WEAI welcomes Miki Kaneda, who is a visiting assistant professor in Columbia University’s Department of Music. Dr. Kaneda’s research focuses on transcultural crossings and the entanglements of race, gender, power, and colonial residues in experimental, avant-garde and popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Trained in musicology and ethnomusicology, she has published on topics including the transnational flows of experimental music, graphic scores, art and the everyday, and media ecologies. Dr. Kaneda’s current book project, titled “The Unexpected Collectives: Transpacific Musical Experimentalisms,” is an ethnographic and historical study that focuses on intermedia (a kind of multimedia art) as a vehicle to examine transpacific artistic exchanges and relations of power through the work of 1960s Japanese and American musicians. In 2015, she was appointed Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University. She has also held positions at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University and the Museum of Modern Art, where she was a founding co-editor of the web platform, post.at.moma.org.
Read below for a Q&A about Dr. Kaneda’s research and teaching interests:
What led you to focus your academic research on the musicology and ethnomusicology—as well as the larger media ecology—of postwar Japan?
I began my graduate studies as a musicologist because I was interested in Western music of the twentieth-century and beyond. As an extension of Western classical tradition, this is usually the domain of musicologists. But I wanted a way to look at musical and artistic practices around me as social processes, not just as finished “works.” Ethnomusicology, a discipline committed to the study of music as culture, gave me the tools to study avant-garde music in the broader social and political landscape of 1960s Japan. Music studies is my home discipline, but the idea of media ecology is one lens that I have found useful for looking at experimental and contemporary musical practices that don’t sit neatly within traditional frameworks of music scholarship. It lets me ask questions about music as a vehicle mediating social and political relations of power, as well as about the media technologies surrounding the production and circulation of music. Thinking about music as media also helps to put into question the idea of “sound” as the privileged object in music studies. A favorite example that I keep coming back to is something that Yoko Ono once wrote: “When a violist plays, which is incidental: the bow sound or the arm movement?” Who is to say that this can’t be musical? But harmonic analysis isn’t going to be much help when it comes to discussing the kind of music Ono is thinking about here. The fun thing about studying experimental music is that it pushes you to experiment and be creative with the tools that you use a scholar of that music.
Can you tell us briefly about your first book project on transpacific artistic exchanges and ‘intermedia’?
Intermedia is both an artistic practice and a kind of philosophy practiced by intermedia artists that fundamentally challenges so many assumptions: assumptions about the relationship between art and the everyday, the role of media culture, and about who and what counts as an agent of aesthetic experience. The intermedia art I examine is a kind of performance-based multimedia experimental practice that drew a lot of artistic and critical attention in Japan (as well as the U.S.) in the 1960s. My book project discusses some of the major places, events and people associated with intermedia art in Japan—including Shiomi Mieko, Yoko Ono, Tone Yasunao, Kosugi Takehisa, Yuasa Joji, Ichiyanagi Toshi, the Sogetsu Art Center, the Cross Talk Intermedia Festival, and Expo ’70. Intermedia has so far been studied mostly by scholars focused on the visual arts, but I’m focusing on the musical aspect of things. I’m also interested in the broader critical implications of the idea of “intermedia” that compels us to pay attention to the spaces, people, and media in-between—or, the places in which social interactions, aesthetic debates, and processes of artistic production unfold. The transpacific framework simply reflects the reality of the work and lives of the artists I discuss. When I started my research, I thought the project would be an investigation of intermedia art in Japan. But speaking with the artists and composers, and learning more about the topic, I found that limiting the scope to “Japan” gives a really incomplete, and perhaps even misinformed characterization of what intermedia art and the people associated were about. For instance, all the artists I mentioned above have spent time in the United States for periods ranging from a few years to several decades. Some might legitimately be considered American artists. Without downplaying the role of the Cold War geopolitics of the time, I nonetheless want the term transpacific to stress the continuous movement across the pacific, rather than the idea of an encounter between two separate nations.
What do you find exciting and what do you find challenging about studying and writing about music and art?
For my research and fieldwork, I listen to music, go to shows, and hang out with musicians and artists. I don’t think I need to explain how that is exciting! The challenge is to make a case for the value of this kind of work. On the one hand, it is a huge privilege to be able to study the arts, and in my case, experimental and avant-garde music, which some people have valued precisely for their uselessness. On the other hand, I urgently want to insist on the social and political significance of experimental and avant-garde arts. It might be easier to make a case for the importance of preserving and studying centuries old cultural heritage practices, or the “usefulness” of protest songs. Both of these are of course very important and powerful forms of expression, but at the same time, it’s also dangerous to rely on venerable traditions and utility as the measure of artistic value. Rather—I am thinking of Audre Lorde’s words “poetry is not a luxury” here—I think it’s also important to understand how music and art and related sonic and visual practices in their many guises permeate our daily lives from the mundane to the extraordinary—from ringtones to sporting events and sirens to lullabies. The arts can also create visions of other ways of being, and offer hope to overcome struggles in the present. In this sense, experimental arts are absolutely essential. They cannot be relegated to the realm of luxury reserved for the few.
What kinds of questions tend to drive your research and your teaching?
Whenever something seems self-evident, I try to ask, what is being assumed? And what are those assumptions serving? I ask my students to try this as well. To give an example from my research, at the outset, I assumed that both experimental music and art happening in 1960s Japan was radical and revolutionary. This was certainly the case for many of the visual artist collectives and works now considered important—groups like Hi Red Center, Zero Dimension, and Nihon University Cinema Club are some that come to mind. But by only looking at radical practices, we miss a big part of the picture. In fact, a lot of the experimental music of that decade was not as explicitly politically engaged as their artistic counterparts. As a result, the framework of radical politics in 1960s Japan ends up imposing a limited view of experimental music of the time, or simply excludes works and people who were not able to, or resisted being part of the leftist energies that characterize so much of the contemporary stories we hear about the arts and the 1960s.
What aspects of being at Columbia particularly excite you?
I am very excited about the institutes and centers like the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Heyman Center for the Humanities that have such distinct personalities, and energize intellectual life at Columbia by drawing together people from so many parts of campus. Just the other day, I was invited to take part in an extraordinary event on the global histories of music theory that brought together people from music, history of science, neuroscience, and area studies for conversation! And the libraries! I had a baby last August and one of the last places I visited before that was the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. Then, one of my first solo outings post-baby was the Butler Library. But what I’ve come to value most are the people at Columbia that work in the libraries, institutes, and departments. I’m not at all surprised by the wonderful energy and drive of the students and scholars I’ve had the chance to meet, but on top of that, I’ve been very moved by the genuine openness and generosity of the people creating the community here.
What classes are you planning to teach in the coming semesters?
In the fall of 2017, I’m teaching a class called Transpacific Musicology. It grows out of a course called Transcultural Musicology that I designed at Boston University, but my affiliation with the WEAI this year presented an opportunity to focus on musical practices and issues related to the Asia-Pacific region. Broadly, these courses reflect my interest in asking questions about processes of musical exchange and artistic alliances in relation to cultural politics that don’t take for granted the idea of nation-state as the de facto framework for studying music across cultures. The idea for this comes out of my conversations with musicians working in contemporary avant-garde and experimental music and arts. When I began my research, I was asking avant-garde composers in Japan about what made their music “Japanese,” it quickly became very clear that “expressing” national identities were not priorities for them. If you listen to the music, this is often pretty clear as well—for example, for me, to discuss Yuasa Joji’s 1967 piece Icon on the Source of White Noise (an amazing piece built on manipulations of white noise) in terms of its “Japanese” qualities is just not the most pressing issue. But the class is not a call for doing away with analyses tied to the idea of nation-state. Rather, I am interested in finding ways to take more seriously other lenses that can add to or complicate national frameworks, and at times provide alternatives. Both at Boston University and Columbia, I am seeing a lot of really exciting student work going in this direction too so I am very excited about where this class will go in its second iteration.