Perceptions of noise music are often dominated by clichéd extremes. Waves of ear-splitting, patience-testing feedback. Convulsions of pained sounds of indeterminable origin. Footage of excrement-slathered live performances or band names and album art with a taste for the exceedingly sexual, grotesque or violent.
While those traits have certainly, in various guises of accuracy, been a feature of noise music, the bracket long precedes them – and includes vast numbers of other features that are completely unrecognisable from such extremes.
At its very foundation, noise music challenges the boundary between noise and music. It straddles a range of musical styles and creative practices, its vast history rooted in some of the 20th century’s most influential modern art movements.
Hanatarash, Live in Shibuya 1985
Theoretically, anything one can fashion noise out of – broken instruments (and unbroken instruments), found objects, distortion, static – one can fashion into noise music. Born out of the futurist opine for music less confined to melodic tradition and the interpretative/nonsensical expression of Dada, noise developed within surrealist notions of unconscious inspiration and modernist impulses advocating the value of naïve art.
Noise music came to Japan in the latter half of the 20th century, though had taken hold in an academic capacity far earlier. Japanese noise (occasionally, and somewhat controversially, termed ‘Japanoise’ by foreign journalists) both drew on these historical interests and developed past them, setting much of the groundwork for contemporary noise music.
Japanese noise drew most importance from the late ‘80s through to the ‘90s. Its roots were broad, ranging from the Kansai No Wave scene that spawned Hijokaidan and Hanatarash to the likes of the Dada-inspired Merzbow and free jazz-influenced Otomo Yoshihide. Noise could be notionally grounded in whichever parent genre the artist wanted, only to subvert the very definition of music through the likes of extreme levels of volume and distortion, homemade instruments and destructive live performances.
This era saw noise channelled as an output for political commentary and primal instincts; motives ranging from ferocious anti-consumerism and heedless nonconformism to compulsive, exploratory introspection.
Many of noise music’s most influential artists, as well as many of its myths and legends, stem from the ‘80s and ‘90s. These were the decades of acts such as Masonna, Violent Onsen Geisha, Incapacitants and C.C.C.C; as well as of infamous images such as those of Yamatsuka Eye (of Hanatarash, Boredoms) atop a bulldozer, destroying a venue from the inside, and of The Gerogerigegege masturbating live on stage.
Les Rallizes Dénudés, “But I Was Different”
Meanwhile, noise rock – the use of feedback, dissonance and distortion within the more conventional structures of rock music – thrived as a separate style. Les Rallizes Dénudés, active since the 1960s, preceded and directly influenced many noise artists; and, in return, noise rock flourished in direct crossover with the noise scene. Noise rock became one of the most globally-renowned Japanese music genres, acts such as Boredoms and Keiji Haino earning reverence for performances throughout Europe and North America.
Noise and noise rock are, however, only two, exceptionally ill-defined categorisations of noise music. There are a huge number of subgenres that owe their existence to noise, some -such as harsh noise and power electronics- in a more straightforward manner. Others, like glitch, drone, industrial music and noise pop, are more complexly associated with noise and its heritage.
And all that history and influence doesn’t even touch on the fact that “noise” itself is a controversial, oft-rejected term. Noise is seen by many not as a genre but an exceptionally loose label that categorises (and often reduces) artists’ features into a limitless, vague bracket.
Merzbow: “Woodpecker No. 1” (1996)
That bracket often refers to music that is simply unconventional or distorted beyond current definitions. In turn, it should be noted that Japanese noise music -and many of its associated styles- is rarely acknowledged as a genre or scene by those musicians deemed to take part in it. Similar to such broad terms like “experimental” or “electronic” music, the term applies more accurately to the critical eye rather than artists’ intentions.
Nevertheless, Japanese musicians have arguably made the greatest contributions to noise music since the 1980s. Their music and performances are at the very core of modern perceptions of the term: among them include many famed and well-respected names that have pioneered some of contemporary noise music’s most celebrated styles and denominations.
Author: Ed Cunningham