Tokyo Listening – an interview with author Lorraine Plourde

Tokyo is a sound-saturated city: bustling traffic, train station announcements, people everywhere, the barrage of loud adverts, drunk salarymen singing in the Ginza streets at night, and even the loud caws of the Tokyo's infamous large crows. Then there's the seemingly ubiquitous background music in shopping centers, department stores, offices, and super markets.

Tokyo Listening – Sound and Sense in a Contemporary City, by anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Lorraine Plourde  is a compelling examination of listening cultures via four main ethnographic sites in Tokyo which includes an experimental music venue, classical music cafes, office workspaces, and department stores. The book provides fascinating insights on two different types of sonic spaces: places where people go specifically for the music (experimental music venue, classical music café), places where the music comes to them (offices, department stores).

Tokyo Listening looks at how sound and music impacts life, leisure, work and productivity in modern day Tokyo. Plourde's analysis is academic but her prose, narratives, and supporting historical background explanations are fascinating, clear and accessible for non-academics like myself. There is a precision and clarity in the descriptions of listening spaces – whether in a classical music listening café or sterile modern office – often written as a first-person account that places the reader into the setting. Overall, it's this attention to detail combined with Plourde's ground-breaking field research and respect for the subject that makes Tokyo Listening an illuminating work.

I caught up with Plourde to get more insights on her research and field work presented in Tokyo Listening.

What inspired you to study the phenomena of background music in Tokyo?

One of the book chapters began during my dissertation research on avant-garde music culture in Tokyo. However, the basic ideas I grapple with in   were all percolating during my initial fieldwork period. During  this time, I became intrigued by the background music that seems to be pervasive throughout Tokyo.

I take background music seriously in the book because it's a form that's typically dismissed as either low art or a type of totalitarian control and surveillance, so I wanted to approach it from a different perspective, rather than simply saying 'this music is bad,' or 'this music is controlling and evil.' I was interested in exploring how background music is produced, focusing on the sound design companies that produce music and sound for public spaces. Muzak serves as a significant sonic experience in Tokyo's public spaces whether people are consciously listening to it or not. While muzak is often derided as schlock, there is a growing fan culture surrounding this kind of ubiquitous, lo-fi, unremarkable music. Vaporwave and its associated subgenres is one good example.

In Tokyo Listening, you cover an experimental music space Off Site (a location where the Onkyokei "Onkyo" music movement evolved) where the audience sits quietly and listens intensely. Is there a growing trend for this type of avant garde music performance spaces in Tokyo? What's the draw for the audience?

I wouldn't say there's a growing trend for this type of music, but there is a consistent audience for these types of experimental music. Although Off Site, the performance space where I did my fieldwork closed a while ago, there are other spaces in Tokyo that foster similar types of listening environments where the audience is quiet and listening intently.

With background music in a Japanese office environment, how actively are people listening to it? In the book, you mention that if there is no background music, workers notice the silence and feel differently.

One worker I interviewed whose company subscribed to office background music programming told me that she would stop paying attention to the music when she was actively working and focusing on work. However, she also admitted that she had become attached to the music in the workplace, telling me that there's music everywhere else in Tokyo's public spaces, so why not in the office?

What about the background music in department stores? How actively are people listening to it?

I think in general, people aren't actively listening to the music in public spaces such as department stores or grocery stores. But the music also serves an important function in terms of creating a specific atmosphere and filling up blank space. This might also be a reason why some people detest background music because it's relentless in covering up silence. It feels like there are very few public spaces without background music or sounds.

The book provides a compelling behind-the-scenes perspective of the companies creating background music. How did you gain such access from the entry-level staff to the executives?

I contacted the company directly explaining my research and someone responded to my initial query and I was able to set up interviews. I found the background music companies to be very open to meeting with me and discussing their music programming strategies. I noticed curious parallels between anthropological fieldwork and corporate culture because in some ways, we were both interested in the same questions: How are people listening and responding to background music in public spaces such as department stores, hotels, and bathrooms? How is sound being deployed in public space to create specific atmospheres or moods?


Here's a link to a video "Music for Supermarket" (2007) and the author's analysis:

From pg 130 of Tokyo Listening: "To keen listeners of muzak, 'Music for Supermarket' gestures to an older era of what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as elevator music. It is a specific style, rarely heard in North America after the rise of foreground music in the 1980s. But it is a style that is still often heard in Japanese supermarkets, 100-yen shops, shopping arcades, and convenience stores. While it would be easy to read this recording simply as an ironic take on supermarket muzak (and to be sure, there is a winking sense of parody), the liner notes force the listener to engage with the questions about ubiquitous (and presumably anonymous) pop music that surrounds them as they shop and consume."