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Noise circulated widely in Western independent music scenes, and in turn inspired a rich movement of noise artists around the world.

Though it starts in a place, Japanoise ultimately has less to say about place than about this mediated circulation and displacement, the way that images of difference were generated in the gap between the Real and the Symbolic. Novak shows that even a marginal culture like Noise, one that we would be tempted to associate with concepts of authenticity, locality, and ‘liveness,’ is in fact the product of mediated, largely electronic and digital, communication and mediation – a culture created in difference and representation. This core thesis highlights, among other things, the difficulty of defining “performance” in an intensely mediated world, with the relative muteness of the media object in some ways as generative and impactful as any “direct” experience.

Novak demonstrates this, for a start, by tracing the evolution of the idea that Noise is a distinctly Japanese form of sound performance. Novak argues that, substantively, Noise was both widely practiced outside of Japan even during the heyday of “Japanoise”, and emerged in Japan under the influence of a wide range of British and American influences from free jazz to experimental rock to industrial music (15). It was, he shows, the reception of Japanese noise in the West that actually cemented its ‘Japaneseness,’ “through this mediated feedback between Japan and North America.”(16)

Though his research method is immersive, and he makes nods to ethnography, Novak’s core thesis on mediation leads him to spend fewer pages on recounting his immersion in a ‘scene’ than do many other contemporary ethnomusicological works. He states, for instance, that in his attempts to find local gathering places to observe a “locally emplaced music culture,” he was most often directed to record shops (65). So, in an only slightly strange sense, Novak is being a truer ethnographer when he follows his subjects’ interest in historical context, legacies, and interpretations, than he would be if he focused, in a more conventional manner, on moments of creation and performance.

For instance, Japanoise includes extensive chronicles of specific record releases and the process of their track selection, marketing, and packaging. It was this process, as much or more than any local culture in and of itself, that constructed the “Japanoise” perceived by audiences outside Japan. This includes, most notably, the almost entirely contingent association between Japanese Noise and representations of sexual extremity such as bondage – an association disavowed by many actual Japanese noise musicians (89), but which fit many of the futurist-dystopian Western tropes of Japan in the ‘90s, and recurred in various packagings of Japanese Noise for Western audiences.

Novak cites cases of circulation in both directions. He gives a deep analysis of various ‘scene guides’ and map books used to locate and/or imagine obscure locales with crucial musical outputs. This includes both Japanese guides to important local bands, record shops, and venues in American scenes like the Lower East Side, and the same kind of guidance about Japanese scenes offered in publications aimed at Western readers. When seen at a distance through these guides, “These underground record stores and clubs . . . offer the possibility of uncharted local ground beneath the ‘shared’ corporate markers of globalization.” (78)

Ultimately, Novak shows that all of these imaginings of deep reality – maps, recordings, directories – serve to obscure as much as reveal. Instead of a world becoming more transparent through mediated exchange, Novak describes one in which the imaginative tools of representation are constantly deployed in mythologization (self- and otherwise). The map is very definitely not the territory.

In light of this baseline thesis, Novak’s read of the Internet seems less than fully resolved. On the one hand, he suggests that the rise of the internet abolishes the barriers of information that had made Japanese noise so alluringly mysterious in the first place. He quotes an anonymous musician saying “I hate information! Fuck the Internet world!” (216) and implicitly discounts the idea that anything could be “hard-to-find” once it was on the internet. But Novak acknowledges that there is still a substantial linguistic and infrastructural barrier between Japanese and English sites on the Internet, suggesting a larger point that he doesn’t quite get to: that the Internet itself can certainly still be mysterious, full of secrets and limits, and subject to symbolic misrepresentation. Being available on the internet doesn’t quite, as he seems to suggest, equal a mystery-destroying Total Information Awareness.

There are some crucial musicological insights here. Novak’s most profound assertion comes when, after tracing only a few of the many paths of influence that spread Noise around the world, he asserts that these “stories do not reflect a linear chain of historical influence.” Instead, he argues that noise musicians’ various discoveries of the magic of electronic feedback “occur through common accidents and mistakes, as separate individuals find new ways of overloading machines on their own.” (153) This posits Noise as a kind of constant undertone of electronic sound cultures, ever-present and waiting to be uncovered and rediscovered. Even more radical in the context of contemporary academic discourse, Novak cites the idea that “noise cannot be tied to any particular cultural location but is instead the product of individual difference,” (153), the tendency of certain individuals to drop out and defy.

Given his willingness to engage with individual creativity and difference, Novak makes one regrettable omission. While he does a great job of examining Noise both as a case of media circulation and as a global artistic community, he gives relatively short shrift to noise as Art proper. Though it’s easy to frame noise as an ‘organic’ outgrowth of popular and street-level music like punk and heavy metal, it’s also clearly aesthetically linked to other forms of absurdism and detournement. Dada is mentioned in a discussion of the Boredoms’ early work, and the Futurists pop up once or twice, but, in the course of his analysis of its recording, circulation, and feedback, the author never really unpacks the artistic stakes of Noise’s confrontational ethos.

Like most of the books about music from the great editors at Duke, Japanoise is much more than a book about a genre. Though Noise’s formal characteristics and intentional obscurity make it immediately suited to discussions of global circulation and mis-reception, the mode of analysis is transferable to almost any genre. Novak still unfortunately struggles with the idea that increasingly efficient digital media might not have completely eliminated all mystery from the world of culture, but his basic point stands – that whatever our power to record and transmit our sound and image, the gap between performance and reception will always remain a playground of the imagination.

     — Reviewed by David Z. Morris

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