Sitting in the midst of a faculty meeting at a Japanese university, as I am at this moment, I hardly feel that anyone here has a particular reverence for the silence immortalized by the likes of poets such as Basho, et al.
how professors drone
that famous haiku silence
That’s a bit harsh perhaps, and certainly not good haiku (even as my first effort), but it is true that the Japanese soundscape, whether in the office or outdoors in the neighborhood, is neither particularly silent nor even relatively quiet—it’s full, rich, and for the most part quite noisy. When you are out on the street, you notice a barrage of sounds from many directions, and unlike the cacophonies of New York or Bangkok, which may surpass Tokyo in pure sound pressure level, I’m willing to bet that Tokyo has the most intentionally introduced sounds. They come at you in the form of announcements, cautions, signals, musical catch-phrases, buzzers, and aural directors. There is a chaotic, unplanned quality in the soundscape, just as with the architectural landscape here. And if its charms are not appreciated by all its citizens, to these two ears, the street sounds of Tokyo are delicious.
Even as a relatively new arrival to Tokyo, I suffer nostalgia over sounds that once were prominent, even emblematic of the city, now gone. The amazing sing-song vocalizations of the ladies whose job was to announce the floors in a department store elevator, are, in a few years time, now vestigial. When I first came to Japan, every train station had at least one or two people (sometimes many more), whose job would be to sit at the wicket and rhythmically punch the paper tickets of those entering and exiting. As a pure function of scale, when thousands of people are streaming into a large station at rush hour, the volley of paper punches made an amazing sound, somewhere between Reich and Xenakis. It’s now gone from the soundscape forever, replaced by automatic turnstiles. Some sounds, while not gone, have evolved as relentlessly as a super-bug bacterium. A few years ago, all the pachinko parlors consisted of the roars of 10,000 metal balls caroming through their machines, with Sousa marches pumped in at top volume so as to keep the gamblers playing. Now most of the games are electronic, full of beeps, buzzes, and 8-bit game sounds, and the added music, easily as loud as the front row of a Merzbow performance, has morphed into hard techno.
Sound ecologists like R. Murray Schafer tend to regard these types of sounds as aberrational events and have even dubbed them schizophonia. But Schafer’s book The Tuning of the World is more than a plea or strategy of defense to fight noise pollution. What is called “acoustic ecology” seeks to accentuate the balance between organisms and their sonic environment. Schafer is seemingly anti-Cagean in his unwillingness to embrace all the sounds in an environment, yet Cage, when asked to name a great music teacher, reportedly answered with little hesitation, “Murray Schafer of Canada.”
Just as Cage never achieved the absolute silence he famously pursued in the anechoic chambers of Harvard, the concept of silence in Japan is decidedly not just the absence of sound. In the words of musicologist and soundscape researcher Keiko Torigoe, “Silence…exists as a synesthesia comprising our total sensations.” It was Torigoe who designed a contest, called the Nerima Silent Places Contest, which was designed to work “as a new type of socio-audio performance art,” and asked people to find and describe their favorite “silent places” in one of Tokyo’s 23 wards. She further explained that “when it comes to ‘sound culture’ we have to consider not only the sounds we create or we hear, but also the sounds of which we are not conscious, or which we think we do not or cannot hear. Sounds of the past, sounds of the future, sounds in our memories and dreams—all these kinds of sounds should be included.”
Okay, finally the sound which I have been dreaming of: “Meeting adjourned.” Thanks for letting me stream some thoughts while sitting here. I’ll be on the road next week, so let me herewith wish those of you reading NewMusicBox in the U.S. a happy Thanksgiving. See you in two weeks!