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Wabi-Sabi Music

The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is an approach to aesthetics (and life) based on impermanence: change, aging, transformation, loss, death.

Wabi expresses simplicity, austerity, modesty – all of which impart freshness of character. Sabi implies the serenity, melancholy and loneliness that comes with age. Together, in wabi-sabi, they point to a bittersweet beauty based on imperfection.

These seven Zen aesthetic principles are all manifest in wabi-sabi-hood:

How can you apply these seven Zen principles to music?

Well, one option is to study them to the point where your consciousness is filled to the brim with wabi-sabi-hood, then compose. It’s like Morton Feldman said: When you get into the right mood, the right state of compositional reception/transmission, you can’t make a mistake; every note you play or write is, by definition, right.

Another option is to consciously apply one or more of the principles to an existing passage or song. Such an approach calls for the translation of abstract qualities (weatheredness, subtle profundity, otherworldliness, etc) into concrete musical sounds. You can think holistically about the passage you are wabi-sabi-ing, creating the piece as an indivisible whole. Or you can also think more analytically, in terms of the classical four parameters: pitch (melody, harmony), duration (rhythm, beat, form), dynamics (envelopes, accents), and timbre (sound, texture).

Note: Translation of non-musical concepts and techniques into music is always a tricky and imprecise affair. And therein lies its potential for personal surprise and innovation. It’s a feature, not a bug.

The possibilities for turning principles into music are endless, but here are a few ideas to get you going.

As always: Experiment, experiment, experiment!

Posted on June 9, 2012 at 8:40 am by rachmiel · Permalink

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Robert "Thor" Kulik
    on June 9, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Very nice! Funny, but the principles, as you list them, lead me to think of one musician above all others whose music illustrated perhaps all these principles—or at least all but the first: Miles Davis. In some ways, we can look at Miles as having applied the analyses of Heinrich Schenker in such a way that he would deconstruct a tune, then reconstruct it, leaving out all that was “unnecessary,” the musical analogue of the relationship of poetry to language.

  2. Written by rachmiel
    on June 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    miles, yes! the first thing that came to mind is his cover of the Concierto de Aranjuez. it’s got ’em all: asymmetry, simplicity, weatheredness (und wie!), lack of pretence, oblique profundity, otherworldliness, and tranquility galore.

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