Routine, Ritual and Wabi-Sabi

Routine, Ritual and Wabi-Sabi

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

In the past few weeks, I’ve rediscovered something: routines can be comforting. They offer a sense of order when things get jumbly. Even humble food or drink habits help us mark off waystations in the day. As do certifiably non-humble habits, like the elaborate tea rituals of East Asia or the Silk Road or elsewhere.

Consider my morning coffee ritual. Better yet, don’t. Any reasonably accurate description would consume the entire length of this column, because once I start talking about coffee, I become the antihero of my own Knausgaard novel. Not a good thing.

I’ll say only this: my ritual involves a one-liter glass carafe with a split-cork grip. Lately, I’ve noticed the cork grip becoming weathered, stained by coffee, worn smooth by repeated handling. Along with a hundred other recent events, this has nudged me toward an attitude adjustment the Japanese call wabi-sabi, essentially “the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all.” (Read more here.)

Maybe we can practice a little wabi-sabi with music this week. It might enhance your listening routine, or other routines. It might even enhance that newfound, unwelcome lack of routine you’ve been experiencing.

Music itself should never feel routine. That needn’t stop you from incorporating a bit of ritual—ask any vinyl junkie. Wabi-sabi requires appropriate mindfulness, a relaxed anticipation of pleasure while you remain alert to the music’s unfolding.

Exhibit A: Debussy – Rameau. Víkingur Ólafsson, piano. Deutsche\

Exhibit A: Debussy – Rameau. Víkingur Ólafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon.

This album has given me enormous pleasure. A selection of artfully chosen and sequenced keyboard works by two French masters born nearly 180 years apart, it’s a ceaseless fountain of guilt-free enjoyment. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) and Claude Debussy (1862–1918) shared a common, culturally based mindset: they sought to engage performerly brilliance (i.e., fast fingers and “interpretation”) in the service of direct, unremitting appeal to the senses. None of this music is deep or spiritual in ways you might associate with Beethoven or Brahms or Wagner. Instead, it’s about delight. You hear something and your body responds: you feel the snow on your face, you sense your legs wanting to move, you see clouds shifting overhead.

Let’s check out a few moments chosen almost at random:

How does any of this register as wabi-sabi? Perhaps via the old form vs. feeling dialectic. Regarding form: Rameau offers no fugues, no development sections, very little sustained “narrative” of any sort. Plenty of structure, though, the kind we like. We sink blissfully into its obvious repetitions and variations, its faux-naïve depictions of skirling bagpipes or birdsong or wind. This sort of “form” is ritual, in the sense that you just take it for granted; you’re otherwise free to revel in sheer physical sensation, courtesy of Ólafsson’s jaw-dropping technique.

Debussy – Rameau is available in crystalline 192kHz/24b sound. You’ll hear how, through touch and discreet pedaling, piano textures can be colored in ways that Rameau couldn’t have anticipated. Ólafsson uses his superpowers wisely, suggesting connections between the two composers and subtle shifts of mood fully in keeping with the music’s general spirit. With repeated hearings, you’ll pick up on the human impulses scattered throughout, in spite of the implicit (and quite artificial) “perfection” of the compositions.

Exhibit B: Angular Blues. Wolfgang Muthspiel, guitars, w/ Brian Blade, Scott Colley. ECM.

Bill Evans’ legendary liner notes for Kind of Blue begin with an implicit Zen kōan: “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous.” Think about it: forced to be spontaneous. At the heart of jazz’s “severe and unique disciplines” he sensed the prime directive: authenticity and imperfection come joined at the hip. Evans went on to chronicle the specifics of those 1959 studio dates: “The group had never played these pieces. . . . I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a ‘take.’”

That’s probably not the case with Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Angular Blues, fine as it is. This is his fourth ECM album, a return to the trio format of his 2014 ECM debut. Longtime collaborator Brian Blade is back; bassist Scott Colley, a protégé of Charlie Haden, joins them for the first time. It’s immediately clear they have formed a tight partnership, generously sharing, responding, and above all listening to each other. (I confess to a particular fondness for the sound of Colley’s upright bass.)

Track 1, “Wondering,” a bright samba, nevertheless retains its aura of mystery even after Muthspiel’s solo goes beautifully Beyond Brazilian. Blade and Colley provide fluid, sensitive support:

The album is a mix of originals and standards, with variety the watchword. A “Solo Kanon in 5/4,” for example, invokes good old German Kontrapunkt with a modernischer spin: courtesy of electronic delay, Muthspiel pulls off a Reich-like duet-for-one. Yet it’s a soulful, down-home number, “Hüttengriffe,” that offers the most welcome change of pace:

You’ll also get a kick out of his trip through Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love.”


If jazz is inherently wabi-sabi, where does Angular Blues lie along its continuum? In the June Stereophile, Thomas Conrad suggests that “all [Muthspiel’s] designs, notated or improvised, sound refined and complete.” Works for me! I can listen late at night, first thing in the morning. With my coffee.

Exhibit C: Nuits. Véronique Gens, mezzo-soprano, w/ I Giardini. Alpha.

I’m pretty sure I have every one of Véronique Gens’ recent Alpha Classics albums. She began in William Christie’s Baroque groups but later graduated to French Romantic art song (mélodie) and opera. Gens excels at music associated with singer Cornélie Falcon (1814–1897), whose dark-timbred voice and vividly expressive acting brought her fame in music created for her by Cherubini, Hálevy, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and others. The warmth and intensity of Falcon’s lower range did not prevent her from ascending to typical soprano heights (she was otherwise ill-suited for ingénue roles).

Gens’ latest recording reaffirms her affinity for music that lies well beyond the “Falcon” repertoire. Moreover, she’s in excellent voice. Unlike the unfortunate Cornélie, whose audience appeal led to overwork at the Opéra and vocal ruin at the age of 23, Gens has built a solid technique she now shows off to advantage. Pitches ring true, high notes bloom with little sense of strain. Above all, she has become a master interpreter of French poetry, the art-within-art at the core of mélodie.

This should make Nuits an unalloyed delight, and perhaps you will find it so. Listen, for example, to the album’s opening selection, “Nocturne” by Guillaume Lekeu.


[Text excerpt:] From the distant dark-blue meadows
Where the stars blossom,
Descends, slowly and exquisitely, the caress of a long veil
Of pale silver amid the velvety shadows . . .

From the YouTube playlist above you can access the complete album in proper song sequence, but I suggest tracks 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, and 14 as an initial foray (click each number for a text translation). Skip the pop material (tr 12, 13) and the purely instrumental tracks. I Giardini provide lovely chamber-scale accompaniments for the songs, but they need not have punctuated this album’s fancifully suggested “chapters” (“Twilight,” “Dreams,” “Nightmare,” and “Ecstasy”) with additional music, some of which (e.g., Liszt’s La lugubre gondola) strains to establish any sort of relationship to the sung selections.

As a concept album, Nuits owes much to musicologist Alexandre Dratwicki, who contributed many of the instrumental arrangements, devised the above-mentioned chapters and has written a program-book essay, “Four Variations of the Soul.” Dratwicki’s arrangements are gorgeous, but his literary-thematic exercise feels both gratuitous and overdetermined. Really, if you glance at the poetry—once!—you’ll grok everything you need in order to enjoy these performances. With repeated listenings, you may be more inclined to construct your own fantastic journey. That would be utterly wabi-sabi.

In the meantime, feel free to test your personal limits regarding what’s imperfect or transient via tracks 12 and 13, “La Vie en Rose” and “J’ai deux Amants.” They both stand well outside the album’s self-proclaimed French Romantic aesthetic, but that’s okay. It all depends on your sense of you-know-what.

Next: Four Figaros.

(Featured image: detail from Claude Debussy, 1884 by Marcel Baschet.)

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