Tag Archive | genre

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: http://www.japanoise.com/media/.

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

Genre in the Age of Convergence: Mario Paint Composer

It’s no secret that over the course of the twentieth century, aesthetic productions have drawn increasingly on recycled and re-appropriated materials. Perhaps, for this reason, the above video – a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the newly minted Mario Paint Composer – sounds absolutely mundane. Nothing new, just another curiosity born out of the collective consciousness we cannily refer to as the Internets, which we understand jokingly as a series of tubes, notably Youtubes. Laffs aside, this phenomena complicates many traditional modes of interpretation.How do we hear the music of a convergence era when within it lies a devious set of connotations, each serving to reorient the listener to its own particular theme? What tactics do listeners take when interpreting this semiotic collision of sound, icon and song? These questions complicate the topic of genre, where a social consensus traditionally guides the collective organization of a medium. What social and sonic forms shape our understanding of Thriller as it was reproduced by Mario Paint Composer on Youtube in 2008?

Before delving too deeply into a discussion of genre, it is important to situate the phenomena of convergence in a pre-digital context. Although the user-centric nature of web 2.0 has certainly helped to accelerate this process, one needs to look no further than Dick Hebdige’s “The Meaning of Mod,” in the anthology Resistance Through Rituals, to sense an earlier precedent to the mash-up culture we observe today. Drawn to the adventure of a dangerous soHo night-life culture, “The mod dealt his blows by inverting and distorting the images (of neatness, of short hair) so cherished by his employers and parents, to create a style, which while being overtly close to the straight world was nonetheless incomprehensible to it.” Although Hebdige is writing in 1974, long before computers would become mainstream, he makes a worthy point here about the appropriation of fashion. Constructing it as an act of distortion,Hebdige argues that early 1960s mods (understood here as a working class youth movement), through their stylistic appropriations were able to undermine the fabric of British society. By acting as criminals, but lauding the style of white collar workers – suits, short hair – mods help to show that semiotic convergence is not something new, instead it can be read as a stance of resistance.

In the case of Thriller, resistance is too strong a word. I prefer distortion, it is value neutral, although it can easily be understood in the context of resistance. Thriller on Mario Paint Composer distorts Thriller by Michael Jackson. By simplifying the song to a series of 16-bit samples, the song’s transcriber geoffnet1, translates it all to the symbolic language of Mario Paint – where mushrooms sound like drums, hearts are bass notes, ships are cymbals, flowers are horns, cars are synth pads and game-boys sound like blips. geoffnet1’s Thriller is a distortion of the Mario Paint Composer sound as well; originally a part of the 1992 Super Nintendo cartridge, Mario Paint, Mario Paint Composer is now a fan-modded update of its original form. Unlike the original Mario Paint Composer has been designed with functionality taking a precedent over accessibility. Originally marketed as an intuitive music scripting software, the following limitations were part and parcel of the platform (These restrictions have been copied from Tombobbuilder’s page, a musician who works with the limits of Mario Paint Composer as it was originally distributed.):

1. Only 24 measures are available.
2. No more than three notes at a time.
3. You can not double notes on the same line or space.
4. Tempo is restricted.
5. There is no fluctuation in dynamics (volume).
6. No sharps or flats are available.
7. Can only compose using the “white keys” from the piano.
8. Only two of each letter name are available (except A, where there is only one).
9. C major and A natural minor are the only keys to compose in.

Of these restrictions, Thriller only conforms to the third: “You can not double notes on the same line or space,” in this regard it distorts what most people understand as the Mario Paint sound as well. By no means am I calling this work inauthentic, instead I am calling attention to the stability of sonic tropes in our cultural memory. The sound of Mario Paint is not remembered for the limitations described above, instead, there is a stable and distinct sonic fingerprint which is derived from the alchemy of icon, sound and song though which genre can be constructed and maintained.

Thriller is 8-bit music, even though there is nothing 8-bit about it. Similar to the way in which mods subverted the British status-quo, Thriller puts the idea of genre into crisis. This is not a crisis that works to undermine the existence of genre as a phenomenon, it is instead a crisis of interpretation, where the traditional means through which a genre can be identified are called into question. No longer can the easy answers be found at Allmusic or Wikipedia, some sounds have become more epistemically ellusive. Ultimately, this is a good thing, as it encourages listeners to take a critical ear to what they are listening to – and how they come to understand it.


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