Nobody today objects to the idea that you’re still making art if you create a painting or a sculpture that doesn’t represent anything “real”, so why do we still assume that the only things we can safely call “music” are akin to what we hear on the radio in four-minute bursts? John Cage tackled that problem head-on during his career, and reached a kind of compromise with his critics: you didn’t have to call what he did “music” if the term shocked them. But Cage was working within the relatively formal confines of a composer, even if his music reached and influenced a great many people who were outside of those circles — Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa, for instance.
Over the last thirty years a lot of that has changed, as artists who work in more commercial formats and venues work to redefine music. They’re lumped in with popular music as a whole, even if they don’t sell to one-one-thousandth of an audience that size — probably because they appeal most directly to their respective audiences by making and selling records instead of more “traditional” venues like creating works on commission for galleries or orchestras. Not to say that they don’t do such things, but most of how they’re recognized by an audience comes from producing and selling recordings, and touring and performing in the same manner as more mainstream artists. The end result of this is a very broad, very active but extremely cluttered underground of experimental music, and the weight of decades has slowly weeded out anyone who’s not actually bringing anything original or creative to the table.
One of those who has not just survived but thrived is Merzbow a/k/a Masami Akita, he who garnered his name from the one-man garbage-sculpture art movement championed by Kurt Schwitters in the 1930s. He makes art out of noise — sonic garbage, you could say — and his best records are like primers on how to do this sort of thing without simply appealing to shock value or cheapjack “sonic terrorist” aesthetics. Most of the people who’ve operated in this space are content to just record whatever they can find that makes noise, stick an arbitrarily offensive name on it, and compete with everyone else doing the same thing. Some of the earlier Merzbow recordings did have this flavor, but over time he’s matured into someone who uses noise to do more than just blast people out of their complacency (always a tired excuse for doing something different for the sake of being different).
In his more than twenty-five years as a recording artist — emphasis on “artist” — Merzbow has released more than two hundred full-length albums through about as many different independent labels. It always strikes me as funny when people assume that prolificacy equals creative indifference — that he uses sheer output to make up for creative deficiencies on his part. They slammed Andy Warhol for turning out paintings and lithographs with industrial efficiency, because it was still a prejudice of the times that you couldn’t possibly be doing something in such mass and have them by any good. Merzbow may be prolific, but that’s more because he knows how to do this sort of thing with care and intelligence, and wants to move forward as aggressively as possible.
The sheer size of Merzbow’s catalog makes it hard to figure out where to start. The good news is that some of his very best records are far more readily available than others. Amlux was produced as part of his ongoing association with American indie label Important Records, and not only is it one of his records that’s easiest to get ahold of, it’s one of the very best things he’s ever done in terms of its variety and inventiveness. Like most Merzbow releases, there aren’t any “songs” — there are individual tracks, but they’re not songs in the sense that there is a melody or lyrics. I’ve listed to Amlux about three times all the way through as of this writing, and it actually holds up well as a single continuous suite rather than a bunch of subdivided sections. It’s good enough, in fact, that I wanted to use a discussion of it as a primer into most of why I like Merzbow — something I touched on in a minor way with my review of Music for Bondage Performance, but which deserves more detail.
Much of Merzbow’s sound involves loops or snippets of sound repeated and layered on top of each other — sometimes themselves vaguely musical, sometimes not. “Takemitsu” (probably named for the equally-innovative Japanese composer who gave us, among other things, the score for Ran) opens the album, and if I didn’t know better I would assume the loop that opens the song is indeed a snippet from one of Takemitsu’s compositions. That loop gives way to another, and then another, and another — some louder, some softer, some of totally different textures. Most of the record unfolds like that, with each successive piece in the tapestry leading into each other in a way that follows its own logic.
Music like this polarizes audiences, much as abstract art did for a long time, simply because most people have no idea how to respond to it. Most people want music to be emotional, probably because all the music they know about and have experienced is like that. They hear Merzbow and find nothing to connect with — or, rather, they find nothing of any of the existing music they’ve heard to connect with: no melodies, no conventional developments or progressions, and so on. But every now and then someone who hears it, someone who has no previous exposure to such things, and they find themselves galvanized. I was the same way myself; my life-changing (or maybe ear-changing) experience came through Stockhausen’s Kontakte which I discovered on vinyl at the public library. For me it had, and still does, every bit as much emotion and stirring presence as any rock song you could name.
My point is this: We connect with art emotionally because of circumstances and experience, not because there is some inherent emotional quality in any given piece of art that we’re experiencing. The Hell Scrolls from Buddhist Japan would seem faintly silly and cartoonish to someone who hadn’t been terrorized by tales of the punishments awaiting sinners in the underworld. In the same way, wWe’ve been around abstract art for so long, and in so many casual circumstances, that it’s no longer alien territory. We can look at what hangs in our dentist’s office and feel comfortable with it because it’s just a way of using color and maybe also the texture of the canvas as the real subject of the painting. In another thirty years, who knows how we’ll approach music? The landscape of popular music has already changed explosively — both in terms of how people get and discover it, and what they do with it.
My other point is that when people encounter Merzbow, or artists like him, they show just how Philistine people can still be in this day and age because they assume that loud noises, or noise in general, equals an attempt to be obnoxious. In short, they are projecting their own prejudices about the raw material into the finished product. One of the worst examples of this kind of thinking came from a critic who sat in on a performance of another favorite Stockhausen piece of mine, Mantra, and said it sounded like bad horror-movie music, probably because he assumed that just because something consists of a lot of low chords that it means it’s meant to be spooky. He hadn’t even done his basic homework about what Mantra was about — why Stockhausen had created it the way he had, what it was all about, and how you had to listen to it. You can’t expect someone to have a genuine appreciation of a Nativity without some understanding of Christianity, or all they see is form and color without context — a similar criticism to that levied against Merzbow, that it’s “just noise” without guiding intelligence or aesthetic appeal.
What shocks such folks most, I suppose, is that people not only listen to this stuff, but like it and find an appeal in it that they don’t see in other places. They resent the way music is being redefined to include Merzbow’s Amlux, much as people resented Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm — and now that I think about it, Amlux is like a fusion of the two. If you can play it and hear how they are both invoked in their own way, you might call it music after all. Or maybe just art, if the term still shocks you.