Versions of this paper were given at Noisetheorynoise #2, at the University of Middlesex, November 2004; University of Victoria, BC, November 2004. This version is the one for Sonic Interventions, Amsterdam, March 2005

Noise as Weakness

I. Applying Theory to Noise

For something seemingly very difficult to talk about, noise music has spawned a range of options for theorists, as if theory was waiting all the time to answer its question:
Ecstatic – noise offering a communion, a new society, however briefly. Such an approach has close connections to writing on what was then rave/club culture. The emphasis here is on the physical taking over from the rational.
Extreme/Excess - here noise really is more: noise is the avant-garde, the furthest music has got. This can still be interested in the physical, but also in how thought breaks down. Noise has great potential.
Adorno – noise music is just another commodification of attempted avant-gardism. Those who engage in it are doubly misled, as since Adorno ‘identified’ the culture industry problematic, any avant-gardism that ignores it is in some way doomed to fail whilst believing it is offering something new. Noise here is the culture industry’s last gasp, and possibly a sign of its desperation. Any new noise, if such a thing is possible, is turned into cultural capital, reified by its consumers. Those who use Adorno have to forget his hostility to anything that comes after classical music
Attali – noise is what society does not accept, so negatively defined, always caught up in its relation to what is considered meaningful, acceptable. Noise here is an inheritance of sacrifice, with the notion of sound being physically threatening. He advocates pirate radio, sampling etc as means of creating ‘noise in the system’
Deleuze and Guattari – noise here is a proliferation of sound, deterritorialisation of both music and listener. Noise is rhizomatic, a plateau of intensities etc. Such an approach is used as a means of identifying transgressive, ‘subversive’ culture.
failure/impossibility – noise is only ever defined against something else, operating in the absence of meaning, but caught in the paradox of nihilism - that the absence of meaning seems to be some sort of meaning
not thinking about it at all - here, to try to think critically or understand noise is to betray it, to lose its radicality. This must be the most traditional perspective
authenticity/purity – noise as pure expression (like Pollock, or Greenberg on Pollock). This would be one response to Adorno, in saying that noise is only possible in reaction to an all-pervasive hyperculture industry.
These are all ‘strong’ theories, to which we could add a weak, failing theory, that would not be about failure but an enactment, a supplementary replaying of noise’s failure, where neither failure is definitive. The way into this, I think, is through Bataille’s notion of excess, which superficially seems to work only as a validation for those who might praise an authentic transgression in the extremes of noise. Masonna too, offers us a very literal form of excess, in terms of his own ‘excessive’ physical performances, the ‘extreme’ noise of his concerts and recordings. But he also offers us an equally ‘obvious’ weakness or failing, at the moments where he gasps for breath, or loses track of the noise, and it falls back into being strumming or thumping. I want to claim that Masonna suggests the application of Bataillean excess to his work, firstly at the obvious level, then at the level both Bataille and Masonna near failure, and also in how the obviousness of excess is key to understanding that this ‘present’ excess is the trace of the actual, absent excess that structures noise, noise as failure. But a failure that is not self-contained (i.e. a result of musical badness, or listeners’ lack of competence or capacity, nor that it is only noise that fails).
Why failure, though? Certainly not to stand in awe before the ‘ineffable object of noise’, or to claim noise fails because it is fundamentally misguided. It is not a bad failure – noise fails to be noise, even as, hopefully, it fails in being music, and this is its condition – not exactly what it sets out to do, but how it could function, if it did or does, This double failure –not being noise, not being music – this is the only fleeting success noise can have. This is not negative, except at the level of noise being a negativity – i.e. noise does not positively inhere in a specific piece or style of music, it occurs in a relation. The failure of noise is not due to some problem with how it got made, or how it is listened to, understood, etc. – failure occurs in the relation to noise of: music, a piece of noise, noise music, the performer or the listener. Failure is not about not doing something, nor is it a result, what it is is an operator of noise.

II. Containing
Bataille’s notion of ‘sovereign failure’, as expressed in The Accursed Share, vols II and III, offers a way of thinking about failure and impossibility not as tragic, but as functional - as the mode or formless of noise and the listening to noise. Excess can be about losing the self, but more than this, excess is actually less (having become more first). Excess, for Bataille is part of the principle of expenditure that defines the universe, and endlessly alternates with the principle of conservation or accumulation. Excess is about death, waste, eroticism, drunkenness, sacrifice, transgression – all the good things in life….so noise seems to be ideal for Bataille and vice-versa – but Bataille’s notion of excess is not about goodness, about communion or some sort of realisation of nothingness: it is a principle of evil, apathetic evil. Excess cannot be about gain, but instead involves loss: the loss of self in ritual or noise music will only ever be virtual loss, a suggestion of how waste might come out. And there is only ever this not-quite-occurring of excess, the same as noise never quite occurs as noise, as it is always multiply mediated in order to be heard, let alone listened to.
Excess is not transgression, nor attainable through it – excess parallels those, but also parallels the restricted world of survival, saving, truth, logic and so on. Noise as excess does not exist purely, authentically as excess, but only in relation to both music and to judgements about noise. In other words, putting excess and noise together is the combining of two things that have no autonomous existence. But it does seem like this: why is noise music excessive? Firstly in very mundane ways – volume, or absence of, use of materials deemed non-musical, pushing materials beyond a point where the sound coheres in discrete patches, but secondly, because we conceive it as excess as a result of these elements. Excess, though, is not quantitative, ‘louder’, ‘harsher’, ‘more shocking’ etc: it is in the pushing to the ordinary levels of excess and then in the excess that occurs toward the listener. Excess is waste, not a surplus: it only is in being spent:
Excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g. an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically’ (The Accursed Share, 21).
If it only comes to be – in fact only fails to come to be – as waste, nonetheless it is always there, ‘energy is always in excess’ (23), and it is the non-excessive that is the by-product.
So noise music has to try to get to some sort of limit, or be some sort of limit, to work. But noise isn’t at the limit, or the limit - even the most ‘cathartic’, loud harsh performance or recording only works as noise when the limits of that particular bit of noise/music are in play. And this is the possibility of weakness, failure, being consumed rather than blazing gloriously, rock god style, and where no-one is in control, or the beneficiary of loss. What you get is still nothing.
This NOTHING is what Bataille describes as sovereignty, a deformed version of (what he imagines to be) Hegel’s idea of mastery. Sovereignty is where the subject is exceeded, lost, put beyond the self. This might lead us to imagine a happy catharsis for performer and individual, but this loss is loss, not something to be chalked up as experience, as gain, as cultural capital. It is also a loss that has always been within us, existing as being-to-be-lost. The unknowing possibly induced by the ‘experience’ of noise also fails – and this is sovereign failure (The Accursed Share, vol III, 204). In terms of noise, this applies not only to the listening, but also to the process of understanding or theorising it. Nick Smith has recently talked and written of the mundane failure of noise when we either a) get used to it, or b) reflect on it (‘The Splinter in your Ear: Noise as the Semblance of Critique’). But what if this is not a mundane failure at all, but a necessary part of a machinic conception of noise that is not about noise objects that get sense imposed on them, or lose impact as they get listened to by grateful listeners, but about a noise-relation, a noise-body? I think the answer to this is the absence of an answer that can maintain a critical purity or the purity of some sort of ideal noise that eludes our impositions. For Bataille, anguish alternates with apathy as two states of interest, and in the setting of noise, apathy is the outcome of noise and noise’s failure coming together, and this apathy cannot be sustained, as it gives way to judgement. The outcome of noise is the failure to inhabit a moment of sovereign failure (where we so nearly know nothing), such that, as he says in Mme Edwarda, all we have left is irony and the long wait for death (159). How pleased we are if noise succeeds or fails, and how much closer to noise when frustrated, excited, and physically addressed by noise. How pleased we are if we have a strong theory that masters either the success or failure.

III. Instead Weakness
Masonna is consistently described as being at the extreme end of Japanese noise, so that is what makes him a good example of weakness and excess. Excess in normal terms, applying to the blocs of intense sound and similarly weakness in the normal sense describing the gaps or the collapses in that noise. Through Bataille and Vattimo, we can rethink these two categories as crossing one another (with Masonna ahead of the game, maybe, in already doing this?). Just like Bataille’s own aesthetic readings, excess starts out from fairly transparent excesses, and only then does it move on. The pieces I will discuss demonstrate what superficially seem like blocs of excessive or extreme noise, broken with moments of failure, where extravagance dissipates. I am looking at those obvious excesses and failures as ways into a more intricate weakness, wherein the excess resonates across loud phases and gaps, and where the weakness crosses out and over from the superficial moments of failing strength in Masonna’s performances and recordings.
Masonna is described on his own website as the ‘rock god of noise music’, and here are some representative comments:
Alien8: ‘Maso Yamazaki a.k.a Masonna is undoubtedly the most over the top player in the field of extreme noise’, using a ‘barbaric mix of vocals and noise’ – this description is the one widely used to categorise Masonna on the net.
Mute: Masonna is ‘Japan’s "most extreme noise artists"’
Nick Smith: Masonna is ‘definitive of the [noise] movement’ (1)
A UK Music Reviews site: ‘intense, harsh, and brutal feedback, white noise, and screaming. There’s no melodies here, no singing or lyrics, not even a proper rhythm – just free form noise, the agony of sound’ (
But all of this is not just the commodification and/or deification of Masonna – his stuff plays this game too, with the ‘extreme’ performance’, seemingly unpredictable sound outcomes, and the intensity of what is produced. Everything seems to be combining to attribute purity, authenticity and a newly centred artists, master of his form, or formlessness. Mason Jones argues that ‘Masonna is too much concerned with pure expression to be theoretical enough’ to follow John Cage ( – in a good, decisive and masterful way. But what if what made this noise music noise was more formless, a process of form disintegrating and accreting, and that all pure human-driven noise did produce bursts of noisiness – moments where the listening is interrupted, whether the listener is familiar/smug or deeply traumatised by the newness.. This process would not come clear either in the building apparent formless form of the noise piece, or in its failure to stay noise.
If we take his DVD montage of performances, Like a Vagina, we see and hear something that promises to takes us to a new level of excessive performance (while tying in to a lengthy tradition, or history, of ‘extreme’ performance), and where the performer is putting himself at stake, pushing himself, the equipment and audiences beyond functioning. Noise is being staged as a maximum (of sounds or noises), and also at and as its breaking apart. Where or when is the noise? When is the judgement of noise in play? Noise and its failure never emerge as discrete: instead the louder noise, the recognisable noise fails, while the failing, gasping, panting becomes noise. But the noise is maybe never heard as such – it would be that which crosses over, transgresses in Foucault’s take on Bataille – in the sense of the crossing that has always crossed over already, unknown. Then the noise could be at the moments Smith describes as those pauses that suggest meaning, ‘like the vertical strips in Barnett Newman’ (3), the points where we seem to be nearest to controlling the noisiness, or that the noise lets up, the moments of gathering.
Instead of gathering noise, noise as gathering of noise; instead of noise as loss, noise as loss of noise (in terms both of the disappearance of noise, and the attempt at imposing meaning, and then this imposition failing, not through being wrong, but because that imposition had always been emerging from the noise anyway.
This could apply to the moments of failure: of instrument, of voice, or of recording (or editing). The moment might occur as direct excess is in itself exceeded – and distortion stops, or the voice cracks. In Masonna we could still think of these occurrences as illustrating the commitment, the authenticity of pushing the barriers, of letting go. ‘Assenting to life up to the point of death’ as Bataille says in Eroticism. They also offer a pause for reflection, but only if we think that reflection has been prevented in the rest. Or it could be assimilation – a space where judgement is allowed to occur, where distance, critical or otherwise is re-established. This relies on the notion that distance is abolished in the harsher explosive noise blocks. So what these moments give is like Kant’s sublime – the sense that something we cannot judge just occurred, but this only a trick –the apparent breakdown of noise an exacerbation of noise, not its ending. Noise becomes a mobile force and momentary weakness then seems to confirm noise as force: and force disrupts form (and form in turn includes the connection to the listener). Force, though, is not to be taken as strength, but something like Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ (a force that does not belong to someone, but acts between, like gravity). This force is also material, or what connects and disconnects the material from the realm of hearing or judging noise – literally played out in the bad use of equipment – hands on foot pedal, bad drumming, bad editing of the video (notably around the 5 minute mark), the cringing use of what we have to call a ‘noise harmonica’ (10 minutes in). it is this bad element that distinguishes noise from other uses of noise, which work through mastery of equipment, composition, technique. That this ‘badness’ can be done well only adds to its wrongness. For now.

IV. More, Weakness
Masonna often veers between loud noise and silences, occasional glimpses of music and semi-contemplative voice sounds. This is combined, as in ‘Test Edit’, on Noskl in Ana, with bad montage, emphasizing that noise cannot become a unity, an amorphous ambience and stay noise. In this piece, voice, guitar and percussion fight through blasts of feedback. This then gives way (1.05) to panting, very close to the microphone and a rhythmic machine clicking. At 1.39-1.41, noise again comes in, overloading even as noise, at 1.41. Silence, a voice at some sort of limit, and suggestions of music are not pauses but as a change in the relation of piece and/or performer to audience: expectation removes the presence of noise, stopping it from just being, from being there to be understood: familiar. This is where noise starts to appear, and endlessly fails to appear. The voice is noisy for being outside of language, and seemingly indexing the limits of endurance, but what we largely hear is a ‘bad’ version of that, mediated by the microphone’s reception of breath – the possibly authentic carrier of Masonna’s subjectivity is there only in how it is diminished, made noisy.
Repetition, and even the fascination of a noise becoming something we can follow, and carrying on anyway, apathetic to our appropriation also work like silence in the setting of noise. In the Ruins’ ‘B.U.G.’, Stonehenge, we have the setting of heavy percussion and bass – rock power, but a weaker force, in the guise of strength, emerges in the painful repetition of a short phrase (from just past 1.00 to about 2.50), which gradually loses all variation, creating a kind of non-anticipation (the phrase is also short enough that if played by a dj, the audience can suspect the cd to be broken, so they veer between different types of anticipation). From 1.19 to 1.26, a ride or something similar suggests a gathering change, only for the riff to return and repeat, unaltered for over a minute. The rest of the track (over 2 minutes) is also the repetition of a riff, but the busyness of the drums suggests some sort of dynamic.
There isn’t really a way around the moment where conceptualising or processing leads to familiarity of noise – but if noise music is aware of that, it can alternate between endless alteration and the suggestion of coherence. This living on is what Vattimo proposes with his idea of weakness. He argues that ‘the "weakening" of Being allows thought to situate itself in a constructive manner within the post-modern condition’ (The End of Modernity, 11). Being is weakened, Nietzsche and Heidegger, by its persistence in a world that has lost the notion of true, properly ontological Being: it exists as if it were real Being, and whilst it represents the mourning of Being, this mourning is also weak. Once Being lives on in weakness, so does art and culture as whole: or it does if it is culture/art that tries to address what is actually going on, rather than believing in modes of thinking and acting that are gone, or exposed as completed weakness (Vattimo’s weakness cannot end itself – that is the weakness). Art becomes a remnant, a remainder or residue among other remnants, and if it realises this (i.e. acts as if it is remnant and act as if it were something more), then it can still have value, the kind of value proposed by Nietzsche, that is outside of judgements of goodness, correctness, truth or falsity. It will then be possible to:
Transform the work of art into a residue and into a monument capable of enduring because from the outset it is produced in the form of that which is dead. It is capable of enduring not because of its force, in other words, but because of its weakness (86).
Noise, then, becomes something capable of living on in a commodified culture, and is perhaps the form music should take (or should be given, attributed). Noise itself must be residue, and within that residue remnants and relics of musical form undo each other, producing not only ‘weakened’ music, but ‘weak noise’ – noise that lives on in its own failure (to come to be, to be itself, to be other, to get outside). Noise does not seek to win, and theorising about it should also weaken.
This philosophical, or ‘ontological’ weakness supplants the literal moments of weakening within noise. Like excess, it is not heroic, but profoundly comic, pointless, wasteful and the place to look for it is where excess is at its most obvious or banal, and then, almost but not quite against that – in direct banal weakness and where we might be hit by a limit rather than forcing our way through – this is the place weakness emanates from. Take Masonna’s ‘Acid Recordings, parts 1, 2 and 3’, on Extreme Music. From 0.22 in, we have heavy breathing into the microphone, feeble, vaguely animalistic; this is broken by 2 seconds of noise, and then followed by a combination of pathetic sing song and banging. It ends in feedback howls. Are these to be taken as triumph (or extravagant failure)? Possibly, but the ‘noise’ of the piece is in the non-relation of the different ‘sections’, and the awkwardness rather than the perversely measured ending. But, it is not that these transparently ‘weak’ sections’ are noisy because they index weakness, they are noise to the weakness of the transparently noisy elements. Weakness is the living on of the transgression of ‘extreme’ noise and the living on of noise where, ostensibly, it isn’t (when in relation to the more overt noise, i.e. within the context of noise music, mostly).
That is the start of it, but then the weakening infiltrates the rest of the production and listening, to the point where what was strong, or full of force is the weakness as art, as music. To respond to noise might be to fail in the most mundane way, but maybe that failure functions. Maybe we can aspire to fail in our understanding, not to be mystical, ecstatic, respectful of the music, or the performance; but because to succeed is the greater failure, to master noise through critique or assessments the failure of the strong, the failure of the passive nihilist. The weak failure is not abstract, dematerialised, but historically situated. It fails to fail, and cannot hope to succeed. Instead it alternates between the two possibilities, never settling. The weakening that is noise is paralleled by weakening of theory – and these cannot meet, only recognise the residue of how they tried to meet. Is noise tragic, then? Hardly.

V. On the Pessimism of Strength
Weakness and noise as failure are a weakening of tropes such as the body, the listener, the musician. All or none of these begin to constitute a noise-body, a perpetually weakening body that is always n-1, minus the 1 hidden in modernist multiplicities, including in music of the avant-garde. The noise-body emanates noise, hears elsewhere than their ears, and cannot balance very well. The noise-body started out in Descartes’ dream, where he is endlessly toppling but not falling, woken by a thunderclap. Reason and the mind as conductor of the body do not only stem from this, they are perpetually haunted by it. As noise tries to go elsewhere, to be the going and not-quite-arriving, it too is haunted by meaning, music and bodies that work as they should. So maybe the weakening noise-body is an expression of will to power as haunting. Instead of the noise/meaning division, or that between noisy and disciplined bodies, the noise-body is a connecting, an opening between discrete, semi-noisy bodies and the disciplined – in which case this haunting is an ethics, an ethics of the impossibility of connection, where that impossibility drives further attempts and affects the world of non-noise, which, after all, is only a by-product, a noise of noise, a precarious, even if long-lived, organisation. One thing: the noise-body will secrete more and more noise, even as noises are brought into the realm of aesthetic or ethical understanding.
Noise is material – the failing of form, and a failing that has led to all form, before it is materialist, before it partakes in either commercial, artistic or communal circuits. A material that is emission, not presence. Nor is it absent – thinking about noise is not enough; thinking about a Platonic noise unmatched by our weak noise is too much. Weak noise filters across strong meaning, strong attributions, strong being. Weakness prevents failure through living on as if failure was inevitable and never going to happen, here, now. So, noise, and here, in the shape of Masonna, is, barely. As if it were not.