The Oxford English Dictionary is a pretty amazing piece of work. If you get the full thing, it's 20 volumes - 20 massive volumes telling you everything about the English language, the different ways words have evolved and have been used, and how they have come to mean what they mean today - all with copious examples, painstakingly collected and assembled, to illustrate the point.
Language is worth that sort of obsessive attention because it is, after all, a fascinating thing. But whenever you hear another language spoken - especially a language that is totally unfamiliar, a language that structures and expresses itself in entirely different ways to the one you speak yourself - it can be incredibly difficult to believe, at first, that it could possibly make sense. When you first hear the highly intonated languages of Asia, for example, it can be almost impossible to imagine that those sounds can really be saying anything - hard to see where words start and finish, hard to even imitate the sounds.
The complexities of a language can be fascinating, though, once you dive into it. And once you stop expecting it to behave and sound like the things you are familiar with you begin to discover its riches and that, ultimately, it communicates the same ideas, the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same banalities and profundities, the same crudeness and elevation - the same everything - that you do.
Music is the same. And yet, while in much of the Western world we have become accustomed to training our ear to hear new words, new syntax, new versions of old sounds, we have still, to a large extent, stayed within the territory we know and understand - like learning French or German or Italian in an English-speaking school.
It's not surprising, then, that to many ears, the music of some of the extreme Japanese noise artists comes across as pretty daunting and leaves many of us wondering how, with all that screeching and distortion and rasping and grasping, it can possibly be music at all.
Surely the greatest musician of this genre, the greatest linguist of the language of noise, is Japan's Masami Akita who, under the name of Merzbow, has produced some of the most diverse and yet unified body of noise music so far.
He is incredibly prolific too - and, while that's a bad thing for an obsessive completist such as myself, it's an incredibly good thing for noise music because, when you immerse yourself in what he does, and begin to hear the meaning, and not just the strangeness, of his language, you see what a massively rich and varied lexicon he has to share with you.
I have already posted here about his amazing 13 Japanese Birds. That enormous work is just the teensiest dot in his output so far and, from what I can gather, he is far from finished yet. But, if you want a pretty comprehensive survey of his work up until the end of the 20th century, and if you've got $500 or so to spare, then I think you should unhesitatingly lash out and buy his ridiculously massive MERZBOX. The MERZBOX is a collection of 50 CDs, plus a whole lot of slightly cool, slightly gimmicky, paraphernalia, such as T-shirt, a medallion, some stickers, some cards and a very, very good book - all giving you a fascinating tour of his evolution as an artist and of the diversity and variety of his art.
There is no pretence that the MERZBOX is any sort of "best of" compilation of Merzbow's artistry - anymore than there is an intention to make the OED an overview of the best words of the English language. Rather, it is a massive historical tour of its first two decades - covering Merzbow's first recording of 1979, through to the 1997 compilation Annihiloscillator. It is a glimpse of the music's its highs and its lows, its grandeur and its glitches, and explanation of how things now formed from things then, a presentation of the language as it is, a description not a prescription.
And music, like language, finds its meaning on its own terms. It moves from being incomprehensible to being eloquent when you let it speak to you in its way rather than in yours. That's why, if you expect music to come to you from guitars and keyboards and strings, and to speak to you in tones and semitones and quavers and semiquavers, then you will be as bamboozled by Merzbow as would someone who expects Cantonese to have a handful of vowels sharply bordered by a another handful of consonants.
So, if your initial inclination, when you hear Merzbow's distorted electronic feedback, his manipulated sounds of radios and drums and random objects being tossed in metal cans against a subtley shifting hum of white noise, is to think that this can't possibly be music, then try to make yourself listen to it a little longer, and then a little longer still, until you forget to look for the consonants and vowels and instead discover and appreciate this very new, very different, way of saying things.
Everything is there - the music has structure and shape, it has harmony and rhythm and melody and counterpoint: but just not of the things you are used to hearing harmonised, rhythmised, melodised and set in counterpoint. Here it's not violins melting into cellos, pitted against pianos, but rather screeching static entwined with scraped metal, hovering above a distorted, droning mis-tuned radio signal.
When you listen to this music, and listen for the ways themes build and blend, the way tension rises and recedes, the way the music confronts you, plays with you, seduces you, attacks and, yes, even at times comforts you, you will begin to feel that your initial inclination to dismiss it as unbearably harsh and uncompromisingly unmusical was way, way off the mark. It's just music in a different language.
This is not the place for me to go through the 50 CD MERZBOX in anything like the detail it deserves and, in any event, that has already done by one of the most impressive labours of Merzbow love I have ever encountered, in a fantastic disc by disc review of the Merzbox that you can read for yourself. Still, one day, when I have lots and lots of time, I would love to write about every nook and cranny of this amazing collection, this uncensored, unadulterated survey of one of the most interesting emerging languages in modern music.
Merzbow's music is often seen as the music of the extreme. But, really, music is every bit as vast as the universe itself and, in something of that magnitude, the question of what lies at the extremes, and what lies at the centre, will always only be relative. If you allow Merzbow's music to become your centre for a while, as this MERZBOX invites you to do, then you may just find that it's the violins, the pianos, the vowels and the consonants that all start sounding just a little freaky.