release-a-holics anonymous: a few faces of output addiction
Merzbow live in Osaka- photo by Jenny Akita
Shakespeare and Byron possessed 80,000 words in all / The future genius-poet shall in every minute / Possess 80,000,000 words, squared.
If you were to conduct a survey today of problems plaguing the most technically advanced nations on Earth, chances are that restlessness would not be one of them. While you’d almost certainly encounter large percentages of survey respondents who bemoan “the loss of traditional values”, or who rail against everything from high-level corruption to lowered educational standards, the lack of meaningful reflective pauses in between materially productive activities would hardly register as a faint blip on the radar screen of pressing social dilemmas. Yet the mania for constant material progress, however unrealistic such a state may be, is clearly contributing to what William Dennett of Stanford University calls a “pandemic of fatigue,” in which most citizens of industrialized nations spend each day with a cumulative sleep deficit of 25-30 hours.1 Despite sleep’s taking up (ideally) a third of human life, its conspicuous absence from the literature of the industrialized world underscores that world’s counter-productive obsession with total vigilance and increased levels of output. This extends even to scientific literature, where author Paul Martin reminds us that “…the average amount of time devoted to sleep and sleep disorders in undergraduate teaching [is] five minutes, rising to a princely peak of 15 minutes in preclinical training. Your doctor is unlikely to be an expert on the subject.”2
It should follow that the fine arts, often being in opposition to the motives of the hard sciences, would rush to fill this particular void: but a closer look shows that this isn’t the case. Once there might have been great rifts between the puritanical workaholic and the lounging bohemian dandy, although nowadays it is harder to draw distinctions between workers and bohemians based on their relative level of activity. Even in those bohemian or "hipster" enclaves noted for their languor and stylized prevarication, a great deal of maintenance is required in order to project a nicely disaffected image, while good old post-industrial competitiveness oozes from the Facebook pages and micro-blog updates designed to these ends. A condition of proud relentlessness worms its way into the DIY realm of counter-cultural production as well, including the realm of self-released audio currently under investigation in this book. I’ll sleep when I’m dead is a slogan that can be proclaimed with gusto by just about anyone who sees themselves as rising above the indecision and hesitancy of their peers, and an ethos of unflagging dedication certainly does have a little more sex appeal to it than meaningless slumming and carefully cultivated numbness. Still, ‘unflagging dedication’ in and of itself can often be seen as a virtue without the follow-up question “dedication to what?” ever being posed. And so, it would do us well to do at least a brief survey here of the explicit and implicit rationales for 'losing sleep over' one's art, via a program of unremitting self-releasing. Motivations run the gamut from the most base and predictable to the most intriguingly sublime, from ambitions towards personal betterment to campaigns aimed at bettering society.
As Frans de Waard stated earlier in his interview, many self-releasing artists may unleash a double-digit number of products in a year’s time just to “keep their name out there.” This admission says perhaps a little more about the audience for this material than it does for its creators: are their memories so poor, and does art make such a meager impression on them, that they need a weekly deluge of ‘reminders’ that their muses even exist? And could it also be the case that they are the ones addicted, that each new audio discovery provides a rush that needs to be quickly replicated? As a single-minded quest for the ultimate sound results in the diminishing returns typical of overconsumption, are the artists themselves just frantically striving to meet their insatiable supporters’ demands? Such questions are likely to continue floating in the ether without being attached eventually to honest answers, since few people are likely to answer in the affirmative to any of them.
There is also, naturally, the cloud of desperation and anxiety that hang over many creators of currently challenging music: conditions brought on by the fact that, in an unpredictable, high-velocity cultural scene, just about any cultural product be snatched out of the hands of its creators and hammered into something less sincere or, worse still, totally contrary to what the original creators had intended. Csaba Toth describes this situation in relation to “noise”, which
…operates in the shadow of recontainment by the very commodity structures it intends to challenge. But resistance to such commodification continues to occur, and what cultural critic Russel A. Potter says about hip-hop appears to be true also for Noise music: ‘the recognition that everything is or will soon be commodified has ... served as a spur, an incitement to productivity.’3 Let it be enough to mention here the hundreds of recordings by Merzbow, Francisco López, Muslimgauze, and, most recently, the endless stream of cassettes and CD-Rs released by Wolf Eyes.4
The fear of impending commodification is certainly one valid explanation for "output addiction," although it's doubtful that the artists cited by Toth need this as an incitement to productivity. Those who do have this as their sole justification for "mass-releasing" are, after all, tacitly admitting that they have already lost the game: they feel impotent in the face of a more powerful media machine, and all that remains is to crank out as much material as possible in a narrow time frame to prove that they have "gotten there first." Being seen as the originator of a sonic idea or entire aesthetic becomes more important than continuing to shape and develop it. Seen this way, Toth's essay is deeply critical of the capitalist culture industry, but the conditions of fear / anxiety and addiction to production, however interrelated they may really be, are clearly not exclusive to that economic system. For example, the State-owned publishing industry in Honecker's East Germany awarded its authors on the basis of copies produced rather than on the basis of copies sold, the latter being the RIAA's principal means of determining artistic merit among American recording artists. Authors held in high esteem by the East German authorities would naturally be granted exorbitant print runs for their works, and from that we can easily deduce what the position of out-of-favor authors was. At any rate, wherever the propagation of an absolutist ideology is at stake, it seems there will be an excessive bombardment of look-alike and sound-alike cultural products.
However, our focus here is not on how and why 'systems' churn out excess amounts of product, but on how and why isolated individuals choose to do so. When mentioning unremitting self-releasing among these iconoclastic cells, one of the first names that comes to mind is the previously profiled Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow.5 As a musician who works in a field of qualitative excess (e.g. the aural qualities of volume and frequency), it seems only natural that Akita would connect this to a practice of quantitative excess. Akita has stated that his hyper-activity is an outgrowth of his interest in fetishism, which has in the past been inseparable from his art. Akita claimed earlier in his career "…it's more a question for sound texture itself […] this is the prime mover of all our musical thoughts."6 Though Akita's work as Merzbow would become heavily associated with the definition of fetishism as a type of paraphilia, his own statements on the subject hint that he is equally interested in the concept's pre-modern sense. Akita claims that "I'm deeply influenced by Japanese Buddhist philosophy, and verbally we can talk, say, of the belief that there's a living soul belonging to every object. This idea might be felt unconsciously in the music, but we have no conscious intentions as far as the Japanese cultural tradition is concerned."7 Recognizing the "souledness" of incorporeal forms brings the concept of fetishism back to pagan roots, and in doing so, provides the artist with an acute sensitivity towards those materials that have been cast off by society at large: thus Akita's use of the name Merzbow, a reference to the Merzbau sculpture of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (and, by extension, Schwitters' habit of elevating the base materials 'excreted' by the urban landscape - discarded paper scraps, metals, etc. - to the status of revered art.) With such an attitude permeating Akita's work, it is no stretch to understand why he came to embrace the "lowly" home-dubbed and self-released cassette as a major vehicle for his works (both as an 'instrument' and a sound storage medium) throughout the 1980s.
Akita's hyper-releasing seems to be as much a 'cultural critique' as a means of keeping his name in steady circulation (and this releasing tendency now spans almost every conceivable audio format, 'unofficial' or no.) As such, it is tempting to look for more regional cultural influences on Akita's working method. Akita would not be the first among his countrymen to be cited as a quintessentially Japanese artist, and in fact many selections from his oeuvre go beyond passive disinterest in cultural tradition and betray a distinctly anti-nationalist cynicism8, especially as regards Japan's more ecologically unsustainable pursuits (Akita is a committed vegan who casts a harsh eye upon Japan's ongoing separation from nature, and has also staged protests against the local infiltration of multinational food chains like KFC.) Like the Genet-obsessed Japanese counter-culture of the 1960s, Akita draws upon the work of a trans-national group of intellectual outcasts like Georges Bataille (and the latter-day musical emissaries of their philosophies, such as Whitehouse9) to provide the theoretical mortar for his house of Merz.
The caveat here is that, by the time Akita's operations began, such foreign influences were deeply ingrained in Japanese counter-culture, and said counter-culture's means of interpreting and projecting these influences gradually caused their foreign character to be subsumed by the local scene. Merzbow owes at least a small stylistic debt to this fusion of avant-cultural imports and local atmosphere, with at least one precedent for Merzbow's work visible in Toshio Matsumoto's film Funeral Parade Of Roses: in an intense, brief 'film within the film', the amusingly named bohemian character 'Guevara' screens for his friends a film of himself battling the camera's zoom lens, while in the center of a whirlwind of ephemeral strobing images and radically noisy audio.
Akita is only one member of a fairly cohesive Japanese underground movement that adopted releasing habits similar to his (if not quite to the same degree of intensity.) Although it may be a little perverse, it's tempting to view the intensely prolific releasing of Japanese artists (along with their ability to supplement their audio output with equally prolific forays into other creative media) as an offshoot of the prevalent attitudes in the country’s business sector. Japan’s post-war economic productivity, particular in the boom period of the 70s and 80s, was largely driven by the general trading companies or sougou shosha: ambitious corporations offering a diverse array of products and services, whose only common feature was often the company logo. For example, the same Sony Corporation that provided recording media and playback equipment to the artists profiled herein also made gains in the insurance and securities fields. Japan’s private railway companies are also prime examples of sougou shosha, which
[…] epitomize the all-things-to-all-customers company, offering a broad array of services for people who live along the railway line. Typically, their businesses include a department store at the urban terminal as well as hotels, supermarkets, housing developments, driving schools, museums, restaurants, travel agents, athletic facilities, real estate agents, and amusement parks.10
We can even add professional baseball teams to the above list: the Hanshin Electric Railway Company is the occasionally proud sponsor of the long-suffering Hanshin Tigers baseball team. The ownership of private rail lines, in particular, is a genius stroke that sees masses of daily commuters not only paying for tickets on these lines, but also purchasing their daily needs from the supermarkets strategically located outside of the ticket gates. Also highly significant is the role that the sougou shosha play as investment banks.
What’s also interesting is that, within these organizations themselves, the phenomenon of ‘wearing many hats’ is not so common as the phenomenon of the highly specialized worker. On a 'molecular' level, the sougou shosha employ people whose roles may be very clearly defined and allow for little deviation, and whose interaction with other company departments is negligible. The actions of the so-called noizu-kei (the "noise circle" centering around first-wave Japanese noise acts like Merzbow, Hijokaidan and KK Null) invert this scenario by seizing for themselves the functional diversity that would likely only occur at the higher organizational levels within the sougou shosha. This is, of course, a salient feature of DIY artwork in general, which takes on a new life when placed in the context of corporatist Japan. Both Akita and other noizu-kei contemporaries like Nakahara Masaya (of Violent Onsen Geisha) also busy themselves with writing a healthy number of books, which tend to explain the subject matter outlining their noisy sonic abstractions in greater detail. Akita remains active in many different areas of the plastic arts, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - was a mail art enthusiast with strong links to the Italian scene formed around networkers like Nicola Frangione and Vittore Baroni. Although the assumption of numerous creative functions by a lone individual seems commonplace in the 21st century, the principle can still be radical within Japan's national boundaries (even though the technology to become an inter-disciplinary creator is as widely available, if not more so, than in other post-industrial nations.)
Whether it is associated with the sougou shosha or no, the Japan-wide standard of workmanship is so high that one popular insult is ii kagen, or "good degree": by doing something to a "good" degree rather than to the highest possible standard, one might as well just do an honestly shoddy job. The tendency towards perfectionism has spilled over into leisure time, and so our recurring concept of "serious play" finds one clear precedent within Japanese culture. Roland Barthes, in his book-length essay on the Japanese experience, was surprised at the intensity with which people played the popular pachinko game, and how the sense of any casual involvement was absent from the gameplay in pachinko parlors:
The imperious meaning of the scene is that of a deliberate, absorbing labor; never an idle or casual or playful attitude, none of that theatrical unconcern of our Western players lounging in leisurely groups around a pinball machine and quite conscious of producing for the other patrons of the café the image of an expert and disillusioned god.11
Curiously, the overwhelming noise of the pachinko parlor - caused by the simultaneous movement of thousands of ball bearings through the machines - has an analog to the noise music of Merzbow, which cascades down upon the listener much like so many determined pachinko balls. In live performance, Akita also strikes a figure very similar to that of Barthes' pachinko players; his unfazed and non-emotive countenance like that of a surgeon, his wire-rimmed glasses reflecting the insistent screen glow of the laptop computers that process his torrential sound.
There is more than just a hint of agonistic character present when Akita says, in a 1999 issue of Wire, that he wants to release 1,000 albums in order to eclipse the total output of jazz titan Sun Ra (estimated by Akita to be about 250 albums.) Yet Akita's past activities suggest that this contest is not being fought for the purposes of increasing Merzbow's esteem and satiating his ego (or, indeed, for "beating" the late Sun Ra, since Akita is an avid fan of psychedelic, celestial music of all kinds and has no need to prove his musical form as superior.) Akita's mid-'90s book on the history of noise refers only once to Merzbow in the entire volume, hardly the product placement expected of a rank egotist. Meanwhile, beginning with the international compilation tapes assembled for his ZSF Produkt label, Akita has served as much as a "switchboard operator" for the underground as a stand-alone artist, setting up connections between a number of different points on the grid. His manic self-releasing, followed by equally manic releasing on official formats, is often seen as an effort to "crowd out" other artists in the scene, although this criticism would have more heft to it if he did not perform these ancillary tasks of "scene" promotion.
Akita is also cognizant of his own unpopularity within his native Japan, having been much better received in Europe and the U.S.- a pure egotist would develop all kinds of complex rationales for why this was the case, whereas Akita merely admits this fact and moves on from there. If we imagine popular acceptance to be a kind of sustenance, then Akita can be mischievously likened to an amoeba which "deprived of food, becomes for a time more active…its energy expenditure is an inverse function of energy input."12 While this tendency is becoming increasingly associated with "noise", select representatives of other musical genres share this defiance of the "psychic energy" boost conferred by popularity.
this is an excerpt; full chapter is available in Unofficial Release: Self-Released And Handmade Audio In Post-Industrial Society. Ordering details available soon.
2 Ibid., p. 6.
3 Russell A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism, p. 8. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1995.
5 Please refer to my previous book Micro Bionic: Radical Electronic Music And Sound Art In The 21st Century (Creation Books, 2009) for a more thorough profile of Merzbow.
6 Masami Akita quoted in "Japan" by Fred Frith. OP issue "J" (March-April), Olympia WA., 1982.
8 Merzbow's release Music For True Romance Vol. I, for instance, features endlessly looped snatches of what sounds like Japanese gunka or military music, arranged alongside blasting cacophony in a less-than-adulatory way. A title like "Injured Imperial Soldier's Marching Song," from the same release, also commits a breach of national optimism by merely acknowledging Japan's imperial period. There is scant precedent for this in any contemporary Japanese pop music.
9 Incidentally, Whitehouse have followed a more conventional releasing schedule than Merzbow, but only as regards studio recordings: the entirety of Whitehouse's live career has been archived on cassette and now DVD-R.