Art Department

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2001

Japanese noise artist Merzbow uses the computer to bypass the big in "big music"

by Andrew Pothecary

AS A LONDONER, I find Tokyo awash with noise. Little surprise, then, that Japan is essentially the home of "noise" music -- a coverall name for experimental music or sound ranging from the often minimalist soundscapes of Akifumi Nakajima (aka Aube) to Tokyo-based Masami Akita's aural assaults.

"I'm sure that one of my motivations to make loudness is to remove everyday noise," Akita (usually known as Merzbow) says.

When I saw him live in Tokyo's (almost deserted) Milk Club, for example, the very auditorium vibrated to the music's monstrous timbre and rhythm, while the musician stood meditatively still, illuminated by the glow of his laptop. In fact, the sound when he played London's Queen Elizabeth Hall was so powerful I'd wondered if he'd chosen a frequency to deliberately disturb. But he says that while strong music is important, it's about a lot more than just physics. Under the noise, there were the subtleties and intelligence that make his sound feel more similar to that of "big" classical music than the death metal, et cetera, which Akita claims as the main influence on his work. While his tour through the musical other-world may resemble a confrontational, dischordant blitz to some, he says music is more about the "progress of beauty."

CD coverAkita produced his earlier work by analog means -- samples, tapes, instruments -- but now uses a computer. Musically there's very little difference, but, in terms of creating, new and different opportunities open up: As he told music magazine The Wire, "If I make a one-second Merzbow file, I can transform it in real time to an hour-long piece. It's great!"

"Big" music usually requires big physical movement or effort, but the computer bypasses that. Akita says he finds the extremes (extreme sound by non-extreme physical movement) interesting. This contrast was emphasized when he accompanied dance prodigy Saburo Teshigawara a couple of years ago. Teshigawara's high-energy body performance starkly contrasted with Akita's still presence.

Meanwhile, despite noise music's reputation for collectable CD issues -- like the planned 100-CD box set recording John Zorn and Yamantaka Eye's tour of China, which unfortunately didn't materialize -- I wouldn't recommend your first purchase of Merzbow music to be this year's 50-CD "Merzbox" retrospective: The barrage of sound will probably be overwhelming. Better to initiate yourself with a live performance. Baptize yourself by fire, so to speak, at his sound performance at the Yokohama Triennale (in September) or his collaboration with a group of personally selected artists at the pre-opening show.

-- Andrew Pothecary

Computer self-portrait and CD cover by Merzbow

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