The Kanazawa Phonograph Museum is one of those only-in-Japan kind of places -- a narrow devotion, an idiosyncratic labor of love that over time acquires an institutional heft to make it seem totally normal and obvious. "Of course there'd be a museum like this!" you say to yourself after spending some time inside but once you leave you begin to wonder if you'd really been there, whether such a place actually exists.
We'd seen signs in the neighborhood pointing towards the museum. It seemed so incongruous that such a museum would be located in a centuries-old district of wooden machiyas and Shinto shrines. We imagined it would be just a small one-room gallery, the work of a determined collector blessed with cheap rent, dusty and eccentric. Until this morning we seldom walked down the busy boulevard that connects the train station to Omicho Market to Kenrokuen. But there it is, a stone's throw from the shrine we'd burned offerings at earlier in the week: a three-story brick monolith with all the legitimacy of any museum, though ultimately unlike any other, especially in this tradition-heavy town.
The museum was founded by Hiroshi Yokaichiya as exactly the kind of hobbyist collection we'd first imagined. Mr. Yokaichiya passed away in 2003 and the museum is now run by his son, Noriyuki, a generous and enthusiastic host. In its tenth year at its current location, there are now 580 phonographs and over 30,000 LPs in the museum's ever-growing collection. It's a symbiotic pairing, the record and the device that plays it. While the records themselves are stored in a climate-controlled archive that's closed to the public, the machines take center stage, occupying large displays on all three floors.
In the museum’s listening room we listen to what Mr. Yokaichiya claims is the first Japanese recording, a scratchy Meiji-era tune sung at the dawn of the Taisho. He plays it on a self-changing player -- a kind of prototype jukebox -- that once belonged to the emperor. Did the emperor himself listen to this record on this turntable? And what is the song? Who performed it? With Mr. Yokaichiya as the dj, there's no better way to experience this sonic trip back in time packed with all its attendant mysteries.
Listening, we think: we can experience how people lived centuries ago, we know what they wore, what they ate, and even what they looked like. But what did they hear? What did the world sound like? We can only guess. At most we can travel back 135 years to Edison's first recordings; before then … history becomes silent, speculative at best. There are the natural sounds that remain: crickets at night, the slow trickle of the Sumida river in the summertime. But the sounds of old Japan, like everywhere else, are forever lost, not even a memory. Beyond this voice, nothing.
Mr. Yokaichiya changes the record. Bing Crosby worries "… it scares me that tomorrow / someone else else may take my place."
David Toop, in his fantastic book SINISTER RESONANCE, writes how sound -- intangible and transitory -- is a haunting. A close listener is "like a medium who draws out substance from that which is not entirely there." These old sounds -- the warble of a shamisen, the crackling spoken word of a news report -- emerge here out of polished mahogany speakers like a seance, echoes from the past. Surrounded by all these instruments that conjure voices out of vinyl discs and cylinders, the experience is both eerie and exhilarating.
Sound, of course, is the most elusive of senses: place-less, body-less, time-less, what Toop calls an “auditory hallucination.” This is why, we realize, the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum is truly a special place -- somewhere that not only preserves the means to hear the past but encourages the act of listening itself. By focusing on the tool we wonder about its function. We see how without the phonograph the record itself is inert, unreadable, a meaningless piece of plastic. Brought together, though, the phonograph and the record become a portal to another place – the past, the imagination. Even in Kanazawa where the past is a central preoccupation, the Phonograph Museum provides a singular opportunity to consider history’s aural dimension. In fact, it’s like nowhere else we've ever been. There may very well be other phonograph collections elsewhere in the world, sound libraries or storehouses of records like the awesome ARChive nearby us in New York. But a museum devoted to the act of listening in an old town so steeped in its own history like Kanazawa ... if there’s another, we'd like to go.
Another record change: Perez Prado’s “Cerezo Rosa.” Hearing the song in Japan, we suddenly realize it’s a mambo for the sakura, the lovely pink and white blossoms still a month or two away from their annual appearance. We never thought of this song before while looking at cherry blossoms; until now, we never thought of cherry blossoms while listening to this song. But hearing it now, we daydream and sway to its springtime serenade.
For museum visitors, there are regular listening times throughout the day when records like these are played. Mr. Yokaichiya will offer an A/B comparison of digital and analog sounds if you want but if you're already here you probably need little convincing. Hours later, though, questions remain. How does the museum survive? Mr. Yokaichiya says the place averages ten visitors a day, which at 300 yen per ticket makes the accounting seem impossible. How can such a place, with its staff and overhead, stay open? How long can it possibly survive?
In the end … who cares? The museum is here now. Later in the evening, there will be a concert in the ground-floor cafe, a player-piano performance. We want to come back to see who shows up for such a thing. It seems so perfect: to sit as a group and watch a machine play itself, the pianist as a ghost.