Thursday, September 3, 2009

Early Japanese Noise and Improvisation

So a couple of years back I wrote a paper exploring the early development of Japanese noise, on the artists that contributed to today's well known genre, with artists like Merzbow, Keiji Haino, and Otomo Yoshihide. I wrote this paper for a music class that I took, and am quite proud of it. I have also included a couple of recordings from the two major artists that I speak of in the paper, Masasyuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe. These two recordings are my favorite and are both solo records.

The Kaoru Abe record, entitled Mort รก Credit, named after the Louis Celine novel, that features Abe blasting away to excerpts of the novel, is a particularly chilling and ghostly performance. The Record features six different solo saxophone improvisations, on alto and soprano saxophone. Abe alienated most other players when improvising due to his aggressive, almost anti-social take on music. But in these recordings, released after his untimely death, we see a very different, much more contemplative, version of Abe. Don't get me wrong, his sax tone can still "peel paint," but we hear a much more mature, perhaps melancholy, Abe.

The Masayuki Takayanagi recording, called Action Direct, recorded in 1985, is an extremely dark release. The opening track reminds me a lot of Xenakis's electro acoustic work, Bohor, with dark ambient, reverb-laden, treated sounds (Check out this awesome website for more information on this piece, This stuff is awesome, it's hard to tell if he did this all in on take or not, but either way, you really get the idea of Takayanagi as the composer. Highly recommended!

Alright here is the essay in all its glory. I should also mention that Erin Allen did a small print of this for her pressing company, so there are some very nice looking, bound, and screen-printed copies kicking around!





My interest in Japanese noise comes from a concert that I saw by two of the biggest “stars” and originators of the Japanese noise scene, Merzbow and Keiji Haino. The duo performed together as Kikuri, fittingly at the very end of the 2007 FIMAV (Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville) festival. The weekend had seen performances by John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, and many others, but there was a buzz the whole weekend about the upcoming performance by Merzbow and the equally mystifying and mysterious Keiji Haino. I had heard of Merzbow before the concert, I knew his music was equal parts legend and enigma, and that it focused on harsh, deafening noise, but I was still confused as to what to expect, and I had never heard of his accomplice Haino. Before the concert a fear swept over me; I had never had such a feeling before a show, I felt that what I was about to see/hear could destroy me or change me forever, and in a way it did. I soon realized the music was not going to destroy me, but it did change a lot of how I thought of music whether I realized that at the time or not. The performance itself confused me, it seemed random, rough, jagged, sloppy, and “unprofessional.” There would be times when Keiji Haino would be doing an ecstatic assault on an acoustic east Asian folk instrument, screaming like something from a Chinese opera, while Merzbow on his laptops penetrated the rest of the frequency spectrum with his digital walls of scorching acid feedback. The two would move through the maze of instruments and electronics they brought along with them, switching up whenever they seemed to get bored, but never relinquishing their sonic blitzkrieg . This went on ad nauseam until the concert ended as abruptly as it started. I left the concert disoriented, confused, slightly disappointed, and with a Keiji Haino record.

Over the last year I have been trying to collect all things Japanese noise, perhaps in an attempt to better understand what it was I had witnessed. I started to think why is this popular when it goes against perhaps every aesthetic of music? What do I see/hear in it? I began to understand the importance of Merzbow and the Japanese noise scene, a scene I now feel changed music forever both critically and aesthetically. All the lines become blurred, it challenges the definition of music, the definition of the musician, it challenges performance standards, it challenges structure, it challenges formality. It challenges how we critically look at music; if for example Merzbow releases two hundred plus albums of seemingly impersonal, constantly repetitious harsh noise, then what is good and what is bad? How do you listen to 100 minutes of harsh noise? Can one redeem any value? Whether you like Merzbow or not, his innovations, or de-innovations, make him the most radical musician since John Cage (what Cage did with silence, Merzbow did with noise), and his music has had an influence on an extraordinary amount of musicians and critics from many different circles. A man who's music and personality is enigmatic and dichotic, and who's art can be viewed as both intelligent high art, or degenerate low art. In this light perhaps Merzbow can be seen as the first true modern musician, one who defies any definition or categorization.

This paper is an attempt to try and explain how such a radical music came to be. I was interested in what came before Merzbow, who were the artists that laid the ground work for the genre know as “Japanese Noise”, and perhaps try and demystify Japanese noise, what is it about Japan that created such a radical music, and what makes this noise “Japanese”?

Brief History

When discussing the evolution of noise it is important to understand at least a brief history of Japan. Throughout history the Japanese have adapted and synthesized other cultures practices to create something uniquely their own, this can be exemplified by their language and the acceptance of Buddhism, both of which borrowed largely from the Chinese. This idea of synthesis is paramount especially in post-war Japan, when Japan would have an influx of ideas and cultures from America and the west.

Modern Japanese history starts with what is known as the Meiji Period. This period lasted between the years 1868-1912 and “was a process of westernization in which traditions that had been handed down through the Edo period (1603-1868) had been systematically expelled (1). ” The Japanese government was restored to an empire, with power removed from the feudal rulers of the country to a centralized power in a large city. The young emperor Meiji took power at the age of sixteen and moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Tokyo, the political power was also given over to a small group of nobles and former samurai. The Meiji government wanted to close what they felt was a widening gap between them and the west. Meiji Japan began a complete overhaul of their technical, educational and cultural systems and began to encourage and enforce all things western, this included things like telecommunications, western styled postal systems, the western calendar, railroads, gas lamps on streets, a national bank, brick buildings, a university, and photography. Western ideas were also encouraged in science, religion, philosophy, literature, music, and the visual arts. Western ideas caught on very fast in Japan and became extremely popular.

This period lasted until the death of the emperor in 1912 which ushered in a new era known as the Taisho period. This period saw an increased liberalism and even greater impact of westernization, which lead to the appreciation of Jazz music and the development of a counter culture. The counter culture was known as moga (modern girl) and mobo (modern boy) and they took a particular liking to Jazz and all things American. Jazz in 1920's Japan and elsewhere in the world represented the crux of modernity; America was considered the most modern country and Jazz was its sound. The moga and mobo borrowed largely from the characters they saw in American cinema, wearing American clothes and haircuts, taking up smoking and drinking, and dancing to jazz. The moga and mobo were often criticized for the decadent and careless behaviour and feared for their challenge to traditional gender roles;

As early as 1917 the writer Inage Sofu had worried that the Taisho era would witness the ”feminization of masculine beauty” and the “masculinization of feminine beauty.” The moga's “masculine” assertiveness and the mobo's affected “dandiness” seemed only to confirm such fears...The media stereotypes of the moga- “Japanese version” of the American flapper, eroticized cafe waitress or “taxi dancer,” or shameless flirt toying with men's libidinal urges- are well documented (2).

These fears and resentment would ultimately come to a head in the 1930's with the rise of extreme right wing nationalism, which sought to destroy all things western because of its fear of corruption. The jazz and dance community became easy game for the nationalist, fascist, and nativist movements of Japan and this saw the shutting down of many jazz and dance clubs. The extreme nationalism of Japan would eventually meet its demise when after their attack on America's Pearl Harbour, the United States retaliated by dropping the atom bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States conquered Japan and this led to an era of American occupation where all things western were encouraged, particularly jazz because of its innovation and individuality.

Jazz and Modern Art in Japan

As mentioned above the history and admiration of jazz in Japan dates back to the 1920s. This knowledge and appreciation of jazz would result in the creation of what could have been something distinctly Japanese, the “jazu kissa,” or jazz cafe. Otomo Yoshihide an important Japanese noise musician who plays guitar and turntables reflects on the importance of the jazu kissa.

2.5 by 6 metres space. That and a pair of huge JBL or Altec speakers, a couple hundred jazz records and a bar counter were all that was necessary to open your basic jazz kissa. This was also a place rich with the youth subculture of the day.Avant-garde jazz, manga, music and culture magazines, notebooks filled with the opinions of young leftists, concerts every one or two months, and 8 millimetre film shows. Younger frequenters like myself were after the manga books... Youth subculture revolved around manga (3).

Yoshihide goes on to talk about how coming from a small town the cafe gave him a glimpse of the cultural scene in Tokyo, and how through this he became interested and exposed to artists like Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and two very important Japanese musicians responsible for the development of noise, Kaoru Abe and Masayuki Takayanagi.

The Japanese have readily taken to and supported jazz with a few interruptions (World War II) since the 1920s. Many artists including Miles Davis (4) and Cannonball Adderly have complimented the Japanese support and appreciation of jazz. But despite Japan's initial and continued support the general jazz conscience has criticized Japanese jazz fans and in-particular jazz musicians as incapable of performing or “getting” jazz. During a tour of Japan in 1977 a few members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago made a few derogatory comments towards the Japanese.

"We have listened to performances by Japanese groups, but they are making music that stands atop Afro-American traditions. So it is not original...Only black peoples music as progressed with the times...In the past we (black people) made music in Africa. We were making music in times of slavery. With the times it has progressed in different forms. Our (black) music moved with the world. If you (Japanese) don't start from this, you'll never create original work. It takes
five hundred years(5)."

Similar statements are echoed by other artists and critics. Many blame Japanese musicians, despite playing with great technique, that they are unable to swing and the music comes across cold, frigid, uninspired, and unoriginal. Unfortunately these feelings of inauthenticity are not only commonly held by the jazz establishment, the Japanese quite often feel the same about themselves. E. Taylor Atkins (the writer of Blue Nippon, a book on the history of jazz in) recalls that he was laughed at many times by his friendliest of informants at the idea of coming to Japan to study jazz; they could not understand why he would leave the jazz homeland (America) to study. Others feel that the Japanese are just a nation of imitators or that they are just simply incapable of playing jazz. This idea of inauthenticity is also paralleled in Japanese art as well, Alexandra Monroe explains the Japanese misfortune.

The notion that Japanese history is divided at the Meiji is most definitive in the field of art history. For the most part, Japanese specialists abroad have neglected late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, as if modern Japan, corrupted by westernization and industrialization, were incapable of creating a significant culture of visual arts that could equal the achievements of the classical past...Like wise scholars and curators of modern Euro-American art have often regarded contemporary Japanese art as derivative of and altogether outside modern art history. Either the work appeared too western and hence lack originality- a basic tenet of modernism- or it appeared too traditional- a quality that is antithetical to modern art's internationalists vision(6).

It is a shame that both jazz, regarded highly for its universality, and modernism, a movement based on forward thinking, would turn their backs and react in a near bigoted fashion toward the Japanese. As E. Taylor Atkins points out these criticisms of the Japanese would cause them to reflect and wonder if jazz had any real meaning for themselves.

The implications that jazz, a music that touched them deeply, was not really theirs but someone else's was understandably frustrating. For not only were the remarks made in the wearisome context of "Japan bashing," but they also forced many Japanese to rethink the various attempts they had made to "authenticate" or legitimate the meanings jazz held for them and the music they produced themselves... they were being told they missed something, that the meanings they found in jazz were not real, and that their efforts to study, collect, and support the music had amounted to no more than a superficial comprehension(7).

From this Japanese perspective its easy to see how they would have become frustrated, and we will see how this frustration would manifest itself in very strange, but inspired and unique ways.

I believe it is important to mention two other post-war trends in Japan that speak volumes about the feelings of the youth generations in the years after the war, they are manga and pinball. Manga are essentially Japanese comic books and their rise in popularity came in the years after the war, today manga is extremely popular in Japan with all generations. Quite often manga are just comedies but they can also be dramas that span many issues. One such type of drama in the 1960's was the genre known as gekiga. Gekiga comics often featured dark subject matter and were popular amongst the young poor, blue-collar, rural workers of Japan.

... gekiga is a manga form that depicts the dark side of human existence... mostly an undertone of malice, hostility, and bitter sarcasm to the established order. Gekiga initially won popularity in the 1960s among youngsters uprooted from rural areas to become blue-collar workers in factories in large cities. Uneducated and exploited, at the bottom of Japan's high growth economy, these young workers empathized with the gekiga figures who resisted and challenged their powerful rulers and moral authorities...(8)

These ideas of subversion are important in understanding the animosity many had toward the government of Japan and the United States occupation. These themes found in the manga go hand in hand with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s and the development of Japanese "free jazz" or what I feel is a more appropriate term "proto-noise."

Pinball is another post-war trend worth of some consideration, Yoshio Sugimoto puts an interesting theory forward about the reasons for its popularity as being a subconscious reaction to the social and community pressures of Japan(9). The reason I mention this is because I feel one could argue the same thing about noise music, and particularly the noise made by Kaoru Abe and Masayuki Takayanagi, which is based largely on anti-social themes and confrontation.

Frustration, Jazz, and the Shinjuku District

The frustrations for the Japanese and their acceptance into the world of modern art and jazz would be equally matched by their political frustrations. 1960s Japan was a turbulent time with many student uprisings, protests, and political unrest. The United States had just gone to war with Vietnam and had renewed their security treaty with Japan, both of which were highly controversial. The Shinjuku district of Tokyo was the ground zero for anti-government and leftist thought, it was what Alexandra Monroe describes as "the most creative outburst of anarchistic, subversive and riotous tendencies in the history of modern Japan(10)." Shinjuku was the scene of many anti-war concerts and and speeches, it was the centre of the folk and rock music scenes, as well as jazz, it would also see the birth of noise music.

Japanese noise grows out of the tradition of Jazz, and from this collage above we can see as early as 1927 Japan has had an association with Jazz as noise. The conductor from the painting is conducting the sounds or "noise" from the streets, quite often the two terms jazz and noise would be used interchangeably. "The word jazz comes to represent not only dance music but also the constant, indecipherable noise generated by machinery, phonographs, and radios(11)." In the way that language often shapes our perceptions perhaps then it makes perfect sense that a "noise" music could evolve out of jazz. Japanese noise developed with a DIY (Do it yourself) aesthetic, this meant that they had to piece together performance spaces to produce concerts of original work, these concerts would often include audience participation and would regularly be played for free. This movement came as a reaction to the Japanese jazz establishment and its older, established players, who would often monopolize the few jobs that were available. Also native jazz was often unfairly criticized and unpopular when compared to the droves of American jazz pouring into the country.

The two major innovators of Japanese free jazz, aka free improvisation, or what I like to call "proto-noise(12)" , are Masayuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe. Takayanagi, a guitarist, was known as a working musician with great technique and the ability to "sight read anything put in front of him(13)." He began experimenting with alternative directions in jazz in the early 1950s, forming a piano-less quartet(14). In 1961 Takayanagi along with bassist Kanai Hideto, drummer Togashi Masahiko, and pianist Kikuchi Masabumi formed the Jazz Academy. The Jazz academy began as a quartet playing in many different coffee-houses before landing a regular gig the Ginparis in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The quartet however gradually developed into a workshop and by 1962 it had changed its name to the New Century Music Workshop. The workshops encouraged the creation of original art, and for musicians to realize their role in society; they should be good people and their music should influence society in a positive matter. The workshop also encouraged the participation of non-musicians. This is a critical distinction of Japanese free Jazz when compared to the European and American forms of improvisation; whereas those forms are often based on learned musicians whether its from a classical background or jazz background, the Japanese do not view the idea of technique as critical or a necessity, and later noise musicians would take this idea even further and challenge the meaning of "musician." The workshop lasted until they were finally kicked out of the Gin-Paris due to audience participation when one female fan, at the egging of her boyfriend, began to strip. The scene gradually left the Ginza district for the more open minded clubs of the Shinjuku district, and in the late 60s this is where we see Takayanagi's radical ideas on improvisation mature. In the summer of 1969 Takayanagi formed the New Directions trio along with bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa and drummer Yoshisaburo 'Sabu' Toyozumi, and in the dark windowless room where they rehearsed, Takayanagi laid down what would be the apple of knowledge for Japanese noise, "Play fortissimo, never repeat the same thing twice and don't listen to what anybody else is doing(15)." These ideas for improvisation both anti-social and confrontational differ radically than the ideas on improvisation by the contemporaries in the west. The European model of improvisation is often based on the idea of listening intently to the others playing around you and try forge "one" sound. The American model is the idea of group improvisation being a positive community, not confrontational. Also with the American model there is a strong sense of history, as with groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The Japanese model however wanted to break with tradition altogether and have the music and attitudes do this in a very confrontational way, this is perhaps best exemplified by the concert organized by both Abe and Takayakagi called "Projection for the Annihilation of Jazz(16)." Perhaps the greatest contribution other than the commandments for Japanese improvisation was the use of harsh feedback and extremely loud volume, and doing both for an extremely long time. Takayanagi could have conceivably borrowed the idea of feedback from rock music at the time, creating a music that was equal parts Cage, Bailey, Coltrane, and Hendrix, a truly modern music. Its interesting to see this fusion with rock, and perhaps explains why later Japanese musicians such as Merzbow and Otomo Yoshide, who were both interested in rock at the time related to this music so well. It could be viewed in this light that Japanese free jazz carries on the torch of rock as much as it does free improvisation.

The other artist I mentioned was alto-saxophonist Kaoru Abe. Kaoru Abe could be seen as a young first generation noiser, or the very first of the second generation(17). The reason I say this is because Kaoru is completely self taught and has no regard for traditional technique, this is an important and almost essential trait for later noise musicians. Some consider him to have the most abrasive sound on the saxophone that ever existed(18). Abe was said to have practiced on the shoulder of a Tokyo express way in the face of traffic. Abe's music was extremely violent, loud, and unapologetic-ally confrontational. Perhaps this is best documented when jazz drummer Milford Graves toured Japan.

One drummer with whom Abe refused to gel... was the great American free jazz musician Milford Graves... A group of Japanese free jazz luminaries was put together to tour with Graves... Abe apparently took an immediate dislike to Grave's huge self-belief and flashy playing. At one concert, he positioned himself in front of Grave's kit and bounced up and down directing a stream of alto invective straight at him. Graves stopped playing and demanded that Abe be dropped from the tour(19).

Many other musicians found it frustrating to play alongside Abe, so he would often play solo. One musician who was up to the task however was Takayanagi. They played only one show together (the show mentioned earlier) and that show turned out to be an ear bleeding four and half hour noise marathon. Kaoru Abe lived his life as extreme as his music, he had an appetite for booze and pills and died in 1978 at the age of 29.

The early innovations by Abe and Takayanagi such as the use of extreme feedback, volume, and the sustained use of both, would be developed much further by artists such as Keiji Haino and Merzbow, and they would go on to change the face of music forever. For all the animosity that Japanese culture faced in the middle of the twentieth century it now seems to have all been forgotten, for the west seems to crave all things Japanese. There are many successful Japanese artists able to make careers for themselves in the west, artists like Merzbow and Keiji Haino are able to tour Europe and North America and bring large numbers(20). Also with the success of things like anime and even cars it appears that the west is now crazy for all things Japanese (not the other way around). In the last 20 years it is great to see the emergence and popularity of the Japanese avant-garde, and the popularity of artists like Merzbow and Keiji Haino will now shine some light on the lesser known but vitally important early improvisers. Yes, it seems the Japanese have the last laugh. No longer does the term "Japanese" bring about ideas of a nation of imitators or a producer of cheap goods. No it instead brings about ideas of quality and originality.

-Zachary Devereux Fairbrother

End notes

1. Karatani Kojin, Scream Against the Sky, 33.
2. E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon, 102-110
3. Yoshihide, "Leaving the Jazz Cafe."
4. Miles Davis employed the Japanese keyboardist Kei Akagi during the end of his life.
5. E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon, 19.
6. Alexandra Munroe, Scream Against The Sky, 20.
7. E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon, 22
8. Yoshio Sugimoto, An introduction to Japanese Society, 225.
9. Yoshio Sugimoto, An introduction to Japanese Society, 226.
10. Alan Cummings, Once Upon A Time In Shinjuku, 32
11. E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon, 108-109.
12. I feel the proto-noise is a more accurate term for the music that was made. Many of the participants did not come from a jazz background, and it is not based on any of the traditions of jazz, it outright tries to break away from them. Also many of its performers avoided technique and skill like the plague; jazz is often based on dexterity, with noise this is not the case at all. The music that was being made was much more of a focus on texture and experimentation.
13. Alan Cummings, Once Upon A Time In Shinjuku, 32.
14. This quartet was known as the New Direction Quartet. This echoed similar innovations by Gerry Mulligan at the same time. Later Ornette Coleman would take these ideas even further when he made the album "The Shape of Jazz To Come." It is quite likely though he was unaware of Takayanagi contributions.
15. Alan Cummings, Once Upon A Time In Shinjuku, 34.
16. Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Improvisation, 312.
17. The first generation would be artists like Takayanagi, the second would be artists like Merzbow, Keiji Haino, and Yoshihide.
18. E. Chadbourne, "Kaoru Abe."
19. Alan Cummings, "Once Upon A Time In Shinjuku," 36.
20. When I saw them perform there were perhaps 500+ people there.


1. Atkins, E. Taylor. Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.
2. Chadbourne, Eugene, "Kaoru Abe Biography,"
3. Cummings, Alan, "Once Upon A Time in Shinjuku," The Wire, Issue #261 November 2005.
4. Hegarty, Paul. Noise/Music A History. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
5. Hideo Ikeezumi, "PSF Records," Interview by Jimmy Dee April 1, 2001.
5. Jackson, Jeffrey H, Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
6. Japanese History: Meiji Period. Japan-Guide. (accessed April 11, 2008).
7. Japanese: Language Information and Resources. ALS International. (accessed April 11, 2008).
8. Masayuki Takayanagi: Discography. (accessed April 2, 2008).
9. Monroe, Alexandra, Japanese Art After 1945:Scream Against The Sky. Japan: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1994.
10. Munsterberg, Hugo, The Art of Modern Japan: From the Meiji Restoration to the Meiji Centennial 1868-1968. New York, NY: Hacker Art Books 1978.
11. Sugimoto, Yoshio, An Introduction to Japanese Society. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press 1997.
12. Watson, Ben. Derek Bailey and The Story of Free Improvisation. London: Verso Books 2004.
13. Yoshihide, Otomo. "Leaving the Jazz Cafe: A Personal View of Japanese Improvised Music in The 1970s."

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