28 March 2024: Wabi-Sabi

Two years ago, following a conversation about my music and the rough-hewn recordings on this blog, Michelle Sterling -- an outstanding photographer and architect I met through the study abroad program I work with -- gave me a book to read: Leonard Koren's Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Designers (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1994). I am deeply grateful she did and wish I had read it sooner.

There are powerful ideas here offering a very different aesthetic for the things we make, very different ways of understanding and valuing our work than the ones we typically embody and enact.

I have written on this blog before about my lingering perfectionism and my efforts to respond to it in my creative work:

Perfectionism is neurotic, obsessive and stressful and unhealthy in an endless, inescapable loop. So I have been working on mine pretty hard with this blog, just throwing my work out there, putting up first and second-take recordings that are lo-fi and pitchy and glitchy, full of tongue clicks and breath sounds, putting up videos that show me with a shocking array of mortifying quarantine hairstyles, just painfully imperfect artifacts in an effort to come to grips with my neurosis. Calling them “demos” has certainly helped me be willing to share them.

While I am still working in this vein, and while it feels quite right to do so, seems authentic, seems like the right vibe/sound/approach for my songs and my musical abilities and what I want to be doing, some lingering part of my perfectionism nonetheless cries out every once in a while that that working in this way is a cheat, a cop-put, nothing less than bailing on my responsibility to do the very best I possibly can. Wabi-sabi, however, gives me an alternative philosophy and worldview and a robust aesthetic that ably answers that nagging voice.  

According to Koren:

Wabi-sabi can in its fullest expression be a way of life.

Wabi-sabi restores a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living.

Wabi-sabi occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.

Wabi-sabi was a radical departure from the Chinese perfectionism and gorgeousness of the 16th century and earlier.

Whereas modernism is seamless, polished, and smooth, wabi-sabi is earthy, imperfect, and variegated.

Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring.

Things wabi-sabi may appear odd, misshapen, awkward, or even ugly to those with modernist, perfectionist aesthetics.

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It is a beauty of things unconventional.

The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably "rustic."  Wabi-sabi objects are earthy, simple, unpretentious, and fashioned out of natural materials.

Things wabi-sabi offer an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature.

Wabi-sabi embraces that all things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections.

Wabi-sabi embraces that all things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving.

Things wabi-sabi are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition are testament to histories of use and abuse.

Things wabi-sabi may exhibit the effects of accident, like a broken bowel glued back together.

Though things wabi-sabi may be extremely faint or fragile, they still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character.

Things wabi-sabi are usually small and compact, quiet and inward-oriented. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between people, between one thing and another thing, between people and things.

Things wabi-sabi are unstudied, understated, and unassuming, yet with presence and quiet authority.

They do not blare out "I am important" or demand to be the center of attention.

Things wabi-sabi have no need for the reassurance of status or the validation of market culture.

Simplicity is as at the core of things wabi-sabi. The essence of wabi-sabi is simplicity itself.

The main strategy of wabi-sabi is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don't lose the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don't sterilize.

That's a lot. That's a tremendous challenge if I really mean it. It's a radical departure from the ways and means of writing, performing, recording, understanding, and valuing music as I grew up in them. Wabi-sabi is a creative discipline, and like all disciplines it offers us certain powers and pleasures, but at the same time it requires of us certain commitments and sacrifices.  

I / you / we will know when I am actually embracing, embodying, enacting wabi-sabi in my work -- and not just using it as an easy way to smooth the feathers of my lingering perfectionism -- when I delete the notation of [Demo] from my song titles in the Music section of this blog.

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