I am a deeply impractical person, and formerly a chubby, manga-obsessed middle-schooler, which means I’ve long been obsessed with the Japanese art of ikebana, or flower arrangement. It fascinates me for a variety of reasons (its position as an ideal pursuit for generals and accomplished warriors, its spiritual components, its dense, specific visual vocabulary, the fact that I’m a swishy brat who loves flowers) but the aspect of the practice that I’m most fascinated with is its adherence to the aesthetic concept of ma.
I don’t practice ikebana myself, and my understanding of the concept is filtered through my identity as an American trash person, but, roughly speaking, ma can be translated as “space,” or “pause.” As a visual principle, it signifies a consciousness of empty space, or non-form, as an integral part of any visual composition. What is not there is just as, if not more, important than what is there. In fact, enjoyment of a visual composition is derived specifically from this marriage of form and non-form.
That’s all pretty different from how we in the US commonly think about empty space. In his 2001 book, The Art of Looking Sideways, British graphic design guru Alan Fletcher wrote about exactly this discrepancy.
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space.” Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses…Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form“… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.”
Aside from pretension and a perverse desire to bore you to death, I bring all of this up for a reason: Björk released a new single.
The song, “the gate,” is the debut single off the recently announced utopia, her ninth studio album. Co-produced by Björk and Vulnicura collaborator/general sonic wacko Arca, “the gate” is a bizarre, expansive, slow-burning love song featuring a midi choir, woodwinds, and a bunch of beautiful gibberish. Little remains of the orchestral lushness of Vulnicura. Instead we’re treated to a pristine ambient sprawl that prominently features – you guessed it – a bunch of empty space. In between Björk’s proclamations that she will “Care for you! Care for you! Care for you!” are protracted moments of silence. At times they’re punctuated with Arca’s glitched out clicks and bloops, but still, it’s difficult to miss the spatial interplay at work here. In “the gate,” at least (who knows what the rest of the record will sound like given Björk’s proclivity for alchemizing disparate micro-genres into a single album) the spaces between sounds are as essential to the composite effect as the sounds themselves.
Björk and Arca are hardly the first people to work so directly with silence as a medium. Numerous schools of ambient and trance music have done the same. And of course, composer John Cage’s famous work “4’33” consists of a player sitting silently at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. However, “the gate” is notable because of Bjork’s proximity to mainstream pop music, a genre whose MO so often consists of unabashed maximalism.
Space was also on my mind when I listened to Brooklyn-based DJ/producer yaeji’s EP2, her second release of 2017. Yaeji, like Björk and Arca, is largely a product of international DIY dance culture (she splits her time between New York and Seoul), and as such, seems more willing to allow for the kind of spaciousness that most pop producers would eschew.
Despite the restraint of tracks like “after that” and her cover of Drake’s slow-burning, summer barbecue ready “Passionfruit,” the sonic plane on which the songs of EP2 are set feels enormous. This is due in large part to the record being exceptionally well mixed (the bass sounds muted, as if coming from another room; her vocals are immediate, secrets whispered one room over from the party; the low-end resonates while the upper registers decay), but it’s also derived from yaeji’s willingness to allow small moments of relative silence to frame the record, even on relatively high energy tracks like the standout “raingurl.” Ultimately, non-form is as essential to EP2’s success as form.