|Merzbow, Riverside Theatres|
photo Hospital Hill
Apart from a short period of rhythmic scraping, you could not tell by listening that the roar filling the hall was produced by menacing a metal plate lashed to a power board with a pasta ladle. So generic is the sound of a distorted signal that it could once have been a pop song, a symphony or a bantam clucking and you would not know the difference. This lack of distinguishing characteristics gives Merzbow his power of universal address.
Beyond the artist’s mythical status, the concert setting may have helped to elevate Merzbow’s 'trashy' noise to a site of spiritual communion. The walk from the train station was like a pilgrimage route with Merzbow seekers excitedly rushing down Parramatta's Church Street to the theatre. The diversity of the audience cramming the hall to witness folkloric, hearing-loss-inducing, stomach-turning noise suggests that a Merzbow concert still represents a singular experience for many. You don’t so much hear Merzbow’s noise (not least because you are probably wearing ear plugs) as feel it moving through your body. There is something inherently attractive about the idea of a music beyond 'liking' and 'disliking,' a music that you physically encounter.
Rather than a singular, intense experience, I felt that Merzbow’s set was an in-between time where the cocoon of sound gave you time to think and dream. If Oren Ambarchi’s solo set at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre reminded me of an erased painting, Merzbow's reminded me of nature: wind howling, the earth rumbling, water bubbling and splashing. Camped in my plush seat I sank into the storm, waiting for it to pass. Others shared this experience of waiting outside time. Some were lulled into trance, some even slept.
Both experiential singularity and meditative sanctuary are removed from Merzbow’s early understanding of noise as a cheap, visceral, low art. In the mid-80s Merzbow packaged a series of noise tapes in collages of pornography pulled out of the rubbish in the subway, associating noise with 'base' physical desires. It is interesting that Merzbow’s worldwide fame should coincide with the exponential proliferation of pornography and general dissolution of social taboos, but the argument associating these facts would undermine itself. If our social consideration of all sensory stimulation were equalised, then you could also equate Merzbow’s popularity with the sugar content of soft drinks or average hours spent in front of screens, disregarding listening and understanding sound as a dynamic cultural process. Rather, I think we have learnt to listen to noise more closely over the years and the association of noise with sex and sadomasochism was one of the first steps in coming to understand it. If anything, the breakdown in social taboos has given us the freedom to judge noise on its own terms.
Aurora Festival of Living Music: Merzbow, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, Sydney, May 11; www.auroranewmusic.com.au/
Matthew Lorenzon has studied musicology, English, philosophy and cultural studies. He is currently completing a PhD in musicology at ANU on the rapport of music and philosophy in the works of the philosopher Alain Badiou and the composer François Nicolas.
See Matthew's contributor profile.
RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. web
© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org