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Aesthetics of escape

Looking at lo-fi hip-hop and Japanese tea ceremony

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
10 min read
Aesthetics of escape

There are two things I really love that have been giving me peace during the pandemic. One is lo-fi hip hop playlists on Spotify, and the other is practicing Japanese tea ceremony, or cha no yu .

I mean, look at how well they go together:

Although at first blush they may seem an unlikely pair, the wabi aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony (or cha no yu) as popularized by 16th-century aesthete and tea influencer Sen no Rikyu―can also be found in the much younger phenomenon of lo-fi hip-hop music. I kept thinking about it, and the more I did the more I realized the two have so much in common.

In the last few years, lo-fi has undergone a popular revival on streaming services, which has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic as many of us have been driven online.

Cha no yu and lo-fi are similar in purpose and practice. Both require one to create an atmosphere, cultivate small details for appreciation, take pleasure in a ‘rough’ or intentionally imperfect offering of creation, are wistful in their nostalgia, and provide a sanctuary for us to withdraw and focus our thoughts.

Much like the Zen monks in Japan 500 years ago, who used tea as a way to help them stay focused while meditating—modern students and knowledge workers who spend long hours in front of a computer often use lo-fi playlists to help them concentrate and stay awake.

In fact, one of the most established and prolific compilers of these free lo-fi playlists, ChilledCow, has multi-millions of views across YouTube and Spotify, with tens of thousands streaming their playlists at any given moment. Often these playlists have names like ‘Chill Study’ or ‘Focus and Relax’. In fact, why don’t you throw one on right now while you read?

But what does this have to do with tea or wabi? Before we go any further, I want to define ‘wabi’ for us so we’re on the same page. Nowadays, lots of books get published in English with ‘wabi-sabi’ in the title, and a sort of loose understanding of what it means, leading to some confusion about its traditional roots. When we talk about wabi in relation to cha no yu, we are more specifically talking about a set of aesthetic principles.

During the 16th century in Japan, tea changed completely. While already somewhat popular in medieval Japan, when the spiritual granddaddy of modern cha no yu—Sen no Rikyu (sounds like ‘re-queue’)—burst onto the scene, he created wabi cha or ‘wabi tea’ as a rebellion against the opulent tea parties of the elite and aristocracy. He’s was the man who made tea ‘of the people’.

To pursue wabi in tea meant intentionally pursuing an anti-luxurious lifestyle. This meant that the entire presentation and experience of cha no yu should connote an appreciation for the simple, austere and rustic—the enjoyment of a quiet life, cultivation of introspection, and the importance of personal philosophy—rather than being a big party room for the rich. To live with wabi is to have appreciation for ‘unobvious’ beauty.

An eccentric character, the histories say that Sen no Rikyu would recite this poem when you asked him ‘what is wabi?’

To those who wait

Only for flowers,

Show them a spring

Of grass amid the snow

In a mountain village.

- Fujiwara no Ietake (1158-1237)

A perfect example of this wabi worldview made architecture is Tai-an, a teahouse in Kyoto designed by Rikyu in 1582 when he would have been in his sixties.

Peering inside Tai-an.

Tai-an is extremely small and intimate, only two tatami mats wide (about 3.6 m²). Inside, you can see the exposed, rustic and uneven bamboo supporting its architecture, and the simple yet striking use of plain local materials.

I visited Tai-an when I was in Kyoto in 2018, but it’s a pretty locked-down heritage property so you’re not allowed any photos inside. I did, however, take this shot of me completely alone in an adorable couples’ photo spot just outside the temple gates.

In this teahouse, surrounded by a quiet, green garden in the middle of Kyoto, you feel like you might be in a hut on top of a mountain. Somewhere you can hear the rainfall.

This is ‘we’re not here - we’re actually in a hut on top of a hill’ feeling is another goal of the wabi tea house, inspired largely by the 12th-century Buddhist monk Chōmei, a hermit whose 1212 essay ‘Hōjōki’ (translated as ‘The Ten Foot Square Hut’) influenced an aesthetic movement of retreat and reflection. Basically, he made it cool to be a recluse.

My man. Chōmei, as imagined by Kikuchi Yōsai

In his words, “Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?”

As Rikyu worked on elevating his new wabi style of tea, the goal for teahouses he built was to achieve the effect of being away from the world - even if you’re in the middle of a city.

To give you another visual representation of wabi - this is a black raku-style tea bowl like what Rikyu commissioned for this new wabi style of tea. Black raku bowls never go out of style. They’re the little black dress of the tea world.

Another crucial part of Rikyu’s worldview was that tea was for everyone. Rich or poor, all were humbled within the small, meditative confines of the tearoom. All must bow to enter, all must drink from the same, rough-hewn tea bowls.

Much like the tea ceremony, lo-fi also has humble origins. Lo-fi or ‘low-fidelity’ recording started in the 1950s when people started using whatever gear was available to try and make recordings at home. Thanks, Industrial Revolution.

The term ‘lo-fi’ was initially used to describe the quality of DIY and homemade recordings, as opposed to the hi-fi or high-fidelity sound quality available in a professional studio.

This homebrew sound became incredibly important during the ‘80s and ‘90s when many artists would record their own cassettes to promote their music. Today, lo-fi has become its own culture and aesthetic, existing largely online and consumed by people around the world, usually alone or in small groups. It is largely lyric-less, beat-heavy and creates an almost trance-like mood for the listener.

Some of the unique aural aspects of lo-fi are its intentional editing to mimic or recreate what used to be the low-quality auditory marks associated with the recordings. Sounds that in hi-fi would be edited out, but in lo-fi are allowed to linger: the musician’s breath on the mic, ‘static’ crackling, sounds from dust on vinyl, ‘tape skipping’ noises from cassette tapes, playing with time (slowing down, speeding up), background noise like people talking or the ‘krrrrsch’ of a can of soda-pop being opened in the background, the wail an ambulance driving by, the sound of rain falling on the street.

Leaving in these imperfections jives with Rikyu’s perspectives on tea objects, “In the small [tea] room, it is desirable for every utensil to be less than adequate. There are those who dislike a piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of comprehension.” [emphasis mine]

I think he would have been a lo-fi listener, I really do.

Tea also has an aural component—you listen closely for the sound of the host’s socked feet shushing against the reed tatami floors. You listen for the hollow sound of the bamboo water scoop hitting its ceramic stand. You listen for the sound of water being poured into a tea bowl, the whisking of the bamboo chasen as your matcha becomes froth. The sound of the kettle protesting as your host pours cold water in boiling. The sound of rain falling softly on the teahouse garden.

In tea, the host intentionally seeks to create these subtle or ‘un-obvious’ moments of beauty. Both require attentive focus from their audience and can be awkward if it’s your first time, but once you’ve become familiar, deliver a feeling of calm.

In lo-fi, all these little auditory marks of imperfection, which originally came from a lack of means, are all deified and intentionally sought out in the creation of lo-fi music. This imperfection is similar to wabi in tea ceremony, where we want to see certain elements of roughness, of proof of existence – the swirl of the potter’s wheel on the underside of our tea bowls; the feel of the glaze under our fingertips, heated and come alive with the warmth of tea. These subtle, un-obvious moments of beauty, which could initially have been overlooked as imperfections.

When performing cha no yu, the technique the host follows to make tea is called temae (sounds like ‘take my’ but without the k: ‘tae my’). Temae is a prescribed set of steps—you could think of them as different ‘dances,’ or ‘services’ if you like, within the possibility of tea. The temae is different depending on how many guests you have, what season it is, whether you are doing a short chakai tea meeting, or a full tea ceremony with a multi-course kaiseki meal. There was even a temae created for serving tea in times of pandemic when the Spanish flu swept through Kyoto in 1918-1920.

The process of doing temae could be considered analogous to how modern digital lo-fi music creators decide how to mix and master sound, all with the intention of creating a specific mood for their guests/listeners. The goal of both temae and lo-fi is to create an atmosphere.

There is also an appreciation shown between host/creator and guests/listeners in both tea and lo-fi. In tea, after the guests are finished drinking before the host puts their tea bowls (chawan), tea caddy (natsume), tea scoop (chashaku) and various other tools away, guests are allowed to ask to observe them. During this time the guests will turn the objects over carefully in their hands, admiring all the little subtleties that make that object unique - running their fingers and eyes across them. All this is done to show appreciation to the host for selecting those items. Lo-fi music is much the same; listeners pick up on the subtle aural qualities a creator has added and derive appreciation from the same attention to detail.

Learning how to see and appreciate these details in both tea and lo-fi music relies on old skills not often found or nurtured in our fast-paced, 24/7 world. In the words of cultural critic Raymond Williams, “Like new ways of seeing, old ways must be actively learned.” It’s a nostalgic skill in some ways to practice tea, you’re always looking back on the history. Same with lo-fi.

The role of nostalgia in both tea and lo-fi cannot be understated. There is a reason not much has changed in tea in the past 400 years.

“One yearns for the old world in every way. Modern fashions just seem to grow more and more vulgar. […] At times of quiet contemplation, my one irresistible emotion is an aching nostalgia for all things past.” – Japanese Buddhist monk Kenkō (writing around the year 1331)

Even a monk writing almost 700 years ago was nostalgic for the way things were before their present. Isn’t that just so… relatable?

Throughout the pandemic, psychologists and scientists have been explaining just how nostalgia helps us cope. How comforting we find ritual. The atmosphere for this kind of withdrawn contemplation is exactly what cha no yu and lo-fi offer.

In the lo-fi visual art aesthetic, the tendency to portray individuals as apart or away from the world, similar to the ink paintings done on scrolls for tea ceremony that would portray a solitary figure (often a monk) amidst a giant landscape. A recurring trope of modern lo-fi visual art depicts a single character adrift amidst a larger background.

Compare that to this. See the similarities?

Splashed Ink Landscape by Sesshū (1495). That little squiggle in the bottom right corner? Believe it or not, that’s actually the hint of a person in a boat. Tiny person, big landscape.

The most well-known lo-fi art image is known as ‘Lo-fi Girl’ or ‘Lo-fi Study Girl’, a piece of digital art created by Colombian artist Juan Pablo Machado for the ChilledCow lo-fi Livestream. ChilledCow started using Lo-fi Study Girl on March 19, 2018, and she quickly rose to fame as an internet meme. She’s the girl sitting at the desk you can see in the YouTube link I posted above.

If you spend time on the internet you’ve probably seen her, or some iteration of her. She is so iconic that digital artists recreated her in various ‘localized’ forms to represent their countries—a digital madonna. Because she is always portrayed alone and in contemplation or study, she has even been called a ‘social distancing role model’ by one publication in the onset of the pandemic, and like our monk friends Chōmei and Kenkō, she is in retreat.

In a world of global pandemics and a hi-fi news cycle, we need the aesthetics of simplicity, nostalgia, and austere beauty present in both lo-fi and the Japanese tea ceremony now more than ever.

Through the cultivated creation of atmosphere, both arts serve to create an atmosphere, cultivate small intentional details for the appreciation of their audiences, and take pleasure in sliding their thumb along the rough side of creation. By inviting their participants to join them in this space, they create a parallel world where we can leave our troubles behind and retreat to the teahouse, or our headphones.

Blanket Fort

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