Talk given at Le travail de l’informe/functions of formless, University College Cork, July 2002

General Ecology of Sound: Japanese Noise Music as Low Form

In this paper I will be looking at the peculiar genre of ‘Japanese noise music’ – itself a hybrid of free jazz, industrial music, ‘improv’, electronica, traditional musics. As a genre, it is noisy, and we might even ask, apart from western presumption, what unites highly varied groups and performers. The key elements are the following:
1 the music is an excess of the Western form: it seeks to go beyond the limits, or be at the limits of Western genres. This is quite specifically the aim for many of the musicians, and certainly can be read into their products.
2 the music is constructed without concern for traditional formats (whether in terms of instrumentation, form of pieces, norms of record industry production.
3 noise music is made from nonmusical, as well as musical sounds
4 unlike musique concrète, noise music does not seek to mobilise noises into a coherent composition.

The link between noise and formlessness is clear, but the link to informe is more interesting and less clear cut. Bois and Krauss, in L’informe: mode d’emploi, reject works which are blatant attempts to elude artistic form altogether (this applies to l’art informel, as well as to performance art, and what they call ‘abject art’). My first claim is that we have to see this is a hidden formalism. In fact, the obvious formless places are a very good place to start looking for the informe process – whether we are being fiathful to Bataille or simply using his idea. Japanese noise music is not devoid of form, but a working of form. It serves not only as example of ‘formless’, but as means of bringing out something more in Bataille’s early work – and this something in turn brings out something lurking in Kant’s Critique of Judgement, which is where we begin.

When Bataille envisages the ‘heterogeneous’ realm, we do not instantly think of Kant, but music in Critique illustrates perfectly what Bataille means. The heterogeneous is that which eludes the restricted economy of truth, morality, certainty, reason, and the economy itself. Typically, it involves sacrifice, sovereignty, violence, a space beyond morals. It can either be ‘high’ or ‘low’, with organised religion as high, for example, and sacrifice, or blasphemous religion or eroticism, as a low form. In the essay ‘L’abjection et les formes misérables’ (‘Abjection and Forms of Wretchedness’ – but the forms can be seen as wretched, poor, miserable, in their own right), Bataille talks about the high forms being those of power and oppressive morality, whilst subversion is low, and comes from the low, seeking the destruction of the rules established in and by the ‘high’ (‘la subversion exige donc l’abolition des règles qui fondent l’oppression’) (OC II, 217). There is some ambiguity as to whether there can be ‘high’ heterogeneity. In short, ‘high’ heterogeneity can be thought of as heterogeneity which brings itself into the homogeneous realm of order, so it is only the low that can be subversive, in some way outside, or placed outside.

Informe keeps itself out through ‘déclassement’ (OC I, 217), and destroying itself (‘se fait écraser partout comme une araignée ou un ver de terre’). I would like to ask whether noise music does something like this, whether it can stay noise. Noise in its own right is stuck on the outside, messy, dirty, unwanted – something close to a ‘forme misérable’ from the start – but ‘pure noise’ can be thought of as natural, as not being the ‘organised sound’ of music, nor the disruption of sound or music. Its immanence makes it empirical – it just is. To be informe, though, is to move, and to at least come into the realm of meaning, if only to attack – hence the notion of the ‘critical dictionary’ where informe lurks as exemplary – of itself as the non-meaning of the dictionary…. So on that basis, something like noise music, which would exist as if it were music and at the same time as if it were noise, would keep the exchange between homogeneous (music or sound) and the heterogeneous (noise) going. This open exchange then constitutes heterogeneity in its own right, as nothing fits into place, nothing stays, nothing stops becoming [not stopping becoming as defn of informe?…].

In the same way Derrida turns Kant’s Critique of Judgement into an aesthetic work, one that signals its own gaps and limits (its conditions of production), noise music highlights the noisiness of Kant’s own text, when it deals with music. Kant is contradictory about the relative roles of art and nature when judging beauty or the sublime (in the case of the latter, whether this has occurred to not be understood…), particularly when extolling ‘purposive form’ in nature, and naturalness in art. Music seems to exemplify this strange zone of rationalist aesthetics. Music can be ‘pure beauty’, just like nature: ‘we can refer to the same class [i.e. to free beauty] what are called in music phantasies (i.e. pieces without any theme), and in fact all music without words’ (Critique, 66). But nature is superior: in general terms because art only mobilises natural materials, and is therefore introducing a use of nature; but also in specific terms, because nature is literally more free: birds have a greater musical freedom, he argues, because not bound to the rules of music, and we as listeners appreciate this because we get tired of musical conventions:
Even the song of birds, which we can bring under no musical rule, seems to have more freedom, and therefore more for taste, than a song of a human being which is produced in accordance with the rules of music; for we very much sooner weary of the latter if it repeated often and at length. (80)
So music is in the realm which exceeds human control, or, in the case of unthematic music’ at least seems to, and this ‘free beauty’ is therefore a higher form. But this freedom cannot go too far and stay in the realm of the beautiful (‘this is not indeed a satisfaction in the object (because it may be formless), as in the case of the beautiful, in which the reflective judgement finds itself purposively determined in reference to cognition in general…’(87))

Awareness and appreciation of this realm are bound up with moral superiority: ‘this interest is akin to moral [interest], and he who takes such interest in the beauties of nature can do so only in so far as he previously has firmly established his interest in the morally good’ (143); ‘the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good’ (198). This applies to music in terms of its mathematical form (tones, sequences of tones, frequencies all at the correct value) (173), and also particularly to that music (unthematic, instrumental) which most closely approximates the experience of listening to nature. But at this point we get to the other side of music, for like all art, it is doomed to not even be beautiful if it tries specifically to copy nature. Writing of a party where ‘ a mischievous boy knew how to produce this sound [birdsong] exactly like nature’ (145), he says that ‘as soon as we are aware that it is a cheat, no one will remain long listening to the song which before was counted so charming’ (ibid.). It is not just simulation that is the problem, but the troubling of the border between art and nature, of art and experience of art that is the problem (and arguably is the problem in and of this Critique).

Also at a party, we learn that music can be ‘regarded solely as a pleasant noise’ (148), in the background. Here we can start to see the status of all music unravelling – the ‘pleasant noise’ is surely nearer to nature than more formal (in all senses) music – and yet it has become both ‘mere’ and ‘noise’. Incidental, unprogrammed music is not always pleasant: ‘those who recommend the singing of spiritual songs at family prayers do not consider that they inflict a great hardship upon the public by such noisy and (therefore in general pharisaical) devotions.’ (174-5fn). Clearly, then this sort of music, despite pretending otherwise, cannot be seen to be morally good – it needs to be more controlled.

Music in Kant’s Critique, then, occupies both the homogeneous realm of rules – formal and moral goodness – and the heterogeneous (in its high form as unthematised music and low form as noise, as sounds that elude the accepted place of music, or even human sound). What is strange is that Bataille’s annoyance at ‘transposition’ (at symbolisation, representation) is echoed in Kant – both high and low forms of music are so because of their refusal to transpose. But if we turn to Bataille’s ‘le bas matérialisme et la gnose’ (‘Low Materialism and….) we can see how Bataille moves on to alter the status of the low, such that low does not become high (i.e. in our example noise becoming the best music), but that which alters. Against idealist materialism, that talks of ‘the real world’, or conceptualises it in any way, ‘low materialism’ is about the matter that still gets left out: ‘la matière basse est extérieure et étrangère aux aspirations idéales humaines et refuse de se laisser reduire aux grandes machines ontologiques de ces aspirations’ (OC I, 225). According to Bataille, modern art (or some of it) is capable of being ‘l’expression d’un matérialisme intransigeant’ (225), so importantly, ‘material’ is not idealised as outside, but that which can come to be as matter when presented as that which cannot be represented. Bois and Krauss suggest that part of this shift occurs in the rejection of verticality, of the primacy of looking at images on walls, which insists on humanity’s upright, logical, ostensibly visually-dominated reason. But I think we can go further than that, and ask whether sound offers something lower than vision. At the physical level, we have less option when hearing than when seeing – but this goes beyond the point about not having a natural cover for the ears. We ‘hear’ through the body as well – hence the possibility of torturing and killing people through low frequency sounds. Sound can disturb more directly than things seen, and hence noise featuring as a problem – noise brings us into the realm of the animal, of the material – we are things that hear.

In terms of noise music, one of the obvious things to note is the volume (everything at 11…) – the records are mastered higher, the volume they are designed to be played at is higher, and if you are in the same room as a live performance, it might well be loud…But – ears get used to a fixed level of sound, however loud, so alteration, and continual shifts in tones, rather than a mess of white noise is how the ‘noisiness’ is assured. But is it noise at the level of content? Is there a design? A form? Structure etc? Douglas Kahn argues that Western avant-garde music attempts to marshal noise, to reduce noises to elements of composition, and in so doing actually increases the musicality of the world – all becomes music, or available to music (Noise Water Meat, 73-4, 201, re: John Cage). Japanese noise music (and some Western versions) is aware of keeping noise as noise, and this applies to the ‘instrumentation’, production, structuring of albums, packaging, and the sense that noise cannot be complex to the point of stasis (e.g. white noise) and remain noise.

These forms of noise are informe, not free of form, not deconstructing it, not in a dialectical relationship to it, not against, but worked through, despite and outside, moving from inside (music) to out (sound) with the noise the movement itself – this is the ‘besogne’ of noise – the enforced labour of noise – which neither wants to work, nor be merely noise, but becomes it through exclusion – an exclusion it reclaims, and through this, becomes music, which it fails to be.

Merzbow/Masami Akita is aware of the materiality of noise, and follows on from performance art in not mobilising material but letting material be – making it as if it were music, as if it were noise. The track titles and times given on the sleeves suggest a purposiveness – one swiftly removed by the tracks themselves – form becomes noisy, uncertain, through an excess of indications to the contrary. (aside: repeated listening might be a problem, in that however strange, loud etc the pieces, a structure will emerge from familiarity (ref Autechre’s anti-ep?). Merzbow’s answer is to make his own output noise: there are something like 150 releases, 50 of which in the Merzbox – many of them in strange formats, many on vinyl – a noisier form not because of audio capacity but because of digital media being the norm. More importantly, for Akita, (early) analogue synthesizers and vinyl represent almost the acoustic end of electronic sound, and are therefore nearer to natural sound or noise – by being noisier, less predictable.

In the case of Merzbow, and also Koji Tano’s MSBR, ……K2, we get the use of what are defined as ‘junk metals’ or ‘junk materials’. The means and the ends are both residual to the homogeneous world of production (and also the release strategy of all ‘noise artists’ falls outside standard commercial strategy – foolishly limited editions, strange editions, huge quantities of records on ‘the market’). From start to finish, our attention is drawn to all that is excluded from homogeneous rule-driven thematic music (in Kant’s terms), but also from the purest music, as the material side, or normally outside is not only on show, or available to purchase, but can also be heard, and seen as material.

When all that happens, according to Adorno, there is no more art, as art must be the mediation of material (see Adorno, Sound Figures, 199), and whilst this is a problem for Adorno, for Bataille, this brings us into the possibility of informe taking place, and it happens not at the summit of culture, not even at the top of an Aztec pyramid, but in the mud, in the ‘body affected by noise’ – becoming body at that point, rather than an idealise body, including the one without organs. When you remove everything, as John Cage discovered, you still have the sounds of the various bodily systems, the point at which ‘I’ is noise. When you fill everything, what better than with noise, which has no limit – even if literally deafened, noise does not stop.