About Robert Simpkins

I am a social anthropologist interested in how creative arts and acts are involved in the negotiation of people’s lives: their sense of self, their place in society, social connection and wellbeing. I am currently writing my book manuscript, based upon two years of research with street musicians in the Koenji neighbourhood of Tokyo. I explore the role of public performance in the context of the disappearance of regular and well-compensated work, loneliness and isolation, and the disparity between the musicians’ expectations of a good life, and their lived realities. The book also addresses issues in urban space, music, sound and soundscapes, and the body.

As an ethnographer, I conduct long-term participant observation fieldwork with people engaging in creative practices. In the case of musicians, this means that I spend time with individuals as they perform or rehearse, and as they go about their everyday lives. While doing my research in Tokyo, I was fortunate to be able to visit the train station where musicians played on most nights of the week. As a part of my fieldwork, I have also performed music with my research participants, which creates moments of sharing and conversation, as well as providing some first-hand experience of performance in public spaces. As a method, however, this is not always possible or appropriate, and any performance is conducted for research purposes, which is to say that I remain engaged in space and state of research.

As a musician, I make music that exists in the realm of ambient and experimental, producing soundscapes that create a sense of place, or a space of emotion. I often seek a silence that coexists in the soundscapes with instrumentation. At times, these two elements are a part of one another. While my ethnographic work is based upon an active engagement with the social relationships of music, my own music rarely involves conscious, critical thought. Rather, I form a somatic connection with my instruments and the sound that they produce to create something that exists beyond the capability of words to express.

My creative writing – poetry and prose – is an ambiguous and at times uneasy practice for me. While I draw upon a similar creative vein of inspiration found in my musical compositions, there remains a subtle thread of connection with the structure of academic writing. One form requires clarity of logic and economy of words, rereading and rewriting to a nauseating degree of repetition. The other form is the free, fresh air of a landscape, a feeling or a moment, passing, then gone. When I create with words rather than music, I often write quickly, keenly aware that as time passes, I begin to lose my ability to escape from reason.

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