Wabi-sabi: Cultural Bodies, Collective Social Ecologies and the Ripple Effect

An interview with Sara Sithi-Amnuai

vn-v4: You state that, your work, Wabi-sabi, was seeded with the idea that an individual’s action or “release” can have a resounding (re-sounding?) “ripple effect” on a larger ecosystem—or in other words, (your words) on our “cultural body.”

Contemplation, transformation and healing are other words you use to describe the basis for the work.

Can you talk about Wabi-sabi in relation to your interests in collectivity, and how your overall practice is centered on exploring the “cultural body” through sound?

Sara Sithi-Amnuai: For some context, Mark Izu, a wonderful Asian American bassist, was my mentor for the Nikkei Music Reclamation Project that was done through the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) and Sustainable Little Tokyo. He invited me to play with his band in San Francisco’s Japantown for his most recent concert called “Songs for J-Town” at the Presidio Theater earlier this year. During the pandemic, we spoke at length about what the Japantown community was experiencing and what message or story we wanted to communicate through his concert. He commissioned me to write a piece for this concert which ended up being Wabi-sabi. The concert was framed in the format of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and my piece was played during the hero’s transformation.

There are a couple of concepts I had been thinking about while I was creating this piece. The Japanese practice of wabi-sabi embraces the beauty of imperfections. You can also see this in the art of kintsugi where “broken” pottery is pieced back together. I saw the community as having gone through this process as well. Another concept was the butterfly effect which is the idea that one change could cause a ripple effect, similar to how one’s actions can have an effect on movements and communities.

I built the foundational track on sounds I created using a new musical blanket interface (name still to be determined!) inspired by the story of the Crane Wife (otherwise known as “Tsuru No Ongaeshi”). In this story, the crane disguised as a woman plucks her own feathers to weave a beautiful cloth for her husband to sell in the market so they could live a comfortable life. This is a story my mom told me when I was a child and it also reflects a lot about the values and social norms of Japanese society. I thought to myself—what if I could hear this cloth that she weaved and what would it say now?

Each time I perform Wabi-sabi, I’m telling my own story but I’m also building off the story of my ancestors and my community. I tell the musicians who perform with me that there is no tangible “score.” We improvise on top of this foundation and structure—I want them to listen and to play their story. I want it to be exploratory. I want them to imagine that they are skipping rocks and to accept where the rock lands and to see where it goes, and to approach their improvisation in a similar way.

vn-v4: Is there a link between your improvisational strategies, your interest in a “common creative practice” and “a collective social ecology?”

Sara Sithi-Amnuai: I think this is a challenging question and I am still trying to wrap my brain around what the larger implications of this question entails. I can say that some of the things I consider for performances is the location, context, environment or where someone is coming from when they are “experiencing” sound. On the physical side, I think about the act of producing sound for the musician(s) and what that experience is like because I want the collaborators I work with to be actively involved, inspired or compelled by the music. But also on the flip side for the audience, I am, to a certain extent, “curating” their experience as well and trying to understand how the lower frequencies of the music will resonate with their body. For Wabi-sabi, I wanted to bring the audience on an aural journey where the beginning and end of thoughts start to blur like a stream of consciousness. I’m not sure if I answered your question or if I just went off on a tangent—haha!

vn-v4: Your answer was tangentially perfect!

What’s your process for creating the “ripple effects” that the listener-audience experiences with this work?

Sara Sithi-Amnuai: I think it’s interesting to break up the relationship between listener and audience. I feel with Wabi-sabi in some ways that relationship is blurred. As musicians, I feel that while we are actively engaged in producing sound—we are also actively engaged as listeners, so there’s a feedback loop between the two. I see Wabi-sabi also encouraging the “listener-audience” to go on their own visual journey based on the aural experience as well. 

Each time I listen to Wabi-sabi, I focus on different aspects of the piece, maybe the trumpet during one take or maybe something else, and because there’s a lot of granularity in sound I think people can experience the piece in different ways, each time they hear it.

vn-v4: How does this relate to your work with “Nami,” your custom built glove interface that you define as a “cultural design tool.” Talk about “Nami” and how physical gesture expands into a vocabulary of the cultural body?

Sara Sithi-Amnuai“Nami” is an interface I built when I was starting to think about what it means to be Nikkei, or in other words, someone who is of Japanese descent. One of the first big projects I used “Nami” for was a collaboration I did with choreographers Marina Fukushima and Isak Immanuel for JACCC’s “Festival of Shadows” in 2019. There was a series of somatic movement workshops with various community members in Little Tokyo (Downtown Los Angeles) where we created gestures based on words that had collective meaning for us. The community members were also the performers for this piece. I used this shared vocabulary of gestures to be the jumping off point for creating and processing the sounds. During the performance, I trained Wekinator software to recognize these gestures and to trigger and process the sound in specific ways.

vn-v4: The philosophical outlook of the wabi-sabi practice celebrates the aesthetics of transience and imperfection, embedded in an inherent incompleteness. I agree with you when you say our world really needs a moment of collective contemplation and healing. In your view, how can we use transience, imperfection and incompleteness to reconfigure or re-wire technology and bring about a condition of healing that is necessary for the cultural body?

Sara Sithi-Amnuai: When I say transience and imperfection, I think I’m really saying that in the context of being human, we will never be perfect. We are dynamic beings that change and transform. One theme I’ve thought a lot about in recent years is acceptance. I’ve thought about this in the context of how society perceives people coming from different backgrounds such as Nikkei people. Since I was young, I’ve thought about acceptance in the frame of acceptance from others, but as I’ve thought about it more recently, I realized that what I was in fact desiring was self-acceptance. I think at the core, if people can look within themselves and accept themselves than collectively we can start to heal.