Are there kinds of music that our senses cannot abide? Music that is just noise, that neither we nor our friends can stand? Noise music takes all liberties, including interfering with itself, composing with what we consider aural nuisances. Sound turns abrasive.
To start this chronicle, let’s define what is known as noise music. According to Wikipedia: “Noise music includes a wide range of musical styles and sound-based creative practices that feature noise as a primary aspect. (…) It may incorporate live machine sounds, non-musical vocal techniques, physically manipulated audio media, processed sound recordings, field recording, computer-generated noise, stochastic process, and other randomly produced electronic signals such as distortion, feedback, static, hiss and hum. There may also be emphasis on high volume levels and lengthy, continuous pieces. More generally noise music may contain aspects such as improvisation, extended technique, cacophony and indeterminacy. In many instances, conventional use of melody, harmony, rhythm or pulse is dispensed with.”
Add to this the Encyclopaedia Universalis1 comment:
“Composers have always manifested an interest in strange sounds, aggressive timber, original sound combinations considered as a musical expression of their own, and the use of noise—or more generally, noises—in their musical works is a constant, even if the development […] might seem slow.”
Is noise music a subtraction? Answering this question is simple at first: “YES”, clearly, since noise lets nothing or nearly nothing subsist from what we know of music. Noise is music without melody, without our preconceived notions of composition. The frontiers of what is considered music are not the same for everyone.
Noise music has a thousand faces, and Merzbow is one of them.
Merzbow, real name Masami Akita, is a Japanese artist and musician who started to make Noise in the late 1970s. It was nothing new, considering that before him came Luigi Russolo2 for example, who conceived “Meeting of Cars and Airplanes”, which played in Milan in 1914 to a flabbergasted audience. At first, Merzbow was a duo. But Akita continues the project on his own, active today more than ever. A Merzbow record is not suitable dinner party music. It would be absurd, unless the guests were already fans of this unusual music. And Merzbow won’t be found in the music collection of just any regular household—of course, what is a regular household? That’s another question—it would only be tolerated for two to three minutes at a time, and otherwise eternally shelved, the turntable never having the honor of its presence. Why? Because every Merzbow record is an eruption of unbridled, grating sound. An assault that always elicits comments like: “Where is that insufferable drill or washing machine sound coming from?”
What noise subtracts is the constraint. And here, Merzbow takes full liberty: he delivers the inaudible, and worse yet, he hardly makes his presence known, even though his name is in large letters on the album title, he draws on seemingly contradictory genres that travel in all directions (Industrial, Heavy Metal, Free Jazz, Pop, Electronica). He has made around 334 albums in his name, and over 50 additional singles, while his contributions to other projects are so numerous and discrete that they are practically impossible to count.
At this very moment, in 2019, Merzbow has already released eight albums. Undoubtedly nine, maybe even ten! And it’s just the beginning.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re bad or good. And this is why Merzbow is a true ‘subtractor’. His music equalizes, levels, cancels out the rough, all while continually incorporating new elements, as it has for 40 years.
Contrary to the American group The Residents which, in 1997, pursued the curious project of compiling their most well-known albums—versions of Concentrate appearing in Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses, an entire album “concentrated” to last about ten minutes—, Merzbow never tires from expanding his noise: everything starts as small as a handkerchief and unfolds to the dimensions of a parachute. And incidentally, Masami Akita also has a spotless record of involvement in the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) and as an environmental activist. For him it is of utmost importance that he participates in certain debates solely as a musician, and that is why he’s included in this Chronicle.
Other noise artists could have been mentioned here. Merzbow’s cousins to a certain degree. For example, American musician William Basinski. Or the project The Caretaker, a front for James Kirby, an Anglo-Saxon musician we know relatively little about. Both work on the slow destruction of sound; the former in order to create an image of the end of the world (Basinski with The Disintegration Loops, 2002), the latter to evoke the memory loss provoked by various pathologies (The Caretaker, with the series Everywhere At The End Of Time initiated in 2016).
Pierre Boeswillwald, another musician extreme in his own way, says this about his piece Nuisances: “Starting from microphone recordings of numerous sounds, the author chose not to systematically use the ‘best ones’. Therefore this construction always tried to refine itself whilst constantly being polluted by interferences, which are nuisances. As in nature, man seeks to refine his environment but destroys it through his mistakes.”
A good description of what noise music can be.
When it comes to noise, you can speak in terms of pollution—in the good sense. The image might make you laugh. Some people hear in the roughness of a sound what others find in peaceful music. It’s somewhere between making up for what’s missing and developing a friendship. And this goes for the noise music fan with regard to abrasive sound. Once he’s tasted it, it’s hard to like anything else.
If Merzbow’s music is a representation of our world, taking shape across several hundred albums, then it is a perfect image. Dirty, painful and joyful. Always on the brink of disaster, but avoiding it by a hair. Until which album?
THIS WAS: Noise considered as music as subtraction.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover : © Anaïs Enjalbert