You Can’t Listen to a Teacup, Man

If you’re visiting this site, chances are good that you already have your head wrapped around the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept/aesthetic, let’s just call it a high appreciation of the imperfections caused by wear or age. I have seen it most often exemplified by Hagi ware ceramics, usually with cracks artfully repaired with lacquer (Kintsugi).

I’m not going to make a deep dive here. The interwebs has scads of information on wabi-sabi. Some of it is actually accurate and even downright good. The School of Life has a History of Ideas segment that is a fine >10-minute overview.

When I first learned about wabi-sabi, I imagined the weathered face of a Kyoto tea house set upon a traditional Japanese garden. What the hell? I’ve never even been to Japan. It seemed disingenuous … my noggin’s own Epcot.

Western Wabi, Southern Sabi

Certainly, there are wabi-sabi objects in my life more germane to my western-world existence, right? Damn skippy. Old jeans or a threadbare concert t-shirt. My late father’s 1959 fraternity mug. The fence in the backyard – from which I can’t bring myself to trim the vines.

Blue Note 4222 Cornbread
My Technics SL-Q300 playing Blue Note 4222 (Cornbread by Lee Morgan)

Of my wabi-sabi things, vinyl records – to me – are the wabi-sabiest. The corners of the my oldest LPs jackets no longer come to sharp points. The colors are not as crisp. The print is not as sharp. The feel is not as slick; it’s been handled so many times.

Yet, it goes beyond aesthetic wear. When the platter orbits the spindle, the outer portion no longer spins in a flat revolution. There is an ever-so-slight rise and fall, a kind of kinetic wabi-sabi that causes the tonearm to bob like a seismograph tracing a lazy tremor. Then, the starter’s-pistol-pop of the needle drop. A revolution or two later, notes arrive. The beautiful, perfectly imperfect sounds. Instruments and voice standing out in front of a barely perceptible hiss, and an occasional tiny click as the needle traces the groove.

A Small Digression

Digital recording (in studios) only records the sounds instruments make when they’re making sounds. The space in between notes is void. Couple this with the fact that – most often – audio files are compressed to occupy less real estate on our digital players. Meaning swaths of fidelity are sacrificed on the altar of memory. Conversely, with analog recording, record means: record until I hit this here “stop” button. The turn of a page of music, the deep inhale of a saxophonist, everything is recorded … or at least has the potential to be recorded. This is why analog recordings are often lovingly described as warm.


When I got back into vinyl records, it was out of a sense of nostalgia. Shortly thereafter, I realized just how great they sound and I re-apprehended the visual and tactile joy of the format. Now, when I go to a record shop, it makes me happy to see kids buying LPs. I know that today they’re likely buying them as a novelty. I hope that tomorrow they’re listening with nostalgia. Maybe even appreciating a bit of wabi-sabi.

Post Post Script

I was partially inspired to write this post thanks to my friend and all around great guy, Steve. He’s got a really cool post on his site regarding cultural traditions in several nations and how they come into play when conducting business on the international stage. Read it here.



One thought on “You Can’t Listen to a Teacup, Man

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