Tokyo Listening: Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City

Tokyo Listening: Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City
by Lorraine Plourde

Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2019
220 pp., illus. 33 b/w. Paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7884-6.

Reviewed by
John F. Barber
October 2019

Starting this review, I recall my 2012 review of Silence, Lectures and Writing, by John Cage. I was struck then, and again now, by Cage's reminder that we are surrounded by sound. "There is always something to hear," wrote Cage. "In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot" (Cage, 1967, p. 8; see my review here: http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/may2012/cage-barber.php).

That idea resonates as Lorraine Plourde begins her book, Tokyo Listening: Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City, by describing becoming consciously aware of BGM, background music, as referenced in Japanese culture. The music was not meant to be consciously heard, but it was doing what it was designed to do, "fill the acoustic space and enhance ambience without distracting customers" (1). Layered atop BGM, Plourde reports hearing customer chatter (she is in a curry shop), street noise as the automatic door opens and closes, and advertising jingles "played on a small boom box perched atop the ledge of the takeout window" (1). Sounds heard in the curry noodle shop are part of the "richly dense and overwhelming sonic environment" that is Tokyo. This mixture of sounds confronts people moving through public spaces, not only because of its ubiquitous nature, but for the range of listening opportunities provided, even demanded of passersby.

Plourde argues that "daily noises and ambient sounds serve as the foundation upon which listeners experience the city" (3). In examining how people listen to both music and everyday ubiquitous sound(s), she focuses on two distinctly different yet interrelated sonic places and practices. The first is spaces where background music, BGM, is always available and is not something with which people consciously engage. The second is spaces where patrons go in order to intentionally experience music. These two types of spaces in which sound is experienced cannot, Plourde argues, be understood apart from each other. The BGM space is a managed experience, nearly ubiquitous throughout the city and forming a careful soundscape of programmed music specifically designed to evoke corporate normalcy, productivity, or specific actions on the part of consumers. The second type of spaces require intentional listening and is sought by patrons seeking sounds and listening opportunities that disrupt the managed sonic palette of the city. In both contexts, Plourde uses ethnographic research and reporting techniques to explore how the Tokyo urban sensorium "informs how people listen to both music and every day, ubiquitous sounds" (3).

Plourde reports that most of Tokyo's public and commercial spaces are sites for carefully programmed BGM, a result of sound design companies framing BGM-less spaces as lonely and/or unsettling. Beyond using sound for corporate branding and manipulation, BGM seeks to provide and promote comfort, pleasure, and protection. Welcoming, happy jingles can be heard at the entrances to stores, upbeat music encourages browsing the items offered for sale, and white noise in bathroom stalls provides privacy. Programmed BGM "orients people's movements, affects, labor practices, and consumption,"  providing the feeling of "a protective sonic blanket" (132, 133).

Some Tokyo residents may wish to ignore or shut out the constant BGM surrounding them, and seek distractions in dedicated listening spaces. Patrons of experimental music venues, says Plourde, seek to actively engage with sound(s) as a way to reattune themselves to the soundscape of the city. She describes one such venue, where the proximity of apartments requires that all performances be kept at very low sound levels so not to be heard outside the listening room itself. Here, the emphasis is on listening, a collaborative and shared effort by both performers and patrons resulting frequently in near silence where outside sounds—street noise, bird song, weather—all become part of the performances.

Patrons of classical music cafes seek sound-filled environments in which they can relax, drink coffee, and drift between distracted and concentrated listening. In these venues, music selections are curated by the cafe owners, but occasionally respond to listener requests. In these cafes, listeners enjoy high-volume analog sound, as opposed to the lower volume BGM soundscapes available in the outside urban spaces. Seeking to promote their particular soundscapes, cafes often advertise their brands and models of turntables, amplifiers, and speakers, as well as genres of classical music. Here the focus is on comfort, happiness, and relaxation, escape from BGM programming throughout Tokyo, assurance that life continues smoothly.

Moving between these two sonic contexts, Tokyo Listening examines the management behind the city's sound textures, and its effects on those who listen as they work, shop, and relax. Plourde's findings can tune reader's ears to the complex, chaotic, cluttered use of sound(s) to manage, heal, and sustain city dwellers as they live their lives in Japan's major city. The end result is new understanding and appreciation of sound and urban spaces, Japanese anthropological and ethnomusicological studies, the impact of sound in everyday life, and connections between disparate listening cultures.