Art of noise musician
Merzbow may not be the inventor of noise, but he is certainly one of the world’s most adept theoreticians and practitioners of the art of noise. Since 1980, Merzbow has released an unabated stream of cassettes, vinyl records, and CDs which are full of sounds—in collage or electronically manipulated—and sheets of feedback and other pure electronic sound. Merzbow albums lack, by and large, the common musical virtues of melody, harmony, and rhythm. To a newcomer, they are not merely noise, they are all the same noise. But connoisseurs of the music relish the subtly changing contours and dynamics of the pieces he composes. “At best he might be an acquired taste, “wrote Billy Bob Hargus of Perfect Sound Forever online, “but once you give yourself up to his punishing, no-holds-barred aural environment, you’ll be amazed at what he’s been able to accomplish.”
Merzbow is Japanese musician, writer, artist and video-maker Masami Akita. Born in Tokyo in 1956, his musical life seemed to run a normal course for the times. In the late 1960s, he was a fan of psychedelic rock, including records like Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones, the Doors’Soft Parade, and Cream’s Wheels of Fire. This rock music was decried as “noise” by the older generation in the 1960s, but it never hinted at the noise Akita would eventually unleash on the world. The only sign then was his fondness for odd solo albums by members of the Beatles: Wonderwall and Electronic Noise by George Harrison, and Unfinished Music No. 1 —Two Virgins by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Akita took up drums while in high school and played in a band that performed covers of songs by rock heroes of the 1970s including Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. In the meantime, he had discovered other music that was more interesting. Akita was listening to progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Can. At a Tokyo coffeehouse where obscure jazz records were played, he got his first taste of European free jazz as played by musicians like Derek Bailey, Peter Brotzmann, and Han Bennink. He and a friend left the cover band, found a bass player, and began playing music that was their take on progressive and free jazz. Akita entered Tamagawa University and studied painting. His art was influenced most strongly by Surrealist painters Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico, and his interests soon broadened to the literary work of French writers such as Arthur Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Jean Genet, all of which impressed him greatly. “These poets are very close to rock ’n’ roll, “he told the online fanzine Corridor of Cells. In college, Akita also encountered the work of artist Kurt Schwitters, who would later provide Akita’s noise music project with its name.
By the end of the 1970s, Akita had reached a number of dead ends in his various artistic activities. Painting had become uninteresting and too conventional, and he felt music had entered a cul-de-sac as well. “70s Progressive rock was dead, “Akita told the Wire’s Edwin Pouncey. “Black Sabbath had split and punk was already happening, but I thought they just sounded like stupid rock ’n’ rollers. So my idea was to create something that was anti, but representing the brutal sound spirit of rock music.”
Akita’s solution to the impasse—how to make music that wasn’t boring or elitist—was anti-music, an idea he found reading about 1920s European Dada artists. “I found out [through my reading] why Dadaists destroyed all conventional art form, “he explained to Corridor of Cells. “I decided to destroy all conventional music.” He looked to models of surrealist music for inspiration. The only ones he found that he considered genuine were Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa, but they were too musical for his taste. He decided he would compose true surrealist music, but do it in a non-musical “punk way, “he told Pouncey.
Between 1979 and 1981, Akita formed Merzbow. He took the name from a collage by Kurt Schwitters entitled “Merzbau, “which, significantly for Akita, is subtitled “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery.” The name was significant for his work in its early period because so much of it was constructed from various sounds found in his immediate environment—the television, his record collection, and other people—and much like Schwitters’ great collage. The only difference was that
For the Record…
Born Masami Akita in 1956 in Tokyo, Japan. Education: Studied painting at Tamagawa University, Japan.
Played in various rock, progressive rock, and improv bands, 1970s; founded Lowest Arts & Music label, late 1970s; formed Merzbow, c. 1980; released first cassette, Metal Acoustic Music, c. 1980; founded auxiliary label ZSF Produkt, 1983; released first LP, Material Action 2, 1983; Extreme released Merzbow +SBOTHI, 1988; performed in Soviet Union, 1988; first European and American tours, 1989-90; recorded first CD, Cloud Cock OO Ground, 1990; released Music for Bondage Performance on Extreme, 1992; released 50 CD set, Merzbox, on Extreme, 2000.
Akita’s collages were done not with bits of paper and ribbon, but with electronically modified and cut-up tapes.
Akita released those early works on cassettes made on his own Lowest Arts & Music label and sold exclusively by mail order. Their packaging was decorated with Xeroxes of collages Akita made out of manga and porn magazines he found in trash cans in the Tokyo subway. When he began, he found himself in the deepest, darkest, most extreme of musical undergrounds with few listeners. The Japanese music industry as a whole simply ignored him. He thought his typical audience was one driven by perverse musical desires in the same way the buyers of the porn he used for his cassette jackets were driven by perverse erotic desires. “I tried to create the same feeling as the secret porn customer for the people buying my cassettes in the early ’80s, “he told the Wire.
His first cassette was entitled Metal Acoustic Music, a 47-minute program of ear bending electronic wail and moans, music, and what he described to Hargus as “the very lowest form of sound.” Eventually he started utilizing old guitars, tape recorders, and broken-down electronic equipment, and introduced feedback into his recordings. “Feedback automatically makes a storm of noise, and it’s very erotic, “he told Pouncey. “I find pleasure in noise and I have tried to develop different variations on the pleasures of noise.”
What draws Akita to noise? He believes it enables an artist and his audience to access the unconscious, a prime goal of the Surrealists. If pornography represents the unconscious libido of a culture, he believes, then noise is the collective unconscious of its music. Its conception lies close to Surrealist practice too, arising like automatic writing does, without conscious control or direction. “My composition is automatism, not improvisation, “he told Corridor of Cells.
For Akita, noise in all its manifestations functions like the colors on an artist’s palette. And every kind of noise is admissible as long as it remains noise. For example, he uses the sound of the human voice in recordings, but never singing. Can such raw sound be musical? Is there any difference between noise and music in Akita’s work?“There is no difference between Noise and Music in my work, “he told Corridor of Cells. “I have no idea what you term ’Music’ and ’Noise.’ It’s different depending on each person. If noise means uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me.”
Akita performed live occasionally, but for most of the 1980s, he considered it an entity of the studio. He was philosophically opposed to live performance in certain respects because of the cult of personality that is attached to musicians onstage. It was only with a tour of the United States in 1989-90 that he began to enjoy live performance. Since the end of the 1980s, Akita has toured more often. In 1989, he made his first tour of Europe. In 1988, he had the opportunity to perform in the former Soviet Union at the AMUR Jazz & Experimental Festival in Khabarovsk. Organizers of the concert pulled the plug after 30 minutes. Akita played the next day nonetheless, but with his onstage partner as a keyboard and drum duo, playing “music” not “noise.”
Akita labored in obscurity for most of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, he had emerged as the foremost artist in his particular genre. He was becoming recognized by aficionados of extreme music as a living master. Roger Richard, of the Australian record label Extreme, discovered Material Action 2. The recording was Akita’s first vinyl release, and for that reason alone, Richard noticed it amid the vast number of Merzbow cassettes. The record made him a fan. In 1988, Extreme released its first Merzbow LP, Merzbow + SBOTHI.
The next Merzbow project for Extreme was an offshoot of Akita’s interest in Japanese S&M and bondage culture. Music for Bondage Performance, released in 1992, was his first CD for the label; a second volume was released in 1996. Akita’s interest in bondage was not limited to the recordings. He has composed scores for Japanese bondage films and written two books on the subject, The History of Bondage, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. The perception has arisen in the meantime that all of Akita’s work was somehow related to bondage, a conclusion he rejects.
By the end of 1998, Akita had produced more than 200 records and CDs. Precisely how many is still unknown, and remains a daunting task for future discographers. “I used to believe that Sun Ra released more than 500 albums, “he told Pouncey. “So my goal was set at 500 releases. Later I learned it was not that many, around 120 something, maybe 200. So now I aim for 1000.” His plan to put out so many recordings reflects something other than personal megalomania. He hopes listeners will be able to trace, through careful listening to his oeuvre, the subtle evolution of his music over the years.
In 2000, Akita made a giant step forward toward the goal of 1000 releases when Extreme brought out Merzbox, a set of 50 CDs. Appropriately packaged in zippered black latex, the Merzbox includes items such as a T-shirt, stickers, a poster, postcards, a medallion, and a deluxe book. About half the music on the CDs consists of remixed versions of older material, but the remainder is new material.
Despite the need for helpers onstage during performance and his other occasional collaborations, Akita insists he alone is Merzbow. In addition to that work, he sometimes performs other music, non-Merzbow music, under his own name. In addition to his work with bondage movies, he has scored films, an example being Deadman 2 by Ian Kerkof. Akita writes frequently on a variety of cultural subjects including S&M, bondage, noise music and sound, and architecture. He has written some 13 books. All of his work is part of the same fabric for Akita. “Everything combines for the works of Merzbow, “he told Hargus. “I don’t see them as being different and separate.”
In comparison to music of other genres—pop, rock, jazz—Akita’s audience is still small. But he has moved, for better or worse, out of the early obscurity he knew and has been honored by a tribute CD. A remix CD of his pieces, done by artists such as Jim O’Rourke and Panasonic, has also been released. In early 2000, he was working closely with a favorite Japanese metal band, Boris.
Akita continues to produce noise, but his attitude towards noise has moved beyond his earlier anti-aesthetic. “When I started Merzbow, I was very opposite to conventional music and I used lots of noise, “he told Hargus. “But now I think the reason I use a lot of noise is because I like this. Then I just want to use noise for my own pleasure.”
Material Action 2, Eastern Works, 1983.
Batztoutai With Memorial Gadgets, RRR, 1986.
Antimonument, ZSF, 1986.
Ecobondage, ZSF, 1987.
Live In USSR, ZSF, 1988.
Storage, ZSF, 1988.
Merzbow + SBOTHI, Extreme, 1988.
S.C.U.M., ZSF, 1989.
Cloud Cock OO Ground, ZSF, 1990.
Rainbow Electronics, Alchemy, 1990.
MERZBOW+THU20, V2, 1991.
MERZBOW + KAPOTTE MUZIEK, Korm Plastics, 1991.
Grav: MERZBOW + ASMUS TIETCHENS + PGR, Silent, 1991.
Great American Nude, Alchemy, 1991.
Artificial Invagination, Vanilla, 1992.
Electroploitation, Hax, 1992.
Music for Bondage Performance, Extreme, 1992.
Metalvelodrome, Alchemy, 1993.
MERZBOW + CHRISTOPH HEEMAN: Sleeper Awakens on the Edge of the Abyss, Streamline (Germany), 1993.
MERZBOW + ACHIM WOLSCHEID—11 Collaborations, Selektion, 1993.
Venerology, Relapse, 1994.
Noisembryo, Releasing Eskimo, 1994.
Hole, Heelstone, 1995.
Music for Deadman 2, Robot, 1995.
Dada Rotenvator, Plaxis Dr. Bearmann, 1995.
Ecobondage, Distemper, 1995.
Music for Bondage Performance 2, Extreme, 1996.
Age of 369/Chant 2, Extreme Special Editions, 1996.
Aqua Necromancer, Alien, 1998.
1930, Tzadik, 1998.
A Perfect Pain, Cold Spring, 1999.
Doors Open at 8 AM, Alien, 2000.
Merzbox, Extreme, 2000.
The Anagram of Perversion, Seiku-sha, 1988.
Fetish Fashion, Seiku-sha, 1990.
Touge No Chaya/Conversation of Underground Folklore, Parole-sha, 1990.
Club & Saloon, NTT Publications, 1990.
The Birth of Sex Symbol, Seiku-sha, 1991.
Noise War, Seiku-sha, 1992.
Terminal Body Play, Seiku-sha, 1993.
Body Exotica, Seiku-sha, 1993.
Scum Culture, Seiku-sha, 1994.
History of Kinbaku Pictures, Jiyu Kokumin-sha, 1995.
Nude World Vol 1-3, Seiku-sha, 1995.
The History of Bondage, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2.
Wire, August 2000.
Corridor of Cells, http://www.geocities.com/~zaraza_doom/merzbow.htm (November 28, 2000).
Extreme Records, http://www.xtr.com/extreme/merzbow.htm (November 28, 2000).
“Interview with Masami Akita (Merzbow),” http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/199908/msg00083.html (November 28, 2000).
“Merzbow interview by Billy Bob Hargus,” Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/merzbow.html (November 28, 2000).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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