Visceral sound: An Adventure into the Heart of Taipei's Noise Scene

by on Tuesday, 24 September 2013 Comments

Betty Apple 鄭宜蘋  ///  Photo by Damien Owen Trainor (via White Fungus)

July 6, 2013 was a special day for Taiwan's noise music scene. Merzbow playing in Taipei! The excitement was viral, Introductory articles and audio links started to flood Facebook walls weeks before the event. The event was a collaboration between Kandala Records, a noise music label based in Taiwan and White Fungus, an art magazine that is founded by two New Zealand expats in Taiwan.


Dino had already finished when I arrived at The Wall, I scrambled for my camera as Betty Apple ascended the stage looking like a doll walking straight out of a Japanese manga: geisha eyeliner and short, geometrically cut hair screaming hot pink blue yellow. I was stopped by a staff because photo-shooting was not allowed. Maneuvered towards the counter to get my photo pass. Meanwhile Betty Apple was doing her magic, rubbing clusters of tiny pink vibrators -- her signature act -- against balloons and morphing those sounds into incredible solar sound waves. At the end she bit on a hot-dog shaped balloon with a pop and twirled perkily down the stage.

Dawang Yingfan Huang, Taiwan's picaresque noise leprechaun shows up as master of ceremonies and announces Wolfenstein with his drunken clown voice. Wolfenstein looked the exact opposite from Apple's chic appearance. Looming from the dark stage, he sat, far from the audience, hunched before his laptop. The set sounded like a carefully constructed script about a meteor crashing, slowly, towards the crust of the earth. During the crescendo a girl's voice appeared and repeated in mandarin sentences of death. Wolfenstein's eyeglasses reflected the impersonal light of his screen.

The most anticipated Taiwanese artist was Wang Fujui: pioneer of noise music in Taiwan during the 90's and patriarch to numerous young Taiwanese sound artists. Age and the curvature of that beer belly didn't stop Wang from being a rockstar at all. He tossed those dark wavy locks of his, worked those knobs as Steve Vai would lick his guitar. The contrasting physicality and the lack there of in Fujui and Wolfenstein's performance seemed to reflect the different periods in Taiwan's noise music scene. Fujui, like Merzbow, came from a scene where the punk aesthetics is highly cherished and noise can be viewed as an anarchic expression against the hegemonic reliance of structure in music. It is easier to appreciate their music in a rock music context, where theatrical performance of the body is equally important as its sound. However, after the popularization of computer technology and digitization of music came along, more ways to manipulate noise appeared and attention refocused on the textures of noise itself. A lot of classically-trained musicians entered the field and turned noise music into something more "musical", and its performance can easily be abstracted from the performer himself. 


wolfenstein 謝仲其  ///  Photo by Damien Owen Trainor (via White Fungus)

What interested me the most though, is the crowd. It was a very tentative crowd. Very still, but very focused. Indeed, one would not pay 800 NTD to see a noise musician out of sheer curiosity. I spotted the bassist from the band Qí lái Observatory, eyes closed, spreading his fingers over his ears like a bat. A fat goth girl stood next to me, face down, inanimate. A pair of lovers stood in each other's arms, facing the stage, smiling serenely. Everyone was in their own little world.


I reentered the room after intermission. The rhythms pulsing behind the sound-proofed doors sounded as if a heavy metal concert was going on. Open the doors, and Merzbow, slim, sallow with sleek black hair was onstage, fiddling and twiddling his self-constructed stringless mandolin and the bunch of knobs in front of him. Merzbow's set was similar to Wang's: real-time controls and straight-up noise; not melodic like Apple's or carefully constructed like Wolfstein's. His set however presented a wider sound-range, making the whole set more dramatic. There was a moment when the sound was suspended in one high-pitched sine-wave and the audience went into spasms. A girl crouched down on the floor rocking back and forth, not sure out of pain or pleasure. Then the hi, mids and lows slammed back into our face and a white guy who stood at the back this entire time rushed forth, curiously with a tooth brush in hand. He yapped at Merzbow as tooth paste foam spewed out of his rabid mouth, jerking uncontrollably. By his side, the expressionless androgynous asian girl continued to bob along, unfazed, yet by the slight but agitated pace that she moved, you could tell that she, too, was exploding inside.


Yes, Merzbow's performance was excellent and the crowd was great, but there was something more to this event that made it special. For all I knew, it was the first noise event held at such a "popular" venue. The Wall, formerly known as Zeitgeist, was a prestigious live house in Taipei, beginning way back in the 90's. It had the best sound system in Taipei and a convenient location (just two blocks away from the Gonguan MRT station). It is not hard to imagine that booking a show at The Wall is extremely expensive. Only popular music forms, i.e. rock music or dance music, who knew their event would attract enough people to cover the cost, had the guts to hold events over there. Noise music, being as avant-garde as it is, was never popular in Taipei and probably never will be, and although it sprung from the DIY underground movements in Taiwan's college campuses during the early nineties, it has since then become more or less exclusive to academia while its performances relied on the fundings from the Cultural Affairs Bureau, distanced from the energy of "the people" that remains vital for the development of any music genre.


I was thus amazed when so many characters from different arenas show up at Merzbow. There was Alex the guitar pedal maker, beside him members from the fuzzy alternative rock band Slacktide, and Steve Leggat, contributor/organizer of There was also Huang Jen from the 8-bit duo Physical Chemical Brothers, Taipei's three techno sisters Vice City, Soma and Angel, the glitchcore midi-controller freak Sonic Deadhorse; Feng Shin and Yao Chung-han the curators of the monthly sound art event Lacking Sound Festival, Zac the art history student and Jeph Lo, the guy who translated Altered state : the story of ecstasy culture and acid house into mandarin Chinese and corrupted the minds of numerous Taiwanese youths. In sum, the crowd was a cocktail of artists, DJs, rock musicians and the cultural media type.


If you talked to them, you'd learn that everybody knew at least a little about Merzbow, but all from different trajectories: Huang Jen learned about Merbow during his phase in Japanese anime music, which lead to breakcore remixes and subsequently Merzbow. Angel, our pretty techno DJ mentioned how her interest in Japanese glitch led to the knowledge of Hijokaidan, a noise group in which Merzbow played drums for during the early-mid 90's. Pillof Yau, guitarist slash vocalist in Slacktide told me how Merzbow's collaboration with the Japanese post-rock band Boris caught his attention, where as Void Zed, the gothest girl in Taipei mentioned how the film score from Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a Japanese B-production man/machine parody of Cronenberg's The Fly led her down the road of Japanese industrial music, and, surprise surprise, to Merzbow.


The diversity of Merzbow's audience not only owes itself to Merzbow's diverse collaborations with musicians of other genres, but also to the the uncontainable quality of "noise" itself. Alex the guitar pedal guy was hosting a pedal show earlier that day, when asked about whether any guests from his event showed up, he answered: "all of them." Though not everyone is familiar with noise music, noise, in the sense of distorted sound texture as well as cacophonic composition, has a major influence over numerous genres in contemporary music. It spurred from the elite; the Fluxus and the Futurists in the beginning of the 20th century. With the aid of electrical instruments, ideas trickled down and was incorporated in to art rock, punk, new wave, and also inspired new music genres such as drone, industrial, techno, and so on. Noise basically links everything together. For the modern listener, listening to noise music is like a déjà vu. 


The show ended, my ears were ringing, the white tooth brush guy was flapping on the floor like a fish. Across the scattering audience, Void Zed hailed, smiling knowingly: "Listen! Natural reverb!" Clusters of people lingered around the stage, geeks conversed excitingly about Merzbow's gear and other techy stuff.


I exited from the stage room into the entrance hall. Zhang Yousheng, founder of Kandala Records was at the merchandise table, passing out free copies of White Fungus / Issue 13; this issue featuring, along with all the art happening in the world, musings of flying a woman on a one-way trip to Mars and some guy’s love for bats. While the event was evidently a success, Zhang, with his humble, disciplined Asian face, didn’t show much triumph. Behind his glasses, he mentioned how Kandala was planning on infiltrating the masses with other free jazz/noise events, and that Merzbow was only their first step. The White Fungus crew on the other hand, were on the side of the road drinking to their victory. Ron Hanson was sitting like a veteran in his back brace, as he just suffered from a motorcycle accident, though that didn’t stop him from breaking into his big boyish grin.   


As I left The Wall, Zac and his friends of visual artists were huddling around the bar, savouring the experience: "Visceral sound." 


Check out Merzbow's live performance in Taipei (video by Damien Owen Trainor)


Julia Chien (黑玲)

Julia Chien a.k.a 黑玲 is an English/Chinese editor and contributor in eRenlai magazine. She also makes electronic music and DJs under the name of Waywon 味王.

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