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

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 21 May, 2020
6:00pm BST


Dr Robert Simpkins (Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute)

All photography and video provided by the speaker.

About the Talk

A Tokyo night is normally full of sounds and stories. Thousands of people perform music all over the city in basements and narrow rooms, and along dimly lit passageways. Vibrant and energetic music pulses deafeningly behind closed doors. The grand scale of Tokyo conceals a great multitude of tightly woven, insular and private music spaces and societies: the world of amateur musicians, the majority. In this talk I examine the vital role of intimacy and physical presence in the social relationships of one particular amateur music scene in Tokyo today.

My research in the western Tokyo town of Koenji highlights the lifestyles of musicians on the outside of the professional and popular avant-garde. Their music is absent from festivals and will not grace the pages of culture sections or online music magazines. They represent a drop in an increasing pool of young people in Japan about whom we know less than we should: those conducting their lives beyond of the normalised narratives of employment and family, the irregular workers living alone.

I will explore how the production of amateur music in Koenji neighbourhood addresses the musicians’ isolation from industry success and family life through the exchange of different kinds of intimacy. The core activities of these musicians reproduce ties of friendship rooted in locality and build strong relationships of patronage. The lifeblood of their music is not sustained through record contracts or increasing listenership, but socially, through reciprocity, comradery, informal payments of time, physical presence and emotional support.

I focus upon this core aspect of amateur music culture in Tokyo at a time when our own sense of intimacy is dislodged by the Covid-19 pandemic. As we are shaken by new kinds of distance and stranded by enforced antisocial measures, I will spotlight the kinds of closeness that my interlocuters depend upon in their daily lives. As live venues and streets in the metropolis fall silent, what becomes of people and places of music?

About the Speaker

Robert Simpkins, a current Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute, is an anthropologist specialising in youth, creativity and precarity in Japan. His current focus centres upon the relationship between creative practices, irregular employment and isolation.
His work also concerns issues related to urban space and contemporary music cultures. His doctoral research investigates the lives of musicians seeking a career in the music industry after arriving in Tokyo from prefectures across Japan, the adversities they face and the readjustments they make in order to keep going. He explores how a train station forms the centre of their performing lives, and challenges common categorisations such as the division between public and private space.

This event is part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.