MultipleTap brings Japanese noise

Touring festival showcases Japanese legends and fresh faces

In the late '70s Jojo Hiroshige first created noise in a small room with no heat, tucked away in the corner of Nishijin, Japan, an aging textile district where the rent was low and a band of experimental musicians became legends. Known as the Drugstore, the unassuming space hosted early practice sessions for an array of Japanese bands such as Hijokaidan, a flagship noise group co-founded by Hiroshige.

In 2014, Korean musician Kou Katsuyoshi organized the MultipleTap festival to connect the world with a roster of musicians who embody the Drugstore's marriage of confrontational dissonance and an uncompromising embrace of the possibilities of sound. "I started MultipleTap because I wanted to detach this particular kind of music from the music alone. I do not want to have a meaning to this music," Katsuyoshi says.

At first glance, trying to pin down what it means to divorce music from music seems like a cruel riddle. While Katsuyoshi is reluctant to provide a methodical breakdown of this philosophy, the Drugstore's history offers some tangible insights.

Fujiwara Hide founded the space in 1976 partially as a reaction to the authoritarian culture of jazu-kissas (jazz cafes), where "masters," who were typically male, controlled the music and handed down opinions like teachers presiding over their students. While in the '60s jazu-kissas represented a place for progressive thought to flourish, they became socially conservative institutions focused on a specific history of jazz. In contrast, Hiroshige and the Drugstore's clientele developed a space where free improvisation was emphasized and the curatorial role of the master was abandoned.

In his book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, ethnomusicologist and Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara David Novak highlights the difference in the two approaches to history as a core tenet of this outsider musical development: "Noise is the desire to push experimentations with sound and performance beyond the canonization of musical genre, which remediates recorded music away from fixed histories and into the creative reinventions of feedback."

With MultipleTap's roster, Katsuyoshi embodies that disavowal of history by pairing legacy acts such as Hijokaidan with newer and stylistically diverse musicians, showcasing the ability for noise to constantly construct, destroy, and reshape its identity. "There is nothing I get from 'music' itself, but I get various things from MultipleTap artists," Katsuyoshi says. "I think 'music' and the arts are dead, now we can touch only their ghosts."

While the Drugstore was a crucial breeding ground for the Japanoise movement, it cannot claim to be the definitive wellspring for the extreme aesthetics of noise music. Similar free spaces for performance thrived in Japan, while Lou Reed's infamous album Metal Machine Music and groups such as Canada's Nihilist Spasm Band embraced dissonance before Hiroshige formed the earliest incarnations of Hijokaidan.

However, there is still a contention over the true architect of noise, demonstrated by a quote from Hiroshige that Novak includes in his book: "After the 1980s, they Americans knew about 'Noise' from us. We didn't know about Noise music, so we made the first Noise music. If you know that there is such a thing as 'Noise' when you're making it, well — that's different, isn't it?"

Eventually, the Drugstore's collaborative atmosphere allowed musicians to freely trade and explore ideas that crystallized into different groups. While many were only fleeting experiments, other bands such as Ultra Bidé and Hijokaidan gained fervent fan bases who helped spread noise to North American audiences.

Harsh swells of static, shrill frequencies, and the absence of conventional song structures continue to define Hijokaidan's aesthetic, indebted to the ambient sensibilities of German Krautrock luminaries Faust and avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. After performing for more than 30 years, Hiroshige still draws inspiration from the philosophy underpinning noise. "Noise is on the brink of music ... and is a collection of all the sounds and music," Hiroshige says. "I am confident only seeking noise in the world."

Singer Hatis Noit, one of the younger artists on the lineup, channels Hijokaidan's abstract approach to songwriting through her experience in ballet, theater, Japanese classical music, and folk songs. Her voice explodes with the technical prowess of an opera singer, deftly navigating the breaking point of her falsetto. Universal Quiet, her debut album, features only the sound of her voice. "To me, the sounds issued by nature sound like their own conversation and song," Noit says. "Trees and soil, the buzz and the conversation of the air — I feel that particular music is translated into my voice."

On songs such as "Festi," Noit explores myriad permutations of her voice using hushed murmurs to prop up a swirling choral patchwork. Her influences weave around modes of Japanese folk, whispered poetry, and Björk's surreal and pastoral imagination. The tonality of her music sounds divorced from Hijokaidan's unrelenting discord, but she finds a link between the noisier artists on MultipleTap's roster. "I feel that there is energy of life's real beauty which can not be explained by logic," she says. "MultipleTap is non-standard music, full of energy and beauty that does not fit."

Artist Atsuhiro Ito offers a visual perspective of that non-standard beauty. His performances revolve around the use of an "optron," a massive fluorescent light he wields to create glitchy beats in tandem with the light's blinding bulbs. The instrument uses a palette of stuttering noises via a web of guitar amplifiers, fluctuating voltages, and fastened guitar pickups.

The end result is a cacophony of visual stimuli and sonic excess designed to overload audiences.

Katsuyoshi plans on touring MultipleTap throughout the East Coast. The festival's ambitious schedule extends far beyond the cramped confines of the Drugstore, where a small throng of outsider musicians created an aesthetic that has gained relevance around the world.

The space where it all began shuttered its doors in the early '80s, but Hiroshige asserts the philosophy he helped develop there "hasn't changed much" over the decades.

Through the artists he's culled together for MultipleTap, Katsuyoshi traces a powerful lineage of sound. In a single show, audiences veer from the sweaty fervor of the Drugstore's corrosive distortion to modern audiovisual performances where sound and technology collide, inspiring even younger artists to create their own niche in the noise.