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SO! Reads: David Novak’s Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation

SO! Reads3We are living in strange times. Our experiences, especially our musical experiences, have become fragmented and odd. The album has been declared dead, live concerts are now silent, listened to on headphones, and some of our favorite performers exist in a faux-holographic space between life and death. The fragmentation of our musical experiences is indicative of a larger set of changes that encourage sound studies to pay attention to fragmented, outlying, and diffuse sonic phenomenon. In his new book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, part of Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s “Sign, Storage, Transmission” series at Duke University Press, David Novak pays attention to one such fragmented and outlying realm, Noise music. Novak’s contribution to sound studies is to encourage us to deal with the fragmented complexity of sonic environments and contexts, especially those where noise plays a crucial part.

The past decade has seen growing public attention to noise as pollution, as problem, and as a poison. Examples of noise as a social issue needing immediate response abound, but one letter to the editor from the Wisconsin Rapid Tribune epitomizes the way that noise is sometimes read as a problem to be overcome. Novak’s book is one a few recent books, including Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters, and Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise, that complicate the idea of noise as problem. What sets Novak’s book apart from these is how his ethnographic approach allows him to approach Noise music from both the macro-perspective of its historical context and the micro-lens of his personal relationship to it.

BookCoverNoiseFor Novak, Noise music is a trans-cultural, transnational interaction that is both material and abstract. His analysis of it works to blur the boundary between both large-scale networks of exchange and the highly individuated experience. Novak relates the story of Noise music as originating in Japan in the 1980s. Noise musicians working separately caught the ears of American fans. Some of these fans were well-known musicians themselves, who brought Noise recordings and eventually the performers themselves to a wider U.S. audience. At the time, Noise was generally understood as taking one of two binary positions. Either Noise music was understood as a uniquely Japanese cultural expression, or it was instead theorized as a product of the Western imaginary motivated by the production of Japan as the anti-subject within modernity (24). Novak wisely recognizes the limited nature of these two positions, and seeks a more sophisticated method of understanding the circulation that creates Noise music, contributing, ultimately, a theory of feedback. Here the transnational circulation of materials, ideas, and expressions constitutes a culture itself, one that is not distinct from either the Japanese or the U.S. manifestations of Noise music (17). This a welcome contribution to compositional and intersectional perspectives on cultural exhange.

If Noise music is a circulation, a set of experiences and contexts, flows and scapes, ecologies and environments, then genre boundaries can not adequately describe the contextual and historical exchange of sound. Though genre must be considered, Japanoise does not find Novak searching particularly rigorously. He chooses two key Noise musicians, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada and Merzbow from Japan and describes their historical context, reception, and influence. But other than those descriptive basics, he is unsuccessful in finding anything new to say about Noise as genre. Concluding the chapter, he casually states that the existence of Noise threatens the boundaries of other musical genres. Though this fascinating statement would have been worthy of a chapter, and certainly foundational to his central idea (that Noise music is diffuse), Novak misses an opportunity to better support these connections in his chapter on genre.

Most interesting, however, is Novak’s focus on the material conditions of the production of Noise music. In describing the diffuse flows and scapes of Noise music, he addresses a plurality of experience: from the technological to the spatial to the private dimensions of listening. These concerns put him in conversation with Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa and Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies. Like these scholars, Novak refuses to locate the material conditions of production as solely economic, technological, or cultural. Instead, Noise music results from of an assemblage of conditions and possibilities. This is best exemplified by how Novak distinguishes the live music experience from the recorded. Here, Novak resists the neat distinction, long established in musicology, that hears the live experience as collective and interactive, and recorded music as individuated and passive. Instead, Novak suggests “liveness” and “deadness.” Liveness and deadness are not bounded to the dichotomy of the live performance with the recording, but rather two qualities that float through and with both experiences. “Liveness is about the connection between performance and embodiment… deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences…” The experience of live Noise music, according to Novak, often challenges the boundaries of what is often expected when hearing live music. I have seen this in my own experiences standing in an audience surrounded by shrieking, booming, droning noises.

Truth be known, I’m as taken with Noise music as Novak. If his book confesses to being written by a critical but vehement fan, then I ought to confess the same of the music which I love so dearly. I had the chance to see Merzbow perform in Raleigh in August. He strummed obviously homemade instruments, turned fader pots, and concentrated intently on his laptop. A fan was crawling through the crowd on their hands and knees; occasionally they stood to sway, then returned to crawling. I thought that this behavior might seem odd, but in the context of Merzbow’s performance, it was as legitimate as any other. Through these odd behaviors, the fan demonstrated Novak’s conception of individuation within Noise music. The material conditions of the performance, the screeching Noise, made it impossible for me to ask the person what they were doing or feeling. I experienced the fan and the Noise in a tension from which there is no resolution. We were both uncomfortably located in a multiplicity of experiences. These experiences don’t resolve to a whole, but rather pulsate and echo and feed back into each other, intertwining with expectations of behavior, material conditions, and embodiment(s).

Japanoise raises many important questions. What social processes lead us to foreground the sonic experiences in our lives? And further, how does a critical understanding of these processes help to advance the work of understanding the power and politics of sound? But, for me, Novak’s work serves best to remind me of how much value is found in fragmented, diffuse, outlier experiences, like Noise music. Because sound occupies a crucial role in our social and political lives, Novak encourages us not to resolve tensions, rather to exist amongst them and hear them as lively and productive.


For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the music Novak describes, the book’s website has a fantastic collection of supplemental media for you to enjoy:

Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.

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Tofu, Steak, and a Smoke Alarm: The Food Network’s Chopped & the Sonic Art of Cooking–Seth Mulliken

SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell

The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #10: Sonic Black- and Brown- Face

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (

Dear Readers:  Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from Seth Mulliken, SO! guest, frequent SOCK contributor, and Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State.

— J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief


Following a recent Huffington Post article concerning The Simpsons’ character Apu, why is it that sonic black- and brown-face doesn’t receive the same criticism as visual black- and brown-face?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.


Tofu, Steak, and a Smoke Alarm: The Food Network’s Chopped & the Sonic Art of Cooking

On Sunday evening, Susan discovered the tofu had gone bad. Unfortunately, the entrée for the evening was to be tofu with sweet chili sauce.  We connect on Skype at 3:30pm, as Susan is cutting up vegetables. Usually, she has classical music on while she cooks; it helps her concentrate. She’s cut up so many vegetables in her life, that she finds music sweetens the repetitive activity. However, today I hear only the rewarding sound of her knife bisecting baby bok choy.

Susan and I don’t talk about this sound, but it is certainly familiar. She says she cuts up the pieces small, as Mimi likes the chunks of bell pepper to be as little as possible.

My ethnographic work on cooking is birthed from a very personal place: Susan is my Aunt and Mimi my mother.  They live together in Kingston, Massachusetts, where Susan’s cooking nourishes Mimi through her ongoing chemo and radiation treatments.  Using Skype, I watched and asked questions remotely from Raleigh, North Carolina on three consecutive evenings during their dinner preparation in order to more deeply understand cooking as an art. From the first moment of preparation each night, Susan and I talked about the meal, the cooking techniques, and her feelings about cooking and eating–and I noted that sound emerged as central to her culinary process.

Opening my ethnographic practice up to sonic analysis enables new definitions of both chef and kitchen as lively, complex sites, constantly negotiating with each other. Taking the role of sound into account in the practice of cooking allows me to construct new interpretations of cooking artistry that considers everyday negotiations and embodied limitations not as “threats” to the cooking art, but, instead, as elements that enrich its artistry.

My sonic analysis specifically chafes against dominant formations of  “cooking as art” in the contemporary moment, exemplified by reality television programs such as The Food Network’s Chopped, which constructs a static configuration of space with the cook as subject and the meal as art object.  On Chopped, four chefs are given thirty minutes and four ingredients. Using these items, they must make a dish to be judged by a panel of food experts. These items are often strange or incongruous: on one episode, they had to make an appetizer out of frosted wheat cereal, baby red romaine lettuce, black garlic, and quahog clams. The success of a dish is measured by the chef’s ability to balance the necessary experimentation with an implied universal of good taste, texture balance, and pleasuring preparation. In other words, Chopped collapses art-making and capital into the “art object-meal,” reproducing  a tired definition of “high art” that necessitates access to wealth and privilege, because the creation of “art” requires expensive foodstuffs, sophisticated kitchen technologies, and a highly controlled visual and sonic environment.


In my Aunt Susan’s kitchen, there are a number of sonic and spatial negotiations that preclude her cooking from the singular criteria of artistry perpetuated by Chopped. Specifically, my Aunt Susan’s cooking does not meet Chopped’s standards because it requires negotiations related to her personal mobility and my mother’s health. My Aunt uses a wheelchair to get around her house, and, as a result, some kitchen appliances are harder to reach. My mother’s chemo and radiation treatments mean that she has both complicated limitations to her diet and fluid culinary desires.

In seeking to understand the fluid challenges of Susan’s cooking, I designed my virtual sensory ethnography by combining two methods, defined respectively by Sarah Pink and Jenna Burrell. In Sensory Ethnography, Pink proposes that the ethnographer is immersed in smells, tastes, sights, and sound during the ethnographic process. Things that might seem mundane such as the sound of onions being chopped, for example, can actually reveal a complex set of relations about the cook and their process. The cook might be listening to the chopping as a rhythm in her process, like background music: the pleasing sound as it hits the cutting board. But if the onion isn’t fresh, the sound is less crisp, less crunch, the sounds changes to speak of a different type of knowledge, and she must act differently in response.  In “The Field Site as a Network,” Burrell proposes an understanding of the ethnographic field site as a network rather than a singular object. The field site, in other words, is a heterogeneous set of connections, always expanding. Using a technology like Skype to do ethnography is not “ethnography at a distance,” she implies, rather it is the field site manifested through a multiplicity of connections. It simply reflects the ever-changing set of relations that comprise our world.

Tools for the sensory ethnography of the kitchen. Borrowed from Travelin' Librarian @Flickr.

Tools for the sensory ethnography of the kitchen. Borrowed from Travelin’ Librarian @Flickr.

After Susan has cut up all the longer-cooking vegetables and set the chili sauce to simmer, we disconnect. At 5:15pm, we connect again. Susan unwraps the tofu, and something isn’t right. She calls Mimi into the kitchen, and, after some deliberation, they decide that steak will need to replace the tofu. It’s a disappointment as the tofu would have tasted best with the sweet chili sauce.

The sonic landscape of Susan’s kitchen has been, up to this, point, fairly solitary and controlled. When Susan welcomes Mimi in, the kitchen becomes a lively space of conversation, interaction, and negotiation. The production of the sonic space in the kitchen, from solitary preparation to lively interaction, is a crucial part of Susan’s art. The kitchen has undergone what Brian Massumi, in his essay “Floating the Social,” calls a “modulation of the dimension of perception [rather] than an encoding of separate pieces of data or a sequencing of units of meaning” (41). Such a sonic modulation challenges the narrative of lone artist-chef creating object-meal. Rather than segmenting the meal into a set of data blocks (chef, food, preparation time, and eater), Susan orchestrates the art of cooking as participatory with Mimi.

In the kitchen, Mimi also examines the tofu. She offers some information about it, and then joins Susan to figure out what other protein might work.

Once the steak is decided upon, Mimi exits and Susan works again at preparing dinner.

Susan’s sonic modulations, in this case conversation, allow for immersion and engagement in the lively sonic space of her kitchen. Mimi and Susan create a co-constitutive relationship between chef and eater.  Unlike on Chopped, the eater is a participant rather than a judge.

Susan and I disconnect from Skype to give the steak time to thaw. We connect once again, at 6:20PM, once the steak has been properly thawed. As we discuss how Susan learned to cook, the smoke alarm suddenly comes to life.

An unplanned sonic intervention has occurred. The smoke alarm has its own desires; it insists on total control of the sonic space. Susan’s response is a necessary modulation. She counters the smoke alarm’s desire for sonic control with words, saying that it triggered accidentally because of the steak, sizzling in the pan. The interruption of the smoke alarm exemplifies how Susan’s cooking technique is not one of dominance. Rather than producing clear boundaries between chef and eater, the food and the preparation, the kitchen and its outside, Susan allows for fluid boundaries, welcoming chance and the unknown into her art.

Smoke Pan

Setting off the alarm image borrowed from Gwenaël Piaser @Flickr.

In the context of Susan’s kitchen, Massumi’s definition of modulation applies, however subtle. These domestic modulations are not a movement toward total control, but, instead, a lively negotiation with a set of partly unpredictable relations – an orchestration of the sonic space. The idea of sonic orchestration allows us to consider the complex set of possibilities existing between the choices made by the subject, here, the chef, and the presence of a set of potentialities, such as the smoke alarm.  To Susan, the art of cooking is not the reduction or elimination of “threats”; her art is the negotiation of modulations. In contrast to Chopped, where careful boundaries are constructed in order to protect the privilege inherent in its definition of art, Susan’s art lies in her engagement with the lively potentialities of the sonic art of cooking.

Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso

Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway–David Greenberg

Listening to Whisperers: Perfomance, ASMR Community and Fetish on YouTube–Joshua Hudelson

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