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PLOURDE Lorraine

Difficult music: An ethnography of listening for the avant-garde in Tokyo

Edition: Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 347p.

Date: 2009

Region: JAPAN


Type of media: Grey

Language: English

Editor: M.B.


This dissertation is an attempt to trace and uncover the anxieties central to the very notion of the avant-garde, with its troubled relationship to mass culture--in particular, the department store--modernity, and capitalism. I argue that there is a vexed, 'difficult' quality at the heart of the avant-garde music scene in post-economic bubble Japan. Such anxieties are linked with the entanglement of the avant-garde and capitalism with its compulsion towards constant innovation and rapid turnover. I uncover such tensions through three broad areas of inquiry: listening practices, in which modes of listening themselves are conceived as forms of knowledge that are highly commodified and rapidly consumed, and are necessarily fraught with anxieties and contradictions; the discourses and knowledges that are produced, circulated and consumed in the form of music-related public talks and print media, and finally, the economic anxieties surrounding avant-garde performance from the 1980's--during which time the avant-garde received strong retail and corporate patronage--to the present post-bubble moment, in which the sole source of patronage is the small, yet avid, network of listeners, with little outside financial support.

Based on three years of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, my project explores the intersection of avant-garde aesthetics, politics, and capitalism in Tokyo's contemporary music and art world through a range of ethnographic sites, including live music performances, public talks, art exhibitions, record stores and department stores. I examine the ways in which people listen to and talk about experimental music and art, lingering on the contradictions that have arisen with the commodification and circulation of such discourses. By interrogating the notion of the avant-garde in Japan, my project expands existing scholarship on the global avant-garde, which has tended to downplay aesthetic movements outside Europe and America. In addition, by highlighting the listener and his or her physical and intellectual relationship to sound, my research contributes to a growing body of work on listening and aurality as a critical dimension of modernity that is often overlooked in the interest of visual regimes and ways of seeing.