Interview with an academic: Megan Hill, ethnomusicologist

Continuing our series of interviews with interesting academics, this time I have Megan Hill, PhD student and ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan (Thanks for doing this!).

s200_megan.hill1. Who are you and where do you come from?

Starting off with existential questions… I’m Megan Hill, doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at UM. I’m originally from Mason City, a town of about 30,000 people in north-central Iowa.

2. What is your current research about?

My research, broadly speaking, concerns contemporary musical practice in Japan, with a secondary specialization in American popular music. Right now I’m writing my dissertation on urban soundscapes. The concept of “soundscape” is usually used to explore the ways that people create and perceive meaning through sound in the places they inhabit, but it has also traditionally been used in an all-encompassing way, assuming a homogeneous and/or pastoral environment.

My dissertation—Asakusa’s Soundscape: Sound, Agency, Place, and Montage—specifically offers a new theoretical apparatus for analyzing the nuanced ways that people experience sound in dense, heterogeneous urban environments. I’m using the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa to demonstrate this. I have chosen Asakusa because it is dense and urban, it has a strong unique identity as a particular neighborhood, that identity is defined by a large variety of cultural categories (i.e. “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, working-class Tokyo, etc.), and sound and music are fundamental to the ways that people behave in Asakusa and understand what Asakusa is about.

3. Urban spaces are characterized by often contrasting and competing uses of space. Did you find that there was any impact of location on sounds? Did sounds clash or blend in interesting ways?

Yes, absolutely. Certainly “competing” uses of space happen throughout cities, and all around the world, but I think it is particularly interesting how this plays out in Asakusa because of the particular kinds of activities that go on there. Many urban neighborhoods—NYC’s theater district for instance—are defined by one particular kind of activity, but Asakusa is defined by its particular amalgam of several contrasting activities (those having to do with “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, and working-class Tokyo). Because of this, I find that the sonic overlap that goes on there is particularly fascinating, and has particular implications for how people perceive the space. You used the word “competing” to describe the use of urban spaces, but what I see going on in Asakusa is often more like juxtaposition. Contrasting sounds overlap, but because all of them “make sense” within the larger space, the resulting sense isn’t one of competition but one of montage.

For example, there is an amusement park called Hanayashiki which is practically bordering the precincts of Sensô-ji Buddhist temple. The screams of people riding the drop tower and roller coaster can be heard easily from the steps of the temple’s Main Hall, and those sounds mix in with the sounds of rituals that take place in the temple, as well as the boisterous sounds of tourists that fill the Main Hall and the rest of the precincts at all hours.

4. I know that you share an interest with things Japanese. All of us Japanophiles have unique set of events which brought us here. What brought you to Japan?

I started out, in my undergrad at Wartburg College (a liberal arts college in Waverly, Iowa), studying music education. Growing up, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music in some way, but coming from a fairly small town with few visible music careers (high school band director and church musician being pretty much the extent of things), I decided music ed was the way to go for me. I studied that for two years with moderate levels of emotional investment, but along the way I was exposed to the field of ethnomusicology through one of my professors, with which I became totally enamored. I changed my major to clarinet performance (which allowed me to drop the education courses and add electives in ethnomusicology) at the beginning of my third year. At the same time, my dorm roommate was a woman from Tokyo in Iowa to study psychology (long story) who came to be one of my best friends. Studying ethnomusicological / anthropological theory in the daytimes and coming home to talk with my roommate about everyday things—but also Japanese music and culture—in the evenings basically started me out on the road that led me to where I am today.

5. You spent a year (or two?) in Tokyo. What were you doing there?

I’ve lived in the Tokyo area on two occasions, actually. After my undergrad in 2006, I got a job with AEON (national English-conversation school) and was given a teaching position in Koshigaya, Saitama, about 20 minutes north of Tokyo. I basically used the teaching position and visa as an opportunity to live in Japan and learn real-life things for 13 months before pursuing a graduate degree focusing on Japan. I had a great time learning all I could, talking with my fantastic students, making friends, learning to play the koto, and doing research for a paper on the use of gendered pronouns in Japanese popular music.

More recently, I was living in Tokyo doing dissertation fieldwork. I got funding from The Japan Foundation to be there for a year to study the soundscapes of Asakusa, which I’m now using as the basis for my dissertation.

6. You seem to be interested in people who don’t traditionally “belong.” The examples I’m thinking of are that of African-American Enka star Jero, the perception of soundscapes in Tokyo by a Buddhist monk and even Yoko Noge, a blues musician in Chicago. While I could be entirely off the mark, does the breaking of traditional musical belonging play a role in your work?

Interesting interpretation! You’ve been scoping out my academia.edu profile, I see 😉

I would say that you’re on the mark in identifying which topics excite me. I tend to admire people and their work who do interesting things that are against the traditional grain, for sure. And I think your observation that those people are in particular abundance in my research is mostly evidence of my personal taste in that way—Yoko Noge, Jero, and also Japanese female singers like Ringo Shiina, Iruka, Love Psychedelico, and Ayumi Hamasaki wielding gendered-language in pop song lyrics in interesting ways.

I haven’t really approached those topics by focusing on that commonality, necessarily. Contemporary ethnomusicology makes use of all kinds of socio-cultural as well as scientific theories to study musical practice (linguistic, structural, literary, Marxist, cognitive and communication, gender/sexuality, performance, and postcolonial theories, as some examples). I think what you’ve picked up on as a trend in my research is my interest in issues of self and identity, though I am not committed to always exploring those from the same approach. My dissertation focuses on individual agency and music/sound as they intersect with ideas about place, for example, while in my other projects, ideas about self/identity have intersected with music and gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, psychology, globalization, and postcolonial culture.

7. Have you met Jero yet?

Alas, no…

8. You play a number of instruments. Do you play live at all?

I studied piano and clarinet, each for 12 years. With an undergrad degree in clarinet performance, I played a number of solo recitals, as well as countless concerts as a member of orchestras and wind bands.

I studied koto in 2006-7 and was invited to perform at my local 燈籠流し festival in Saitama with my teacher, which was really fun. I also studied Tsugaru shamisen for about 9 months as a part of my dissertation fieldwork, but I’m still a very rough beginner and have no business on a stage… At this point, I don’t have the time necessary to devote to practice to make performing a reality.

9. How did you find your teachers? I’ve heard that people studying shamisen have to spend the first two years doinng nothing but tuning? Did they cut you slack given your limited time there?

I found my koto teacher with the help of one of my English students. He was the son a friend of hers. I took the bus to his apartment every Friday morning before going to work at the English school, which began at noon. He also taught koto at a local middle school as part of the school’s offerings of “traditional” arts which became mandatory in public schools from 2001 I believe. He is also the member of a small indie band called Shiro Neqo, which includes an Indian sitar and tabla and two vocalists in addition to koto. You can see/hear them here.

I found my Tsugaru shamisen teacher in Asakusa. He owns a restaurant where he—and sometimes his higher level students—perform every lunch and dinnertime for customers. I wanted to interview him for my dissertation research, and when I found out that he teaches lessons too, I asked if I could also study with him. We started out learning how the instrument works, tuning, and practicing a simple folksong right away. I did not get the sense that I was being treated differently than other students. I have also heard the only-tuning-for-two-years story, but I don’t know how widespread that regimen really is.

You can see/hear him here (link is down below) with his band, Ryûjin. His sister is the other person playing shamisen in the video

10. What’s up for the future?

Good question… My husband is applying for academic jobs right now (he will be defending his dissertation within the calendar year), and hopefully something will work out on that front. I will be finishing mine by next spring at the very latest, so I will be applying for jobs come the fall. I’m very open to non-academic positions that would allow me to make some use of my degree (I have a friend who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example), or an academic one that would center on teaching, preferably not in the middle of nowhere. I’m too much in the world of my dissertation to have many thoughts on my next research project, but there’s a lot of music out there!


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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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