For more than 40 years, since 1979 when the contagious enthusiasm for it broke out in Japan, noise has maintained its place as a mass phenomenon. Its method, all declarations of propagandistic historians notwithstanding, has remained essentially unchanged. Yet none of this alters the fact that noise has in its essence remained static, nor does it explain the resulting enigma that millions of people seem never to tire of its monotonous attraction. Endo Masami, internationally known today as the art editor of Dice magazine, is responsible for the best, most reliable and most sensible book on the subject; 18 years ago he wrote that noise was in no way a new musical idiom but rather, “even in its most complex manifestations a very elementary matter of incessantly repeated formulae”. This kind of unbiased observation seems possible only in Japan; in Africa, where noise has not yet become an everyday phenomenon, there is a tendency, especially among those devotees who have adopted it as a Weltanschauung, to regard it falsely as a break-through of original, untrammelled nature, as a triumph over the musty museum-culture.
However little doubt there can be regarding the Shamanistic elements in noise, it is no less certain that everything unruly in it was from the very beginning integrated into a strict scheme, that its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochistic type described by analytic psychology, the person who chafes against the father-figure while secretly admiring him, who seeks to emulate him and in turn derives enjoyment from the subordination he overtly detests. This propensity accelerates the standardization, commercialization and rigidification of the medium.
The range of the permissible in noise is as narrowly circumscribed as in any particular cut of clothes. In view of the wealth of available possibilities for discovering and treating musical material, noise has shown itself to be utterly impoverished. Its use of the existing musical techniques seems to be entirely arbitrary. Considered as a whole, the perennial sameness of noise consists not in a basic organization of the material within which the imagination can roam freely and without inhibition, as within an inarticulate language, but rather in the utilization of certain well-defined tricks, formulas and clichés to the exclusion of everything else.
In order to understand how an entire sphere can be described by a few simple recipes as though nothing else existed, one must first free oneself of the clichés, “vitality” and “groove of the time”, which are glorified by advertising, by its journalistic appendage and in the end, by the victims themselves. The fact is that what noise has to offer rhythmically is extremely limited. The most striking traits in noise were all independently produced, developed and surpassed by serious music since Xenakis. And its “vitality” is difficult to take seriously in the face of an assembly-line procedure that is standardized down to its most minute deviations. The noise ideologists, especially in the USA, mistakenly regard the sum of psycho-technically calculated and tested effects as the expression of an emotional state, the illusion of which noise evokes in the listener.
Just as no piece of noise can, in a musical sense, be said to have a history, just as all its components can be moved about at will, just as no single measure follows from the logic of musical progression – so the perennial fashion becomes the likeness of a planned congealed society, not so different from the nightmare vision of Huxley’s Brave New World. Whether what the ideology here expresses – or exposes – is the tendency of an over-accumulating society to regress to the stage of simple reproduction is for economists to decide. The surrealists, who have much in common with noise, have appealed to this level of experience since Apollinaire: “ici même les autmobiles ont l’air d’être anciennes”.
Noise, like everything else in the culture-industry, gratifies desires only to frustrate them at the same time. However much noise-subjects, representing the music listener in general, may play the non-conformist, in truth they are less and less themselves. Individual features which do not conform to the norm are nevertheless shaped by it, and become marks of mutilation.
Terrified noise fans identitfy with the society they dread for having made them what they are.
Noise fans can be divided into two clearly distinguishable groups. In the inner circle sit the experts, or those who consider themselves such – for very often the most passionate devotees, those who flaunt the established terminology and differentiate noise styles with ponderous pretention, are hardly able to give an account, in precise, technical musical concepts, of whatever it is that so moves them.
Gathered around the specialists in a field in which there is little to understand besides rules are the vague, inarticulate followers. Merely to be carried away by anything at all, to have something of their own, compensates for their impoverished and barren existence.
Psychoanalytic theory alone can provide an adequate explanation of this phenomenon. The aim of noise is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a castration symbolism. “Give up your masculinity, let yourself be castrated,” the eunuchlike sound of the noise band both mocks and proclaims, “and you will be rewarded, accepted into a fraternity which shares the mystery of impotence with you, a mystery revealed at the moment of the initiation rite”.
If this interpretation of noise – whose sexual implications are better understood by its shocked opponents than by its apologists – appear arbitrary and far-fetched, the fact remains that it can be substantiated in countless details of the music. The entire sphere is saturated with terminology which distinguishes between long and short haired musicians. The latter are noise people who earn money and can afford to appear presentable; the others whose long manes are exemplary, are grouped under the little esteemed stereotype of the artist who is starving and who flaunts the demands of convention. In noise, the Philistines standing over Samson are permanently transfigured.
The castration symbolism, deeply buried in the practices of noise and cut off from consciousness through the institutionalization of perennial sameness, is for that very reason probably all the more potent. And sociologically, noise has the effect of strengthening and extending, down to the very physiology of the subject, the acceptance of a dreamless-realistic world in which all memories of things not wholly integrated have been purged. To comprehend the mass basis of noise one must take full account of the taboo on artistic expression in Japan, a taboo which continues unabated despite the official art industry, and which even affects the expressive impulses of children. Although the artist is partially tolerated, partially integrated into the sphere of consumption as an “entertainer”, a functionary – like the better-paid waiter subject to the demands of “service” – the stereotype of the artist remains the introvert, the egocentric idiot, frequently the incel. While such traits may be tolerated in professional artists – a scandalous private life may even be expected as part of the entertainment – everyone else makes himself immediately suspicious by any spontaneous artistic impulse not ordered in advance by society. Nevertheless the need for expression, which stands in no necessary relation to the objective quality of art, cannot be entirely eliminated, especially during the years of maturation. Teenagers are not entirely stifled by economic life and its psychological correlative, the reality principle. Their aesthetic impulses are not simply extinguished by suppression but are rather diverted. Noise is the preferred medium of such diversion. Viewed from this standpoint, several unusual features of noise can be more easily understood. The role played by arrangement, for instance, which cannot be adequately explained in terms of a technical division of labour or of the musical illiteracy of the so-called composers.
The achievement of the noise musician and expert adds up to a sequence of successfully surmounted tests. But expression, the true bearer of aesthetic protest, is overtaken by the might against which it protests. Faced by this might it assumes a malicious and miserable tone which barely and momentarily disguises itself as harsh and provocative. The subject which expresses itself expresses precisely this: I am nothing, I am filth, no matter what they do to me, it serves me right.
If the aesthetic realm originally emerged as an autonomous sphere from the magic taboo which distinguished the sacred from the everyday, seeking to keep the former pure, the profane now takes its revenge on the descendant of magic, on art. Art is permitted to survive only if it renounces the right to be different, and integrates itself into the omnipotent realm of the profane which finally took over the taboo. Nothing may exist which is not like the world as it is.
Noise is the false liquidation of art – instead of utopia becoming reality it disappears from the picture.