Various Artists – Mono No Aware
(PAN – 2017)
I’m not sure who said it first, but over and again I am reminded that if you can’t explain something in simple terms, then you probably don’t understand it yourself. It is through this lens that I struggle with mono no aware, a Japanese originated term that loosely translates to “a sensitivity, or empathy toward ephemera.” On the one hand, it’s an easy enough concept to explain using metaphor and everyday examples. For example, anyone can recognize the simple and fleeting beauty of a campfire. It can strike home even more so the morning after, when, at dawn one crawls out of their tent only to find the coals of last night’s fire still smouldering beneath a thick layer of ash. It’s a scene that has held my attention on many mornings, and I can’t help but continually marvel at how a short passing of time can so dramatically alter a place, or, at least one’s perception of a place.
There is, however, a deeper level to the concept of mono no aware (that also overlaps with wabi-sabi), and this is where my struggle lies. In the appreciation of impermanence and ephemerality, one can eventually gain a unique perspective on humanity. By way of another example: think of a winter rain that slowly washes away a snowman. In doing so you may eventually tumble upon a metaphor for the gradual and inevitable demise of humanity. If you get that far, you’re starting to tap into what mono no aware is really about.
It may seem depressing, but there is a sadness that is both innate and fundamental to grasping this concept on a meaningful level. Through the practices of meditation and haiku writing, one can better harness what can only be described as the feeling of mono no aware, or the feeling of wabi-sabi. Because of this, there is no simple explanation that I see. What I sense is a concept that requires a willingness on the part of the inquisitive to allow for more humility, less self-indulgence, and less materialism in their lives. Call it what you will, but I think we are talking about a heightened state of consciousness.
Similar to the practice of reading and writing haiku, good ambient music seems to provide a gateway to understanding mono no aware. The latest compilation from the Berlin-based PAN label does just that, showcasing 16 unique tracks from 16 separate artists. A good compilation will draw one’s attention away from the artist and onto the album. With this in mind, Mono No Aware shines, as there are essentially no moments where the listener’s attention is pulled away from the sequential flow of songs. Listening to this, I rarely feel the need to check what song or artist is playing, to the extent that I derived a certain satisfaction in hearing this as a work from a 16-member musical collective called Mono No Aware (that would be a cool name for a giant musical collective). That’s not to say that individual songs didn’t grab me,–it was the cold-as-ice loop in Ayya’s “Second Mistake” that initially drew me in–but that individuality, itself, feels less important.
I’m not all that familiar with PAN’s releases, but perusing the label’s output one sees a wide range of experimental musicians, from the well known to the virtually unknown. The beauty of the label is that they’re all mixed in together and there doesn’t seem to be a mandate on releasing work from more established artists. Mono No Aware is made up of the virtually unknown camp, who’ve collectively harnessed an opportunity to give new meaning to the ambient lexicon. Taking cues from a broad definition of ambient, Mono No Aware feels like new age music for the final age. And it could be the occasional injection of noise–see PAN’s very own Bill Kouligas’s “VXOMEG”–but there’s also a level of fatalism at play that is better to embrace than to ignore.
For a compilation as well sewn as Mono No Aware, the mood often shifts. The early-Oneohtrix-Point-Never feel of Kareem Lotfy’s “Fr3sh” and the third track, “Limerence” by Yves Tumor, provide almost a playful air–especially the Tumor piece that sounds like the beginning of a Mark Mcguire guitar-athon with home movie samples of teenagers being teenagers plugged in. Helm’s track patiently weaves soft surges of noise with an underbelly of atmospherics levelling out the mood.
The previously mentioned “Second Mistake” is the comp’s longest song, and works wonders with its central loop, an elegant use of some source signal reversal effect. The focal drone in Jeff Witscher’s “Ok, American Medium” could be an ode to the maligned and now nearly forgotten vuvuzela, and it’s awesome, while the final songs, “Heretic” and “Zhao Hua” are truer to ambient as Eno saw it. The latter, especially, by HVAD and Pan Daijing, closes the album out on a more solemn note, as elegiac strings push into celestial realms. All the better an ending if one is going to contemplate the title’s deeper meaning, or be left in awe, as I was, at how much time managed to slip away while engrossed in this music.