Unheard Kyoto / Unheard Tokyo. JASON KAHN
(radio broadcast 2013)

Review by David Vélez

From the liner notes:

Unheard Tokyo and Unheard Kyoto are two installments in the ongoing series Unheard Cities where I investigate the acoustics of social space by interviewing residents of large cities with the question, What is your favorite sound or sound atmosphere in your city?

‘The answers to this question not only reflect how people think and feel about their environment but take me on a search through the city in search of the favorite sounds. Each interview is recorded in the person’s native language and then the sounds are found — in some cases not — and also recorded.’

Although the premise of ‘favorite’ it’s a bit naive and vague, I think it is a very nice excuse to establish a poetic method to start a quest for sounds and explore the emotional relation that people have with their acoustic environments. Likewise ‘favorite’ probably allows for the interviewees to easily come up with a concrete answer.

The resident’s descriptions of their favorite sounds are featured on the piece and, as one might have guessed, they are mostly in Japanese. From a a non-Japanese speaker perspective this is interesting as we are listening stories we don’t understand but we still try to figure them out by guessing from some acoustic aspects and cues of the verbal communication. It’s content made form by our lack of understanding of a certain language.

Anyway what is interesting here is what kind sounds and acoustic situations and environments these people do consider enjoyable, interesting, pleasant, meaningful…favorite.

There are sounds of cicadas and a television program playing (my personal favorite) that transport me to a imaginary situations that are still linked with the original situation thanks to the capacity of sound to imprint a situation and project it on the listener’s perception: resonances and reverberations reflecting their causality in our imagination.

The variety of sounds here is large, from kids playing in a playground to the sound of cicadas -which are very important and recurrent in Japanese culture-; from sounds of what seems like a train station to sounds of a musical presentation / rehearsal. Many sounds cited by many people that present a very nice listen and that allow us to acousmatically visit the places whose sonorities are meaningful for the people interviewed by Kahn.

Some of the sounds here probably refer to very personal and concrete situations whose story behind we are missing for not speaking Japanese. Anyway -like I mentioned before- listening to people in a language we don’t understand makes us to imagine and intuite. We can make up stories, we are now using our imagination in a syntactic and symbolic -and still purely emotional-  sense, which for me is quite beautiful whether it was the purpose of Kahn or whether he otherwise assumed that we all do or should speak Japanese.

A remarkable aspect here is that Kahn didn’t choose the sounds but otherwise he is allowing for the sounds to find him and have him recording them. In this work he implemented a method where the role of the phonographic documentalist suffers a beautiful variation having external people and their emotional experiences involved in the creative process.

‘Unheard Kyoto / Unheard Tokyo’ is a work that worths the two hour listen and that in addition presents beautiful questions in regard of the role of the sound documentalist and his research process.


[Jason Kahn courtesy of Philadelphia Sound Forum]

Jason Kahn website

David Vélez

David Vélez (PhD) is a Colombian sonic artist studying the acoustics of food, working in the intersection between sound ethnography and plant bioacoustics. His work oversteps the boundaries of installation art, field recordings, composition, performance and commensality exploring gardens, kitchens and open food markets as exhibition spaces. Vélez is interested in the strategic artistic possibility of sound and its invisible, immersive, unstable and fluctuating material, attrubutes shared with the nourishing transference of energy in food.