Ever witnessed the sudden appearance of a view or a sound, a perception of unexpected beauty that emerges out of context and with no intention leaving you baffled for this only moment by a feeling of plenitude and transports you elsewhere? This is what people call sharawadgi and goes back to the english statesman and essayist Sir William Temple who wrote in „Upon the Gardens of Epicurus; or of Gardening, in the year 1685“ dealing with the Japanese culture of gardening:
„But their greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed: and, though we have hardly any notion of this sort of beauty, yet they have a particular word to express it, and, where they find it hit their eye at first sight, they say the sharawadgi is fine or is admirable, or any such expression of esteem.“
The idea of sharawadgi came into vogue late in the 18th century and was introduced again by Jean-Francois Augoyard and Henry Torgue in their book „Sonic Experience, a Guide to Everyday Sounds“. They propose that the sonic wandering of the flaneur listening to the multiple sounds of the city bears the potentiality of encountering such experiences of the sublime, of a formless shape, apparantly disordered, with no intention, that hides ist artistic elaboration from eye and ear.
„Unbridled and unintentional structures disrupt the nature-culture binary and reveal new forms of life beyond their disorder, which paradoxically can be completed fabricated. Thus technological and industrial sounds can become more natural than any imitation of nature. It is this blurring of the edges of aesthetics, this shifting at the frontier of art itself, that defines sharawadgi. (…) The sharawadgi affirms itself in contrast with the very banality it is based on. Sharawadgi sounds belong to everyday life. (…) They become sharawadgi only through decontextualization, through a rupture of meaning. (…) With the sharawadgi effect, we participate in the actualization of an impossible potentiality, and we hold our breath to so as not to prevent its accomplishment. The transported imagination becomes powerless and thus accesses the unlimited, the immeasurable. (…) It is the sublime of the everyday, the invisible but present exception of the ordinary. And it is this sense that we designate sounds – strangely discordant in relation to their context, a brouhaha, a sonic muddle – that magically and suddenly transport us elsewhere.“
Isn’t this a perfect definition of what we do and what we secretly expect when recording the environment? Maybe the whole fascination with field recording is exactly this potentiality of the unexpected, the unintentional that suddenly emerges and reveals a hidden beauty, may it be in nature or in civilization. Field recording means collecting sounds outside the concert hall or the recording studio. It means going to the sounds instead of bringing the sound source in the studio. You can’t script what happens outdoors, the unintentional is always our conductor.
In composed music it is more difficult to apply the sharawadgi effect. Some music was perceived as cacophonous in their own time (Berlioz for example, or later Stravinky), others like Mahler broke the expectation through their rupture of intensity. Maybe we should speak of a paradigm shift in those instances. However, the introduction of noise and silence in contemporary music, the abandonment of the cadence, and the rejection of intention can correspond more clearly with sharawadgi.
Let me close with my own acoustic sharawadgi, though I had a couple, some can be found here and here. I think of one experience in Greenland while I was trying to record a calving glacier that was pushing countless big icebergs in the open ocean. I hired a boat but two, three hours of cruising around didn’t brought any reasonable sound recording. On our way back a fin whale suddenly crossed our route and spouted its characteristic fountain through the blow hole in front of us. I immediately dunked my underwater microphone in the water and recorded with another normal mic on the second track. The whale dissappeared and there was not a single tone underwater. It took about 3 minutes and the whale reached the surface again, this time making a singing tone while breathing out on the surface. I never heard that whales make sounds on the surface, so my surprise was great and even more, when a moment later one iceberg around started calving and tumbling in the water, which I was able to hear over my headphones via the underwater microphone. I have to add that the scenery with low midsummer artic sun and the gleam of red light on the icebergs around was was already overwhelming, but here the fascination and the surprise came from the hearing and I would count it a sharawadgi. Here is the recording which is – I have to admit – not that nice as the experience was in that moment, there are fisherboats returning from work and and whale was already quite far, but it might give an impression.