It’s a wabi-sabi world

An Irishman’s Diary on the beauty of imperfection

‘In between reading up on wabi-sabi, I have also been listening to The Gloaming’s album. And I’m damned if I can spot the imperfections Iarla Ó Lionáird was talking about’

‘In between reading up on wabi-sabi, I have also been listening to The Gloaming’s album. And I’m damned if I can spot the imperfections Iarla Ó Lionáird was talking about’


Embarrassed as I am to admit it, the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi had entirely escaped me until last week. Then I noticed the term for the first time in an interview in this paper with sean-nós singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, who was using it to describe a song on the debut album of the new trad “super-group”, The Gloaming.

Sensing immediately that this was a phrase I’d be dropping into conversation myself soon, I’ve been reading up on it since. But as with other Japanese aesthetics, it seems to mean very different things to different people. In fact, even its dictionary definition has changed radically over time.

So I’ll go back to what Ó Lionáird meant by it. Which was, among other things, the “beauty of imperfection” and “the aesthetic of less”. For artists, he suggested, wabi-sabi dictates that “. . .you don’t finish a thing, completely, utterly. You leave some aspect of the rough-hewn original”.

Just as I sensed, therefore, this could be very useful. In fact, now that I know the term for it, I consider myself an example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, having honed my appearance, intellect, and social skills over decades, yet exposing just enough of the rough-hewn original (quarried from Monaghan limestone half a century ago) to indicate authenticity.

But even though I plan to use the phrase regularly from now on, I’m already worried about the concept becoming popularised. After all, “the beauty of imperfection” and the “aesthetic of less” might be very dangerous ideas in the hands of, say, builders. Or engineers. Or, perish the thought, bank regulators.

Then again, maybe it’s too late to worry. The wabi-sabi aesthetic reminds me of the great Leonard Cohen song Anthem, with its chorus: “Ring the bells/That still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack/In Everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

Which, some years ago, I suggested would indeed make an ideal new anthem for Ireland. At the time – 2006 – there seemed to be technical flaws emerging in a lot of recently built infrastructure, from leaks in the Port Tunnel, to bonding problems on the Luas tracks, to the top of the Millennium spire not glowing properly.

And it struck me that Cohen had inadvertently summed up a country, where, sure enough, there was a crack in everything. But little did we know then how wide the cracks were: wide enough not just to let the light in, but the IMF too, eventually.

Anyway, in between reading up on wabi-sabi, I have also been listening to the aforementioned album. And I’m damned if I can spot the imperfections Ó Lionáird was talking about (he was specifically referring to an arrangement of the old Irish song Samhradh, Samhradh, which is rather beautiful).

But unfinished on not, the record deserves the rave reviews it has been getting, including one in the Financial Times, which I notice categorised the group as “World Music”.

Now there’s another interesting term, which seems to mean everything and nothing, simultaneously. Last time I noticed, it was a catch-all phrase for “non-western traditional music”. But clearly, even that range wasn’t wide enough.

So now it’s being applied to a band the keynote members of which are a singer from the Cork Gaeltacht and a fiddle player (Martin Hayes) from Clare. And not just anywhere in Clare, mind. Hayes is famously an exponent of the east Clare fiddling style, on no account to be confused with the west Clare one, a different thing entirely. World music how are you!

Yes, I suppose the Gloaming’s pianist is from Vermont, the guitarist is from Chicago, and the other member of string section, Waterfordman Caoimhghín Ó Raghallaigh, plays the Norwegian Hardanger d’Amore violin. Even so, licensed wabi-sabi practitioners that they may all be, that hardly makes them non-western.

But before I finish, one last word on the aesthetic of imperfection. Namely that, when I looked up “wabi-sabi” in this newspaper’s archive, I was surprised to see it appearing regularly circa 2008/9. Then I was even more surprised that the mentions were mostly on the horse-racing page. On closer inspection, it turned out that the wabi-sabi in question was a filly, trained by Nigel Tinkler, and owned by – of course – a syndicate of engineers.

I don’t know what the horse looked like, or whether she had a beautifully-flawed running style. But in her nine career starts, she never won. Her best result was 3rd, once. And on her last appearance, when priced at 8/1 in a field of seven, she remained true as ever to wabi-sabi aesthetic, finishing nowhere.

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