Report for the talk “Online Lecture: The intimacy of minor sounds: an anthropologist’s journey into the private, insular worlds of amateur music in Tokyo”

Though the COVID-19 lockdown has limited the contact all of us have been able to have with others, the importance of opportunities to talk, listen, and absorb has been made clear through the new wealth of lectures, talks and events that have begun taking place online. The Sainsbury Institute took its first foray into this world with its May Third Thursday Lecture, given by Dr Robert Simpkins on his anthropological research on musicians in the district of Kōenji in Tokyo.
The Third Thursday Lecture has always been a wonderful opportunity to learn about Japanese arts and cultures, but also to share that experience with others in the audience, so it was with excitement, but also a little trepidation, that I clicked the link that took me to the online gathering.

Dr Simpkins foregrounded the current situation, and the disconnect and isolation that have resulted from it, in a talk that explored the intimate relations and spaces of Kōenji through the stories of two musicians and the ‘live houses’ where they perform. Describing how COVID-19 had brought certain aspects of the role of intimacy to the attention of his anthropological eye, Dr Simpkins led us into the enclosed streets of this Tokyo district, and then deeper into neon-lit rooms and drink-strewn tables, to show the meaningful relationships forged in these ‘close’ spaces. The narratives of the two musicians gave us a vivid glimpse into these spaces and personal connections, set against the backdrop of broader changes in the music industry and Japanese society that were affecting these young men – with Dr Simpkins making use of video and audio recordings to paint a picture of separate worlds of belonging that represent both a form of escapism, but also a meaningful place within society for these musicians.

Despite missing some of the qualities that make the in-person Third Thursday Lectures so excellent, as I was watching it occurred to me that there were also many ways in which the online format enhanced Dr Simpkins’ lecture, and particularly the narratives of his subjects and the themes he was exploring. Though the lack of audience reactions – absorbed silence, laughter and vocal discussion – meant an absence of some ‘closeness’ and a certain form of intimacy, the experience of listening to Dr Simpkins, and also the excellent recordings of Kōenji musicians, broadcasting directly through headphones, was a somewhat intimate experience in itself. The enclosed Kōenji streets as well as the separate worlds of the live houses and the performances held there were strongly evoked through his recordings as well as his description. So too were the personal stories of the two musicians, Kōba and Whisper, which felt extremely ‘present’ in their spoken and singing voices, making their uplifting but also precarious and uncertain lives particularly real for the listener. There was also something in the independent worlds of the live houses that resonated with the isolated listening experience, perhaps helping the feeling of identification with the nature of these separate spaces, and the musicians’ use of them.

During this new Third Thursday Lectures experience, and despite the physical distance from other participants and the presenter himself, I couldn’t help feeling at some points a bit like a ‘disciplined listener’ – to borrow a concept used by Dr Simpkins – aware of the atmosphere of the lecture and sitting in silence in my home, asking other members of the household to refrain from talking. This intimate engagement was unexpected, being at home but also to some extent present in a Kōenji music-filled space, and was no doubt for many of the audience a much-needed virtual escape from the lockdown worlds we have all been inhabiting since March. Just as Dr Simpkins described creative ways in which the musicians in Kōenji have been creating new forms of intimate relations during the lockdown restrictions, I clicked off my browser happy to have found a bit of intimacy myself.

Oscar Wrenn
Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

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