I’m fascinated by the Japanese word ‘ma’ – partly because like many Japanese cultural terms it defies translation (eg see Marcel Theroux’s cornball attempts to learn what wabi-sabi means) but here goes a vague attempt: wikipedia tries to define it as negative space, or as a “gap”, “space”, “pause” or as “the space between two structural parts.” But as this post on Mefi illustrates, thinking of it as a negative space is not intrinsic to its meaning. A perhaps better definition: ‘Ma means an interval in time AND space, but it is much more than just a blank space. When ma is used in conjunction with the arts it relates to rhythm (it was originally a concept related to music). It can best be described in theater as a dramatic pause in spoken lines, in music it is interpreted according to each musician’s taste and how one wishes to space the notes. In painting, the empty space (ma) is used to enhance the whole of the painting.’
But the definition that has intrigued me most, since reading it years ago (& I am damned if I can find a link to the source) is this: “Ma, for its part, is generally translated as “space,” but it can also mean “time.” It refers to the space between events, as it is being perceived by someone, as well as being expressed by an artist. It is not an abstractly calculated space, as is conceived by Westerners, but rather a sensory, and I would even suggest, a “sensually” perceived space.
An example will better describe this concept. Let’s say you are invited to attend a tea ceremony. You enter the tearoom. The room is quiet and almost undecorated. It has a distinct meditative feeling. You notice in one corner of the wall in front of you all the necessary equipment and utensils for the tea ceremony. There might be an empty square covered by sand in the middle, instead of the traditional tatami (straw mat) over which, hanging from the ceiling, could be a metal pot. You turn your head to the left and you notice behind you in the corner of the wall the calligraphy of an old haiku. Below it stands a flower arrangement. Beside it hangs a beautiful kimono. When you entered the room, you noticed first the tea ceremony equipment because they were the most striking, but upon investigating the room, your eyes gradually noticed these different elements of decoration, some of which even took you by surprise because they were subtly placed out of sight.
The ma refers to that perceptual space between each of the elements that your eyes encountered while gazing through the tearoom, intentionally created in this manner by the designer of the room. Each of these elements purposefully solicited your mind in a timely manner since your senses do not notice all simultaneously, but one after another…. The ma is thus the perceptual space as our eyes notice things that entice our minds to wander and wonder upon each of these items. This flow of time is part of the concept of naru, as your discovery of the different elements gradually adds to your experience of the room. Their arrangement within the room, and between each other as you gradually attend to them, is deliberately created with this purpose in mind. In this sense, the ma refers as well to how the artist or designer aesthetically succeeded in creating this sensory and sensual impact through this particular arrangement. In music, ma refers to the silence between musical phrases, as well as how each of the phrases is performed.”
Before I ever read that description, or even knew of the term, I experienced something akin to an element of the same concept in Japanese architecture; what I began to call ‘the reveal’. The first time I went to Naoshima, a small island in the Japan Inland Sea, was purposefully to visit the art gallery designed Tadao Ando. I hadn’t experienced his work before, but in my research for the trip what I had seen in books was so strong that it prompted me to pursue the experience. When you arrive at the gallery (the Chichu Museum) you first park a few hundred metres from the entrance & purchase a ticket & are briefed on the rules of entry (no photographs etc) and then walk up the road to the entrance.
Walking past the gate, you come upon a concrete wall with a door, built into the side of the hill. As you walk inside you enter a lift and then descend a floor, and in the process realise that Tadao Ando is now in control of your senses. And what a master he is! Just a simple example, walking along a long corridor that slowly amplifies your senses via its minimalism (bare concrete walls, natural light entering via hidden recesses) you approach a larger space…
And around that corner is revealed to you, as though in a postcard, the entrance to the Monet room.
Now Monets painting are beautiful to see in any appropriately lit space, but here they are sublime. But what struck me repeatedly as I explored this amazing gallery (& its worth noting, there is no electric light in the gallery at all) was this concept of Tadao Ando controlling my perceptions & revealing to me the contents in a beautifully controlled manner. As I experienced more of his work & other Japanese architects I became more & more interested in what I called ‘the reveal’ but which obviously had far deeper cultural meanings…
So I have a vague sense of the term ‘ma’ but what is a reveal & how can it be applied?
Definr provides two meanings for the word reveal: first ‘to make visible’ and second; ‘to make known to the public information that was previously known only to a few people or that was meant to be kept a secret’
After leaving that Chichi Museum totally buzzing I remember thinking it was a little bit like Tadao Ando held in his closed hand the most exquisite jewell, and he slowly opened his hand to reveal it to us… But of course I began thinking as to how it applies to music & sound and not coincidentally the first post I ever made on this blog, back on 18th Sepetember, 2006 was a quote from Goethe which I have used for the last decade or more as my email signature: ‘I call architecture frozen music’
So to state my case, I am less interested in buildings that look like frozen music than I am the reverse. How can the deeply resonant creation of such beautiful architecture influence the creation of music and sound? Now there is no answer to this question, its a life long exploration, but visiting the Chichu Museum then & on repeat trips has kept me thinking about the reveal. In music the most simplistic reveals are those that are immediate. All songs reveal themselves to the listener, under the control of the composer & the mix, but two recent tunes I heard made me think of them as great examples of establishing a mood (walking down that darkened corridor) and then revealing the true intent (turning the corner). The first use of the reveal is what is often termed ‘the drop’ in dubstep; the tune is by Shackleton – In The Void; it beautifully sets up the beat, but just wait for the drop @1.35
An example from a different genre is via the Warp artist Bibio in the song Lovers’ Carvings which starts out almost as a folky guitar song, but @1.28 reveals a beautiful mood shift.
I think what I am talking about is primarily to do with a specific aspect of structure and form – my examples are in music but undoubtly it occurs in all art forms, obviously including film (on a moment by moment basis, but also in the transition between acts) but also in experiencing nature,as James Turrell explains in an interview;
Places: The only way you cannot engage places that have power is by leaving them … but does one’s arrival play a role?
Turrell: The Grand Canyon is one of those places. It’s possible to come up to the canyon in such a way that you don’t even know you’re arriving, and then suddenly burst upon it. I like to fly up the Colorado River to this canyon which you have to climb into through a tiny valley. I fly through the bottom of that valley in a slow climb to a small opening; as you fly through the opening, boom, suddenly you’re in it, and the ground falls away for 5,000 feet.
So the approach can order your experience. You can come in through the side door of one of the places we’re considering and have a different experience than if you enter through the front door; you can reorder it as you get in, but entry is important. We do learn in this culture not to see afterimages. But in any situation your previous experience is important. If you went from a rather pink room into a very pale green one, at first the intensity of the green would be very high because you loaded that green room with a green afterimage that came from seeing the pink room. Size matters too. Coming through an opening into a big space – in Canyon de Chelly, for example, there are some areas like this. Conversely, there are natural places that wouldn’t have power were something manmade not there. Borobudur and Split have this quality…. I think one of our greatest conceits is to feel we’re not a part of nature. We feel victimized by technology. Well, we’re technology. It’s as though the coral that creates the Great Barrier Reef were appalled by the coral. The Great Barrier Reef is coral. We build cities, and that’s what we are. We’re crustaceans that make these shells we inhabit. You can see New York from space about as well as you can see the Great Barrier Reef.”
Form in music is fascinating, especially once you step outside the verse/chorus structures of traditional or popular song writing. I’ve recently been reading a book called Arranging Techniques For Synthesists by Eric Turkel and it has a great section on Form, heres an excerpt:
Form is one of the more difficult of the six musical elements to define or describe. We don’t ‘hear’ form; we feel it. We are least aware of form when an arrangement flows from introduction to ending in an exciting, engaging way. We occasionally become aware of it when sections don’t flow together and end up with a sense that something is missing or not connecting. Form is like a blueprint from which we develop a solid structure. Weak form leaves us with a feeling on incompletion caused by a flaw in the blueprint, which inevitably leads to structural damage.
Form is the division of space or time into units or distinct sections. We set these divisions up at specific lengths for technical and aesthetic reasons. Form is the silent yet pervasive force that holds an arrangement together….
Over the years I’ve come across many means of visualising music, most purely as a means of entertaining the eye but the Shape of Song serves both that purpose and as a means of helping to identify form in music, check it out (you can also upload MIDI files of your own to analyse)
Erik Saties Gymnopedie no.2
Kraftwerk’s Pocket Calculator
Bjork’s Human Behaviour