Tag Archives: merzbow

Music as Symbol and Abstraction

“My God! What has sound got to do with music!” – Charles Ives

If you have been reading this blog for the past couple months since I started it back up, you may have read the series of 3 posts that I did on the recent Merzbow album “Takahe Collage” (1 2 3). Those posts were a bit more analytical than they were philosophical in nature, but the two do tend to go hand in hand to a certain extent.

I’ve had some time to put together some more thoughts on the topic of music as abstraction, noise as music and how it relates to the thoughts and motivation of other artists of all types within that realm. I wrote this short paper for a presentation in a seminar on the history of 20th century music. I offer it below:

October 9, 2013

The main thing that I would like to discuss today, and I want to get a dialogue going on this, is the idea of what a group of musicians considers to be music and what they consider “noise.”

We’ve been looking at how the art world relates to the musical world, showing how the Rite of Spring’s choreography relates to cubism, and primitivism. We’ve talked about modernism and post-modernim, and I’d like to talk a little bit about abstract art, dadaism, music and noise.

First, I want to give you an idea of what I’m talking about with a painting by Jackson Pollack. We’ve probably all seen his paintings, and they have given way to many discussions of whether they are or are not art. Is something art just because the artist says it is? Or can anything be art? How about a painting or sculpture by a Dada artist that takes random materials found on the street and fastens them together with purposely no organization? Does that lack of organization become the organization? Or are we, like Taruskin says, finding organization where there isn’t any simply because we are looking for it? Is music music just because the composer says it is, or can any and all sound be music?

Jackson Pollack - "#3"
Jackson Pollack – “#3”

There are plenty of electronic sound collage pieces that are made from “found sound” that has been manipulated. Is that manipulation what takes something from just sound to actually being an artistic statement? And think back to the first time that you heard Schoenberg or Webern or John Cage, or put yourself in the shoes of someone that only listens to top 40 pop music hearing Webern’s Op. 20 for the first time. What do you think that person would have to say about that music? Would they say that it was just noise? Could noise be just a word that we use when we don’t understand something?

Let’s listen quickly to a few short examples:

Frank Martin: Quatre pièces brèves: III. Plainte


Both guitars, right? But what does the timbre of Julian Bream’s guitar have to do with that of The Telescopes? They are both the same instrument, but the sound of guitar as we know it is an abstraction of what a guitar “really” sounds like. The sound of the guitar, when used in rock music, is merely a symbol. It doesn’t sound anything like a guitar. Instead the sound that is produced stands in for the sound of the guitar. It essentially is a wall of distortion. But, we have learned to accept that particular sound over time as being “a guitar.” Imagine if you were to play that Telescopes song for Andres Segovia, or Beethoven, or Bach. They would have NO IDEA what that sound was. We recognize it as such because we can picture in our head where the sound is coming from. We understand where it is coming from and we accept it. We understand so well that we don’t even think about it anymore.

Do we consider the sound of a distorted guitar from rock music to be noise? Or just noisier than what a “guitar” “should” sound like? And what should anything sound like?

What if we got even more abstract? Now onto Merzbow.
“Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair?” – Charles Ives
Merzbow is Japanese musician and writer Masami Akita. Since 1979 he’s released over 350 recordings, 6 so far this year. Included in that output is the amazing 50 CD Merzbox. This is the track “Tendeko” from the 2nd album he released this year, “Takahe Collage.”


Can we accept this as music? I would say that this is basically, to me, just another degree of abstraction. Merzbow is manipulating the sounds that he is generating, there are different timbres involved, different ideas that are brought in and then go out through the course of the piece. However, is this closer in timbre to “pure noise” for you?

And what exactly is a good definition of noise? Does it have to do with sound? There’s a book by Paul Hegarty called “Noise/Music: A History” that discusses “noise” in all of its contexts. Noise as basically any confrontation against our expectations. It could be in the form of a reaction to norms, or noise as antagonism such as with the band Throbbing Gristle, taunting and angering their audience purposely. Noise as anything added to the music or that distracts one from the music. But what happens when the noise is the music? And we still haven’t solved the problem of what is and is not considered music. If this “noise,” in whatever form that it may be coming in, is part of the performance (and is it really possible to get rid of all noise? Hello, John Cage) then is it really noise at all?

I think of it this way: John Cage’s music is the sound of philosophy. It gives us something that is challenging, it gives us something that questions what it is that we believe about something that we thought that we had such a firm grasp on. This music is something that gets us thinking and it is something that is provocative and it is daring and controversial, but it is also an outlet for something for someone that wants to create something.

Isn’t music itself an abstraction of our words and our voices? And, if so, noise music is still music in just the same way. I think that as we evolve we continually create further  abstractions from where we started off, and eventually everyone catches up to that abstraction, and the definition of “noise” changes. Everything is a symbol for something else in music. Just think to the programmatic music of Strauss or Berlioz. Everything is symbol and everything is abstraction.


Book Review: Paul Hegarty – “Noise/Music: A History”

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty
Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty

One of the most complex and confounding questions for fans of music, and for musicians in general is also the most basic and deceptively simple question either could ask: “What is music?” The question extrapolates from Duchamp’s similar challenge presented to artists.

At a very basic level music is whatever one decides to call music. Found sounds can be (and are) considered as music. Electronic sounds are music. Any sound at all is music. Though, understandably, this may not be everyone’s view. One could go even further and say that music isn’t merely sound, but it is more specifically organized sound. So if one makes that distinction then one must be able to account for the organization behind what one considers music.

To that end Paul Hegarty’s probing philosophical exploration of the genre of noise music provides a thorough consideration of this very question. Not only does he consider the way in which noise music may be, and is, organized; he goes into detail about the implications of these organizations and how even the very word organization” needs to be questioned.

The book opens by exploring music with similar considerations as one would consider Arte Povera. As such it is explained that music would “stray far from the accepted, proper, artistic materials and conventions.” (pg. 27) In the 2nd chapter Hegarty introduces Derrida and Bataille into the conversation, taking a look at the philosophical implications behind the creation of different, or rather different, forms of music.

He begins with the birth of electronic music, in the late 1940’s by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and how their “found sounds” were recorded and reproduced and then manipulated. The musical material became these fixed sounds that were then manipulated, and the world of music could never again be the same. While I was reading this section of the book what came to my mind was that incorporating found sound into music could maybe be compared to using the sound of a room in today’s recording techniques, in addition to, of course, the continuation of the tradition of the manipulation of found sounds.

The parallels between Schaeffer and Henry’s experiments with that of the questions that were implied by Cage’s 4’33” can be seen, and the answer to some of those questions are answered through the creation of noise as music. Music moves outside the world of sterility where “noise” of any kind is absolutely prohibited (Classical and Romantic era compositions have score indications, but nowhere is anything else supposed to be added to the music. People throw a fit when conductors do something as seemingly minimal as taking a piece at a slightly different tempo, or ignoring phrase markings. The perceived structure of the entire piece depends upon the correlation between the notes, the rhythms and the tempi, anything added or taken away threatens that very structure) to the real world where the incorporation of “noise” makes music more real, or at least more of the world in which it was created.

Creating noise as music sets out to discover the limits and nature of music itself, but not only that, it seeks to find what it is that holds it together. What can be added, and what can be taken away from a composition before that composition becomes another piece entirely? According to Hegarty, “Schaeffer wanted to expand the realm of music, and bring in sounds that were musical, even if not matching the expectations of being specific notes.”

“Music had become obsessed with form, Schaeffer argues, whereas rel interest could only come from material…paying attention to the stuff of music – sounds as themselves – would reconcile material and form ‘as a new immanent body’…this new music would still need organization” (pg. 33)

These considerations of form and structure continue throughout the book. Add to those consideration also that of motivation and conception. Adding Adorno and Deluze to his philosophical battalion Hegarty moves from electronic music to Throbbing Gristle and antagonization as noise, social disorder as noise, actual feedback (in the music of Derek Bailey) as noise and music. He talks about the birth of Punk as social noise, “punk precursors like MC5 reintroduced aggression and transgression, both in lyrical content and musical form…tired of extended solos and hippie culture that those elements came out of.” (pg. 68) He continues, “It is not enough to simply reject the long form, it is far more effective to wreck the purpose of it through the form itself.” (pg. 69)

The fact that anti-music is made through music is an interesting concept that sets up the remainder of Hegarty’s book. This is not not music. This is (if you’ll pardon me) not not not music. And progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Yes are reacting against that very reaction. He compares the motivations of King Crimson to Bataille where as Yes is more Hegelian, and therefore opposite of King Crimson. These inter-genre dissonances can be seen as another form of noise. He states that Yes’s (annoying, pretentiously and impossibly long) “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is noisy both lyrically and conceptually. If a philosophical quandary in the form of lyrics goes on for 75 minutes and nobody is able to make any sense of it, or relate to it….

The chapters continue to probe at the real core issue here, which has now gone from “what is music” to “what is noise and what can noise be?” He brings up ineptitude, ie if a music can only be created by musicians then what is a musician? If someone creates music then they are a musician, you can’t have one without the other. He also considers industrial music, the beat poets and their influence on music (hello Sonic Youth and the entirety of the early 80s downtown rock scene), power (“noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message”) Japan’s noise scene, and an entire chapter on Merzbow.

Hegarty approaches his topic both chronologically and in order of increasing complication because as time goes on art is reacting to itself faster and faster with each reaction creating sub-genre’s and therefore further expansions of music. His book is both philosophically challenging and highly readable. One does not need to be a music theorist nor a philosopher in order to follow the logic set down in this book. I would highly recommend that any fan of outsider music, experimental music and of course noise music, pick this book up and give it a thorough read and consideration. It is fairly popular and might even be found at your local library.


Purchase – It’s rather expensive as a hardcover, but paperback versions can be found for as little as $18 through certified Amazon outlets.

Album Review: Merzbow – “Takahe Collage” Part 3

Merzbow - "Takahe Collage"
Merzbow – “Takahe Collage”

Grand Owl Habitat

This third and final installment of posts about Merzbow’s “Takahe Collage” focuses on the closing track, the mere 12 minute “Grand Owl Habitat.”

Probably the least active and cluttered of the album, “Grand Owl Habitat” takes a clearly sectionalized approach that even may vaguely (in some ways) resemble ABA form. Or, if it can’t quite be thought of as ABA form (and really it can’t, but hear me out) there is at the very least elements that appear and disappear at intervals making it sound as if the spaces without the pitched, more focused sounds form a point of recurring repose against spaces that contain those sounds and therefore stand as a contrast.

Just as with the previous tracks there is introductory material here as the underlying beat is generated. The first section of the song, that which lacks the presence of pitch material for the most part, continues for the first minute. Following that is the entrance of some of the erratic pitch material and sound envelope manipulations.

The main thing, as far as this song is concerned, is that each time the more focused, pitched sounds enter they do so with an increased intensity with each recurrence. Meanwhile the sections of the song that alternate with these increasingly active sounds remain fixed. The stasis is fixed in sound and in tempo. No alterations whatsoever are made to the initial underlying beat that is generated at the beginning of the track.

From 2:06 to about 2:18 there is a drastic shift in texture that marks a new section, where everything is stripped away, save for the underlying structure. We have seen this many times before in the previous tracks, where there is a frequent stripping away and subsequent re-building of material to create motion through the song from beginning to end. There are even some interesting rhythmic moments in “Grand Owl Habitat” that can be heard when a lot of that material is stripped away. For example, at about the 6:40 mark there is a sort of polyrhythmic effect going on with two of the layers just before a screeching sound of a free-jazz saxophone bleat begins to dominate the texture. That sound, as it happens, will remain throughout the remainder of the track.

What I think may be most notable, other than the drastic ebbs in texture through this track, is the way that Merzbow manages to bring the piece to a close. As a composer it is absolutely crucial for one to know their compositional language inside and out, for that is how you learn to phrase your material and, more importantly, how to begin and end a piece. Essentially, when the material that you are using is created via a hierarchy that doesn’t included strictly pitched material, how does one go about cadencing, or closing the piece?

The way that Merzbow answers that question here appears at the 10:52 mark where suddenly that underlying rhythm is taken away. In an instant only the focused, more or less pitched material is left and seems to float above the surface. But without that underlying structure it is only a matter of time before they are not able to sustain themselves anymore and about a minute later they begin to fade out. This, in my opinion, makes for a truly satisfying end to not only this track, but to the entire album.

Album Review: Merzbow – “Takahe Collage” Part 2

Merzbow - "Takahe Collage"
Merzbow – “Takahe Collage”


The second track from Merzbow’s “Takahe Collage”,”Tendeko,” is a bit different in its plan than the album opener. The titular song works really well as an introduction as there is quite a bit to grab on to. This track, however, is a bit more stable and fixed. That is not to say that there certainly aren’t some exceedingly interesting elements throughout.

Just as with the previous track we have some introductory material that lasts for about the first 20 seconds. The steady white noise backdrop is introduced and about another 20 seconds after that the sound spectrum begins to widen, and once again Merzbow is making use of a low pulsation, though this time around it is not quite as prominent. Pitch material also doesn’t seem to be playing quite as important a role in “Tendeko.” We are given what I would refer to as “open” and “closed” sounds.

By using the terms “open” and “closed” I’m referring to the overall shape of the soundwaves where sounds that I would consider to be “open” would be those that have more frequencies appearing at the outer edges of the spectrum (highs and lows but no middle) whereas closed sounds would have frequencies more clustered toward the middle of the sound spectrum. These sounds could be produced using something as simple as a bandpass filter, or a guitar wah pedal.

There is a much higher degree of stasis throughout “Tendeko,” and it doesn’t initially appear to be broken into large sections. There are occasions where thin, high pitched sounds will suddenly erupt from the stasis, while there are other times (around 9:50, for example) where regular beats develop and remain and become significant. This part in the track is alive with variation, Akita is heard to be clearly playing with beats and at the 11:30 mark seems to turn the entire track around on itself. The layer of stasis is stripped away, but not in the same way that it was in the opening track. This is a more gradual process, introducing new sounds rather than cutting everything away at once.

At about the 7:35 mark a quick thinning of the texture allows a brief descending arpeggiated sound to come toppling down, before it is swallowed up by the deep sea of distortion that remains underneath the entire song as a sort of support structure. When a sine wave is introduce at around 13:30 it leaps across frequencies, slicing through the ground layer from top to bottom and becoming a prominent element for a large duration.

Something resembling a vintage synth sound enters ever so briefly during a period where the percussive sounds are made more obvious with more crisp attacks rather than simple pulsations. That synth sound remains as a high pitched rapid rhythm and all that is beneath it is stripped away until we are left only with it and the percussive attacks. Eventually the rapid fire high register rhythm flatlines before it begins bouncing across several octaves, the percussive sounds disappearing suddenly with siren type sounds that come from below.

Standing in significant contrast to that of “Takahe Collage,” “Tendeko” exercises a greater use of stasis and shifting levels of textural density. Larger sections of the piece are less apparent in this track than its predecessor, though the latter half introduces a significant number of changes in sound, though not each introduced as parts of what I would think to call new sections. Rather it seems as though the stasis of the first half is drastically contrasted in the 2nd half with increasingly wild sonic gesticulations. There clearly is a different approach to this song, and the way that the sounds are organized and paced throughout the track are evidence of that.

The third and final part in this series will appear tomorrow and discusses the closing track on the album, “Grand Owl Habitat.”

Album Review: Merzbow – “Takahe Collage” Part 1

Merzbow - "Takahe Collage"
Merzbow – “Takahe Collage”

Takahe Collage

I’ve wanted to cover some Merzbow tracks for a long time and I think that I am about ready to give it a shot.

For those of you that don’t know, Merzbow is Masami Akita, who has been cranking out noise since 1979. In some ways Merzbow is like an electronic Jandek. By saying that I don’t mean that there are necessarily similarities in the aural qualities inherent in the music of both, but rather that both Jandek and Merzbow force us as listeners to re-evaluate our own idea of what music and sound can be and what it can mean.

Most reviews of Merzbow’s output that I have seen often wander into this philosophical territory, but I want to try and capture the elements in this album that give each song structure and how I think they may be organized. This seems to be, by and large, one major thing that people seem to avoid when talking about the music of Merzbow – and for good reason – it’s pretty complex stuff, most of which could easily be cast off as disorganized noise. What I would like to do in this three part series is deconstruct the way that these songs are put together. I’d also like to do away with the idea of there being much that is disorganized in this music. Being that there are only three tracks on the album, two of which are around a half-hour long each, it might be for the best to examine each song in a separate post.

The album is the 2nd of 6 albums that Merzbow has released so far this year. To my ears, as far as the albums that I have heard, this stands as one of his most accessible. “Takahe Collage” opens the album with skipping static and buzzed bass sounds that immediately resemble a glitchy bass and drums breakbeat. This intro section lasts for about 37 seconds before the grinding bass sound dissipates into the ambient structural level that remains in the background for the duration of the track.

The proper first section of the track introduces high sine wave sounds with honest-to-goodness repeated gestures that allow us to get some footing. By 3 minutes into the track the high range is expanded before it disappears past the range of our hearing.

There is a control of the overall density of the sound throughout, though the aforementioned low ambient drone remains. Pulsations that dwell in that lower register are varied, giving the overall sound texture and shape. At about the 5 minute mark the previous sine-wave seems to have mutated at some point into a more square or sawtooth wave and begins mimicking a syncopated line, counterpoint against the pulsations below.

The breakdown and dissipation of the upper sounds with their consequent formation and buildup happens at semi-regular intervals lasting a couple of minutes. Moments of chaos serve to break up those sections of more cogent material. Noise and ambient pulsations become a new silence against which the material is actually projected. That material underneath does not remain as noise. How could it? At this point we are so used to hearing it that it becomes a given. It’s not so much noise as it is the new silence.

At 11:40 there is a major shift where all of the material but the bass ostinato are removed  completely before new sounds can eventually coalesce. Elements of the material previous to this section seem to flash in and out of focus trying and failing to re-form. A mid-range pitch, middle-C, begins to cut through all other material. It weaves in and out of the texture, seemingly holding its own against a barrage of frequencies from every direction. This pitch is rather important as it is the same pitch as the lower pulsation, but two octaves higher. The structural prominence of the ambient pulsations is becoming more apparent as the track is developing them as they stretch out into other layers of the track. Frequencies in the upper range work their way higher until, after repeatedly fighting through thick clouds of grinding frequencies, at around the 15:20 mark a G# about 3 octaves above middle-C is reached.

The section that begins with that high G# then becomes all about retaining that pitch. Merzbow slides around it, always returning to it and at about 18:25 he holds on to it for a significant amount of time. There is an extremely wide voiced chord taking shape now with several overtones of the low ambience steadying themselves, becoming a solid, fixed point of reference.

Finally at the 20 minute mark we arrive at the next significant shift in sound. There are large swaths bordering on silence as a rather thick D is hit at about the mid range. The middle-C and high G# have disappeared by this point (just before the 20 minute mark break) and we have moved on to a section that is focused on a quick and steady ascending glissando to that D. The ambience moves back in to its place, and before long the track is going at full density again.

The 32 and a half minutes of “Takahe Collage” are broken up into a few large sections, which are in themselves broken up into even smaller sub-sections. Each of these sections have direction, shape and even to some degree a motivic structure. What one would possibly label as “noise” is in actuality, for the purpose of this work, simply the backdrop against which the simpler ideas are placed against.

With this approach, my next post will cover track 2 of the album: “Tendeko.”


Stream/Download: Mincemeat or Tenspeed

Mincemeat or Tenspeed
Mincemeat or Tenspeed

You may not imagine a tiny blog like mine that nobody reads would get a steady stream of free music sent to their inbox, but I do. It takes a lot of effort (that 9 chances out of 10 is not worth it) to comb through all of the music that I am thrown on a weekly basis. Hundreds of hours of music.

I get into these moods where I want to listen to something that I have never heard before, or even heard of before. That’s where Burn Down the Capital comes in and never lets me down. I met the dude that not only runs that site, but also puts together crazy shows of the most outside music you could ever imagine across Toronto, several years ago. So, that link might be of a bit more help to you if you live in and around the Toronto area if you’d like to actually check out any of the shows that are posted to the site.

Last week the email he sent out included info about a gig that Philadelphia’s David Harms, aka Mincemeat or Tenspeed, was putting on. I checked it out and got exactly what I wanted. Noisy, challenging music. If you are a fan of early Dan Deacon or Merzbow (or both) then you should check this out. He creates music with “No synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, computers, musical instruments.” His only tools are effects pedals and a mixer. What he does with that limited inventory is pretty amazing.

Ranging from pure noise-ambience to electronic pulsations of distorted glitches, he’s got it covered from top to bottom. And the truly great news for you is that there is a great deal of his music that is available for download for free. If you are having a hard time trying to decide where to start, I think that “Live in Black Ops,” “The Tower,” and “Dungeon Master” are where to go. Interesting sidenote that the Soundcloud page claims Providence as his location (perhaps that is more current?) and that the “Dungeon Master” album includes the track “Mindflayer,” also the name of fellow Providence noise master Brian Chippendale’s bands. Check out some of these tracks and then head over here and download.