Paper given at Intercultural Spaces, Royal Irish Academy conference, Dublin City University, November 2003. The response was underwhelming. People were really interested in the Rough Guide to Japanese Music I took along to criticise.

Culture/Noise

Marshall McLuhan has claimed that our world ‘is a brand-new world of allatonceness. "Time" has ceased, "space" has vanished. We are now living in a global village… a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space’ (Medium is the Massage, 63). His theorisation of the contemporary world is based on the primacy of human media – whether communications, travel or war media. Few can dispute that the world is a ‘global village’ today, but as well as globalisation, we have to consider the village aspect. We are not in a global city, but a dwelling of proximity, of community and shared values. All of this being, as Baudrillard has long noted, a simulation, a hyperreality. The global village is a hyperlocality, where we are to fell connected, where to be online, or communicating in general is increasingly a social obligation, and interaction is a necessary good. For Baudrillard, this means we are becoming terminals, and the problem is not out passivity, but that we are exhorted to participate.
It is not immediately clear why we are back in acoustic space, when what seems to characterise the contemporary is the proliferation of images. The reason is that we are leaving a rationalised seeing – writing- behind. Before and after writing is the acoustic (‘until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless’ (Medium is the Massage, 48)). The total visualisation of culture frees the image from its grounding in representational meaning. Or – the total textualisation, to ward off a Derridean critique, leads to the disappearance of text (this is what Baudrillard had to say about Foucault’s notion of power in Forget Foucault). Our eye actually becomes ear (Medium is the Massage, 121) as we can no longer close it – images surround us acoustically. The organs of sight lose their identity, and vision loses its privileged link to reason (uprightness, controlled, focussing viewing, the dialectic between sight and thought): ‘where a visual space is an organised continuum of a uniformed, connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships’ (Medium is the Massage, 111). At a very literal level, visual media have developed to the point of emphasizing sound quality and ultra-realistic ambience (surround sound). Where stereo mimics our sensory apparatus, surround sound mimics the unstoppable directionless sound world. At another, equally literal level, music is a medium of globalisation and vice-versa.
The image is only effective to a certain point, and its perfection needs extraneous enhancement. At the same time ‘perfected’ music disappears – the cd does not reveal the texture of a recording the same way vinyl does, and with mp3s and the iPod, music is a pure medium of itself. We have gone from instruments and performers to transcriptions to dispersal into binary code and, ultimately, no visual element.

Jean-Luc Nancy writes of a ‘becoming-music of sensibility, and a becoming-global of musicality’ (A l’écoute, 29). Globalisation has been uncannily echoed in the growth of world music, understandably, if Bruno Nettl is at all right in claiming ‘music is one of the few universal phenomena’ (Theory and Method of Ethnomusicology, 3). Even more obvious, though, might be the spread of a globalised, homogenised music, which is generally English-language rock or pop. World music, and the study of it, seeks to resist this homogenisation, to the point of contesting tiself as a term, as being potentially reductive. World music is the attempt to spread ‘indigenous’ musics, musics that would authentically represent particular cultures. Although it is utterly compromised in market thinking, it also supports the specific musics, bringing it to new audiences and perhaps enhancing their status ‘at home’. These audiences can, in turn, come to question their cultural presumptions about what music necessarily entails. World music, and its academic relative, ethnomusicology, look to the other both to know the other, and to re-assess music as universal, whilst rethinking the place of Western art music. There are clear orientialist problems here, but ethnomusicology, like postcolonial theory after it, is there in some measure to address that problem. But ethnomusicology still performs a subtle form of reductionism as that of the world music labels.
In the case of world music, the culture-specific sounds spread and infiltrate each other, and usually combine with Western elements, so world music comes to exist, confirming that the simulation is not a bad copy, but an extravagant reality with no real grounding. Ethnomusicology is mores elf-aware. Philip Bohlman is able to write that ‘world music [and by implication, ethnomusicology] is very much a construct of modernity, which is to say the encounter with and interpretation of the world that was unleashed by the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, colonial expansion and the rise of the nation-state’ (World Music, vi). It is nonetheless, caught up in a sanitised exoticism that still praises ‘diversity’ in itself, and of course sees diversity both everywhere and everywhere else: from the same book, we hear that the ‘abundance of world music today offers the opportunity to experience the diversity of human societies like never before’ (ii) – thereby enhancing ‘our’ capacity to assimilate and learn from the other (sometimes this other is internal, in the form of folk music). We can learn not only about music and cultures, but understand the notion of experience itself (Bohlman wants his reader ‘to engage more directly with world music as experience’ (vii)), presumably enhancing ‘our’ identity through the other.
This cosy humanism insists on diversity as a value in no need of further exploration, and modifies Derrida’s notion of différance into a homespun, patronising judgement, refusing alterity in favour of a recognisable, proximate form. To think the difference between difference and alterity is to pit Lévi-Strauss’s positive view of culture being an accumulation of beneficial encounters against Jean Baudrillard’s insistence on alterity and turning the domesticated and/or familiar into the threatening. In the case of Japanese music, these undermine each other and the ferocity of ‘unlistenable’ music infiltrates the assimilation and more amenable domestication of foreign musics.

Japan has a history of hybrid forms of music, and despite rigid distinctions between high art styles and layers, reinforced by the education system, it was only when Western music was encouraged in the late 19th century that a term evolved to describe properly Japanese music (nihon ongaku). Terence Lancashire argues that ‘ "world music" in Japan cannot be seen as a contemporary phenomenon’, but dates form that time (‘World Music or Japanese…’, 23). The usual issues in listening to world music are altered in the case of Japan. The presence of its music in the world is always pre-emptive of the Western economical term of world music. Its music cannot be reduced to a clear national style, representing a traditional, hitherto oppressed society, and authenticity is not a virtue (even if history within a genre is an internal, formal authenticity).
Even then, though, ethnomusicology ascribes an identity, however hybridised, and a contextual determinism that insists on ‘Japan’s opening up to the West’. Hugh de Ferranti praises the culturally specific hybridity of recent(ish) Japanese pop music, which ‘[does] not conform to the essentialising expectation that popular music of a given culture must sound ethnically grounded in some clearly recognisable way’ (205). So a new authentic quality or capacity replaces the presumptions of an earlier liberalism. But de Ferranti is not wrong – the music does nothing more, formally, than what he wants it to – it can often be an easily identifiable collaboration of components from different cultures. For Lévi-Strauss, this is what each culture is, but following McLuhan, these cultures are not identifiable discrete hybrids, as there is nowhere to either be a ‘pure’ culture of a voluntary hybrid (except perhaps with musicians as consumers, buying and buying into ‘local colour’, ‘ethnic feels’ etc.). Hybridity has globalised.
Noise music does not resist this, but offers a weak or minor hybridity (as in Deleuze’s idea of ‘minor literature’) with no control, no imposition of will, whilst also being a self-conscious operation. Noise is a hypergenre (one that is an active simulation), and the ‘development of a cross-genre, cross-category, ultra-amplified and often ultra-processed music is something specific (in its breadth and range at least) to Japan’ (Hegarty, ‘Noise threshold’, 194). It started out around 1970, emerging as a bastard genre of free jazz, progressive rock, contemporary classical, Japanese traditional musics (sometimes), and later on, hardcores of both punk and digital forms. This coalesces into musical objects that are formally noisy – as a crucial part of noise is that keeps altering (white noise is not noise, in this sense).

The ‘noise’ musicians undermine the ethnomusicologist: Kawabata Makoto: ‘we experienced rock, jazz, blues, contemporary composition, ethnic music – in fact, every variety of interesting music – as pure information, and so we felt no need to learn about the history or social background behind these styles of music’ (Japanese Independent Music, 48). Yuko Nexus 6 adds that ‘Japanese music has its own peculiar characteristics because of a misunderstanding of foreign messages’ (52-3). Uchihashi Kazuhisa emphasizes Japan’s lack of tradition: ‘it is because we have no traditional, strong music roots. That’s why we can go anywhere’ (58).
Noise loses itself in its transmission, just as music disappears as it accumulates over time (it being an organisation of sound in time). Unlike music, though, it resists narrative. It not a pure object, though – in listening, in being produced, noise asks for meaning, and, as Jacques Attali says, ‘despite the death it contains, noise carries order within itself; it carries new information’ (Noise, 33). Attali’s point is that the avant-garde or the marginal is initially noise, but can become the new norm. At the same time, it operates outside of power relations, as it brings the world as other, and other to itself. It brings the unorganised, and keeps it as that which comes, or is to come, always not arriving, however open the listening.
Ethnomusicology and world music seek to preserve musics as distinct cultural expressions (what Alan P. Merriam termed the ‘White Knight Concept’, quoted in Joseph Kerman, Musicology, 159), just as ecologists seek to preserve endangered species. Here is Bohlman, for example, writing of UNESCO’s world music collection: classical and traditional musics are emphasized and many endangered examples are preserved’ (World Music, 34). Noise music follows Baudrillard’s dictum that ‘we must not reconcile ourselves with nature’ (Illusion of the End, 82). Japanese noise rejects its environment and eludes the musical naturalists, eager to learn, to save, preserve, and position outside the globalised world. Noise works across globalisation, neither in nor out, and exists in a marginal form of the world economy.
Noise moves Japanese music beyond a hybridity of discrete forms becoming new discrete forms to an absence of form, or more accurately, what Bataille termed formless/informe, where the absence of form plays across form (so a Merzbow track is a track, with title and duration). Noise is, as if it were music, and as if it were noise. It offers a model of unpredictable interculturality, one that challenges the notion of intercultural exchange between two readily identified participants with agency, or the enforced relation of coloniser and colonised, in order to not be, not be itself, not be other, let alone the ‘same’ of a tradition.
Noise, then, might be the listening John Cage wanted music to be. Nancy proposes a model of listening which would not equate with understanding (écouter rather than entendre) (A l’écoute, 17, 62). The subject who listens is no longer a subject in an object world, but a subject to come, open to the world-to-come (39-44). This could suggest an ethics of listening, of openness to the other, and this is certainly at stake in noise, but it is not one other that is to be listened to, but the listening brought by the other, as other, such that the openness is filled, even thwarted. This fullness being empty of meaning, it does not persist. It offers another form of dwelling, other than presence, appropriate to a world where the intercultural is a ruse of power, an alibi for the global, as its localities become simulations, especially when insisting on specificity.