The Meiji Ensoniment: Conflicting Ears and the Decision to Change Japanese Musical Culture

In Doremi o eranda Nihonjin (2007), Yuko Chiba notes that a radical transformation in music-theoretical knowledge, musical practice, and aural habitus took place in Japan from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. In this talk, I ask why and how this transformation occurred. I begin by outlining two schematic ears: an élite ‘samurai’ ear and the ear of the ‘educated Western visitor’. Through a reading of the diaries and reports of representatives from these two groups in the late-nineteenth century, I show just how differently the musical cultures of Japan and ‘the West’ were perceived to be. Indeed, the music of the other was often denied the status of organized sound and was heard instead as noise. Given these differences, I note the insufficiency of the thesis that the transformation in Japanese aural culture can be ascribed to a process of straightforward cultural diffusion. I argue instead that this transformation resulted from a choice that was made on non- or extra-musical grounds – a decision made in the political sphere at a time of gunboat diplomacy; in other words, a decision made on the basis of asymmetrical power relationships rather than aesthetics. From the perspective of music, this decision appeared ‘empty’: it did not prescribe any specific details, but rather a set of broad (political) goals. The immediate response, therefore, involved the hard theoretical work of defining the concept (as Eishi Kikkawa remarks, the term ‘music’ ongaku can be traced to this period). It was this theoretical ‘filling-in’ of an empty decision that was, I argue, the critical juncture in the transformation in musical practice and aural sensibility noted by Chiba.

Date: Monday 15 May 2017, 6.45pm
Venue: The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH

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