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Silence By My Noise: An Ecocritical Aesthetic of Noise in Japanese Traditional Sound Culture and the Sound Art of Akita Masami


Modernist musicological discourse is flush with talk of “the musical material,” a rhetorical figure which imbues sound with enigmatically self-inherent tendencies, while simultaneously prefiguring its subjugation to compositional agency. This trope echoes the broader Enlightenment cultural program of establishing mastery over the unruly energies of nature. The noise compositions of Masami Akita, better known as Merzbow, challenge such conceptions of meaningful musical experience as mastery over sound. Twisting the hum of electronic instruments into self-oscillating feedback loops, Merzbow unbinds the inherent momentum of sound, forestalling its subsumption into mere compositional material.  Such explorations of the 'natural right' of sound to be something other than music have important forebears in late 20th century Western aesthetic thought, most notably John Cage.  Despite his professed impartiality toward traditional Japanese music, Merzbow's ambivalent aesthetics also recall the much older classical Japanese poetic tradition, as exemplified by Tokugawa period philologist Motoori Norinaga's concept of mono no aware. In this paper, I interpret Norinaga's aesthetic thought as a riposte to Enlightenment nature-culture dualism, and listen for its echo in Akita's noise. In the final instance, however, I conclude that Akita eviscerates traditional Japanese assumptions of the mutual amenability of culture and nature, music and noise.  Following Akita's recent writings on ecology, I maintain that his compositions reflect a pained awareness of the deterioration of the natural sound-world before the onslaught of human culture and its sonic detritus, and advance a still more radical critique of the inability of either Western modernist or classical Japanese aesthetic thought to address the ballooning potential of humanly organized sound to do violence against human and non-human life.

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