Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation: By David Novak, 304 pgs. By Kurt

May 17, 2013

After spending a number of years as a student in academia, I’ve noticed that a new generation of academics (Generation X and younger) have become fairly transparent about their interest as to why they are in academia: they are nerds and nerd out on certain subject matter. Older generations of academics were nerds, too, but they hid their love for a subject under a sense of respectable educational maturity and calmness. They would rarely be called “fanboys” or “fangirls” for whatever subject got them educationally stimulated.

For more recent generations of academics, however, academia is one of the few places in the world where they are allowed to not just nerd out but also get paid for it. If one looks at the theses and dissertations written—and how finite and exclusive they are—academics are either scraping the bottom of the barrel with subject matter or have finally thrown away any premonitions of writing with the grandeur of their elders about topics on a larger scale. Instead, they’re writing books (not just articles, but books) about such topics as the bone histology of fossil tetrapods, the world of Sicilian wine, and Japanese noise artists. (Shit, I wrote a masters thesis on 1970s Christian “scare” films and I’m pretty sure no one else—including my advisor—really cared.) It’s the last topic—Japanese noise artists—that is the subject of Japanoise; a subject the author concedes is small, but interesting.

From the start, it’s fairly obvious the author, David Novak (a professor of music at University of California at Santa Barbara), is a fan of Japanese noise “music.” (Whether or not music is the appropriate term for what is created is a question Novak discusses in his book, hence my use of quotation marks.) His research is built upon work he did in Japan from 1998 to 2008. The seven chapters in the book discuss a range of topics related to the noise scene including: cassette culture, show spaces, and Merzbow (of course). The book starts, however, with a lengthy introduction that grew from inviting to academic in nature. I grew so annoyed with it that I eventually had to stop reading, as it was clear it was meant for the few academics in the field of music who also might find noise music interesting.

The rest of the text fluctuates between those previously mentioned parts: academic and fanboy. Novak is at his best when he describes the performers in their element. He captures the energy, intensity, and passion these artists display. There were often times I really wanted to be in the place he was describing and to experience what he experienced because the noise shows seemed so exciting. Novak is also a good storyteller. He’s the scene historian who can guide the reader effortlessly through the important names and places in the history of the Japanese noise scene. He makes it interesting and educational at the same time.

Unfortunately, not as much of the book focuses on the narrative as would have been preferable. Novak is also an academic and Japanoise is published on an academic press, so there’s obviously going to be a good amount of that type of material. Paragraphs are spent referring to other research and defining terminology in the context of the Japanese noise scene. It can be quite boring, if not confusing, for most readers. Chapters dealing with such topics as noise as a post-World War II history of Japanese media reception and noise as a humanistic critique of techno-culture don’t necessarily invite the non-academic reader. Instead, they alienate all but the academic audience, which, as mentioned earlier, is likely to be very small for such a topic.

I understand how academic presses work and what academic audiences want. You’ve got to show you can publish articles and books if you want tenure at most schools. I also know (as much as it’s possible) what punk rockers and music history fans desire. Novak has written what I assume is an accurate academic text (I don’t have any experience in the academic field of music) for his field, but does so at the detriment of not utilizing his full fanboy passion of Japanese noise. I’m not even much of a fan of noise music, but should Novak ever write a non-academic history of noise music, I’m certain it would be excellent and I would enjoy reviewing it. Kurt Morris (Duke University Press, 905 West Main St., Suite 18B, Durham, NC 27701)