SCENES OF LIVENESS AND DEADNESS
There are about forty-five people in here, bathing in the blast of Noise right now: a group of older fans, some college kids already holding CDS they've purchased from the merchandise table, a handful of foreigners (mostly Canadian and American), and a lot of familiar faces among the regulars, local performers, and store and label owners here for the show. These all-Noise concerts usually happen about once a month in Tokyo, in different venues. The livehouse, 20,000V, is set up like any small hole-in-the-wall rock club, a poorly maintained, boxy room in the basement—actually, two floors down in the subbasement—of an anonymous building on the main shopping street in Koenji. It's about a hundred square feet, and there are huge black wooden speaker enclosures chained to the ceiling on either side of the stage; flyers on the walls for both current and past hardcore, scum, punk, and Noise shows; a tiny bar in the back by the toilets selling cups of beer; and a little table near the door where recordings by the evening's performers are sold.
I stand about halfway toward the front of the room, slightly to the side of the stage, in line with one of the huge towers of speakers. MSBR is on stage now, and he is very interesting to watch. His body movements are much more conservative than those of the energetic eighteen-year-old Long Islander Viodre, whose thrashing set preceded MSBR, but his hands are always moving: constantly adjusting pots and faders, starting and stopping sounds, changing them, pushing against pedals, and switching them off and on with the base of his hand. In comparison with tonight's other performers, MSBR's Noise is more multilayered and rhythmic, and he is almost completely still as he sits in the center of an earsplitting whirlwind of sound. He cuts in and out of an analog delay, shuttling through a spacey blur as he shifts out of one timbre and into another, never letting any texture linger for more than five or ten seconds. Everyone is rapt, falling into the steady flow of sound. No one talks; no one could talk if they wanted to.... Besides, it costs ¥4,000 (about US$50) to get in, so you can't afford not to get it—you just listen.
Indeed, everything about this audience shows that they already know what they are doing here, as they stand scattered about the floor of the club, now watching the next band, Nord, blasting through the speakers, two huge thickets of incense burning on stage as blue light illuminates the performers from behind. The low-end vibrations are inside my chest, forcing my lungs to compress as I exhale slightly, involuntarily, along with the blasts of sound. Nord is so heavy, pounding deep drum sounds, droning moans with electric clatter over it all, and as the atmosphere intensifies, growing louder, the lights begin to come up—white, glaring spots in my eyes as their set crashes to an end.
Finally, the famous harsh Noise duo Incapacitants takes the stage. It's so loud I can't breathe—they vibrate the air inside my mouth, in the back of my windpipe, as the volume grows and grows. I fear for my eardrums despite the wadded-up balls of wet toilet paper I stuffed in my ears as the set began, and I retreat a few meters to the back of the tiny room where it's slightly—barely—quieter. Two or three others have done the same, but most press closer to the center as Mikawa and Kosakai crash their sounds against us. One Noise musician I recognize is right up in front, directly in front of a speaker, bouncing his head and shoulders back and forth, and occasionally thrusting his arms out in front of his body toward the musicians, vibrating tautly in place.
Mikawa is crushing a contact mic under a bent square of steel, tilting it back and forth to shift the oscillating loops of feedback emerging from his system. Kosakai shakes the mic in his hand in front of his Marshall amp, his entire body rattling and jerking as if he is holding onto part of some powerful being that is trying to escape his grip, as a quaking stream of high-pitched noise spins out of the speakers. Mikawa leans over in front of a smaller Roland amp, each of their heads down on either side of the stage, faces to their tables now, leaning on them, shaking them—or are they being shaken? Kosakai crashes to the floor in a jumble of electronic parts as his table collapses—the lights come up harsh and bright, shining right at us. Suddenly the sound is cut, the lights switch off a second later, and we are left in a strange void of darkness and silence, soon broken by sporadic applause and shouts of approval, as the performers shut off their amps and abruptly stumble off stage, exhausted, tripping over the morass of wires on the floor.
* * *
Noise is about liveness and deadness, both in performance and in the technologically mediated sound of recordings. Live Noise performances can produce extraordinarily powerful embodiments of sound that help audiences imagine a community of Noise listeners, both locally and as a global "scene." How can we understand these experiences of sound as part of Noise's circulatory context? Listeners most often encounter Noise through individual experiences with recordings, and even the liveness of Noise concerts is geared toward isolated receptions of sound. The feedback loop between liveness and deadness, then, is about the co-constitutive relationship between performance and media in the lives of listeners. But this loop runs parallel to another kind of feedback—between making sound and feeling its effects. Liveness is about the connections between performance and embodiment, which transform passing moments into repeatable encounters of listening. Deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences with recordings as a new aesthetics of sound and listening in the reception of Noise.
In this chapter, I illustrate Noise's liveness and deadness in several different contexts of experience. I describe liveness in the places of Noise performance, in the embodied practices of Japanese Noisicians—particularly the legendary Incapacitants—and in the affective experiences of individual listeners. Liveness is further embedded in Noise through the production and circulation of media. Noise recordings were foundational in the growth of performance networks, especially in North America. Noise is embedded in techniques of production that aestheticize its overwhelming sound into recorded qualities of loudness and harshness. Finally—although, of course, there is no end to this loop—the sonic values of deadness in Japanese "harsh" Noise recordings become a poetic resource for listeners, who reanimate the scene of live Noise performance. The density of the experiential relationship between recordings and live performance in Noise follows from the displacement of musical communities and scenes in circulation. Where is the real place of Noise? What do the sensations of liveness and deadness mean to different Noisicians and listeners? What kinds of emotions are produced in the sensational liveness of Noise? How are recordings woven into translocal receptions, especially for those far from any accessible live scene? How does recorded media help listeners connect their isolated listening to social performance?
Ethnographers often privilege live performance in narratives of musical culture. For many researchers, live music is where authentic musical experiences happen, and performances represent sites of dialogue and interactivity that stand in stark contrast to the displacements of recorded media. Thomas Turino attributes an especially heightened musical sociality to "participatory performances," especially flexible, improvised gatherings (jam sessions, sing-alongs, etc.) where (Continues…)
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