Perfect Beat, Vol 15, No 1 (2014)

10.1558/prbt.v15i1.26931

doi:10.1558/prbt.v15i1.26931

Review

Novak, David. 2013. Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation. Durham NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5392-8 (pbk). 292 pp.

Reviewed by: Rosemary Overell, University of Otago, New Zealand

rosemary.overell@otago.ac.nz

Keywords: gender; Japan; political-economies of music; Japanese Noise; noizu

In Japanoise, David Novak maps the networks, experiences and cultural politics of Japan’s noizu (Noise) scene. The book extends the relatively small amount of work on Japanese Noise and, indeed, Noise more broadly, as well as foregrounding an underground music community often overlooked in Japanese popular music studies. What makes Japanoise particularly interesting is Novak’s capacity to expand his discussion beyond generic borders (both musical and academic) to present Noise as a cogent metaphor for contemporary flows of transnational cultural products.

Novak positions Noise at the edge of circulation. Here, circulation gestures towards the importance of the ritualized trading of Noise via cassette, then digital formats and, now, back to cassette, and also the circulatory (or feedback) aesthetic of Japanese Noise. These looped networks are liminal, working as shadow economies and subcultures peripheral to dominant culture. Japanoise is similarly circular in its structure: chapters loop back on each other and loop into broader cultural and political contexts both in Japan and around the world.

Chapter 5, ‘Feedback, Subjectivity and Performance’, pushes discussion beyond the well-rehearsed understandings of Noise as a type of postmodern avant-garde which challenges the parameters of music as a category. Instead, Novak uses Noise as a launchpad for an analysis of post-industrial anomie, especially in Japan. He writes: ‘[p]ushing against their own performance, [noise practitioners] reveal the internal conflicts of technological subjectivity’ (159). Noise’s foregrounding—to the point of excess, as Japanoise highlights—of the broken, the indeterminate and the unbearable aspects of technology critiques the capitalist context in which such technologies are produced. While Japan provides an excellent example of this, Novak extends this idea to the broader transnational Noise music scene and globalized capitalist culture more generally. In this sense, Japanoise complements Hegarty’s Noise/Music (2007), which discusses the (anti) genre in terms of critical theory.

Japanoise is not, however, simply an account of the role of technology in Noise and late-capitalism. Novak’s work is peppered with lively ethnographic detail of the experience of doing and experiencing Noise. He debunks the popular myth that Japanese audiences lack energy at ‘lives’ (live performances), with accounts of wildly flailing Noise fans and, at one memorable gig, the introduction of a tractor that is driven by a ‘noisician’ and leapt upon by audience members. In fact, Novak foregrounds the body (of Noise producers, but also its consumers) throughout his book. Rather than technology constituting a rational, neo-liberal subject, Noise—which is dependent on the analogue technologies of effects pedals, amplifiers and looping equipment—makes the body indeterminate and out of control. Noise establishes, and emphasizes, a tension between the body as necessary to activating technology and its being overwhelmed by it. As Novak points out, however, this is not always a negative experience. His ethnographic material accurately captures the pleasures of being in Noise, particularly at live performances. Japanoise is further enriched by supplementary audio-visual material on the Duke University Press website (http://www.japanoise.com/media). This includes videos of live performances by key players in Japan’s Noise scene.

It is disappointing, then, that Novak’s emphatic looping back to the body does not extend to an analysis of gendered bodies within the scene. Japanoise describes Noise as a predominantly male-oriented scene presided over by ‘godfathers’ noisicians (125; 251), such as Merzbow and Masonna, whose apparent lack of dexterity with technology now circulates as a signifier of Noise subcultural capital. The discourse around technical expertise (though inverted) is never unpacked in terms of gender, despite the persistent popular mythology that men are technically capable and women are not. The musicians discussed are almost all men. While this does reflect the Japanese Noise scene, it is unreflexively presented without unpacking why this might be the case. As a globally significant figure, Merzbow is understandably a focus for much of Japanoise. His fellow female noisicians, however, receive comparatively little attention, even long-time collaborator, Reiko A, who is mentioned only once (134) in the book. This imbalance positions Novak as uncritically confirming Merzbow’s status as a godfather of Noise. This not only undercuts Novak’s (and many noisicians’) argument that Noise challenges the Western paradigm of individual genius, but seriously marginalizes the presence of women in the scene.

Novak’s work harnesses the idea of liminal circulation in a clever and engaging manner, particularly in terms of his application of post-humanism to Noise. Japanoise suggests that the indeterminacy of Noise is its political power. The sound of machines that haunt Noise performances, the pop music tracks underlaid on dubbed cassettes, collapse generic classifications and draw connections and critique between disparate forms of cultural production. In the dialectic that this circulation constitutes, machines and pop signify the excesses of late capitalism—productive but negatively framed. Unfortunately, women are similarly positioned in Novak’s book. They are marginalized—the fodder of footnotes and, oddly, many of the photographic illustrations in Japanoise. While this is a significant oversight, Japanoise is an important and lively account of Japanese Noise.

Reference

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

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