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  • Tokyo Listening: Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City by Lorraine Plourde
  • Po-Hsien Chu
TOKYO LISTENING: SOUND AND SENSE IN A CONTEMPORARY CITY. By Lorraine Plourde. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2019. 220 pp. Paperback, $25.

In 1973, Canadian music composer and environmental activist Murray Schafer, in a groundbreaking project named The Vancouver Soundscape, employed the concept of soundscape as a theoretical lens to explore the critical role of auditory experience in the formation of an urban landscape. Schafer's experimental research has become a monumental work for academic scholars and sound designers enthralled by the [End Page 598] interplay between acoustic effect and city landscape. Lorraine Plourde's Tokyo Listening: Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City provides new insights in this field as the author engages in an interdisciplinary study of Tokyo's urban landscape using ethnomusicology, anthropology, cultural and performance studies.

In the introductory chapter, Plourde succinctly posits that the aim of Tokyo Listening is to investigate "a range of distinct listening cultures that all reveal something about how listeners attune themselves to the sounds and noises of the city" (p. 2). Traditionally the study of sound is often understood as something highly abstract or theoretical; the essence of sound is materially intangible and visually unrecognizable. However, in the twenty-first century, most urban spaces where people work, live, or relax are all filled with different sonic elements designed to be part of the city atmospheres. Therefore, sound as a form of immaterial presence in urban space should not be overlooked as it engenders an embodied mode of sensory experience which constitutes the metropolitan residents' quotidian behaviors and "orients people's movements, affect, labor practices, and consumption" (p. 132).

Framing her analysis of listening practices within the context of Tokyo's urban auditory cultures, Plourde meticulously examines four sites of semipublic and public space—experimental music venues, music cafés, white-collar offices, and commercial spaces like department stores and shopping centers—in which a set of orchestrated "music programming" (muzak in Japanese) informs the listeners of their embodied contact with the metropolitan center of Japan. Muzak, translated as "Background Music" (BGM) in English, is precisely the focal point of the author's analysis since it "bring[s] together two different types of listening spaces in the same frame of reference: spaces people go to specifically for the music, and places where the music comes to them" (p. 11, emphasis original). In the first chapter, Plourde discusses how the architectural design of an experimental music venue called Off Site creates a sensory fusion of live music and the quotidian sounds of Tokyo. Situated within a residential neighborhood, Off Site offers independent musicians and composers a space to experiment with sound. The experimental music genre, known as "onkyo" in Japanese refers to an improvised performance of electronic music emphasizing "sound texture, gaps, and silences rather than melody or rhythm" (p. 15). Experimenting with the rupture of music notes and the discontinuation of auditory harmony, the onkyo performance at Off Site constantly distracts the audience as unexpected moments of silence inside the performance venue paradoxically amplify the non-intentional urban sounds leaking into the enclosed space from the outside. The coexistence of instrumental sounds and urban noises (the BGM of [End Page 599] Tokyo) at Off Site blurs the boundary between intentional and non-intentional sounds.

The second chapter contextualizes the city's café culture in light with the author's ethnographic research. Plourde conducted fieldwork by visiting various music café shops and interviewing the owners and patrons. Plourde claims the listening culture of Tokyo's music cafés remains understudied because the consumer population is relatively small compared to those who favor chain coffee shops (e.g., Starbucks). Grounded in a nostalgic atmosphere, Tokyo'smusic cafés establish an exquisite mode of listening culture by requiring their patrons to follow a set of rules. For instance, prohibiting a customer from conversing with other people inside the café explicitly constitutes a form of social etiquette governed by the restraint of acoustic volume. This measure of auditory control directs the patron's attention to the ubiquitous analog sounds, non-digital music players, and old-fashioned acoustic devices...


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