I have recently been reading Alex Kerr’s intriguing book, Lost Japan. It was a serendipitous moment picking it up in the local bookshop. What a book about such an amazing life journey. It is the concept of Ma that captures my curiosity. Kerr explains, “‘Ma’ — the special appeal of Japanese music lies almost completely in its rhythms, which involve delicate variations and delays between notes, known as ma (spaces)”, he writes, “Ma are everything”.
Ma (pronounced “maah”) — is the pure, and indeed, essential void between all things. It is the essence of Japanese aesthetic, the DNA of its design principles. Ma is all about space that holds potential. In Kabuki, traditional theatre, it is intuitive as practice. Ma is in the purposeful pauses in speech which make words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music. Ma takes its inspiration from nature. A Kabuki actor, talking to Kerr says, “Have you ever been in the mountains and listened to the Cuckoo? Its says cuckoo, cuckoo, with the slightest pause between syllables. It doesn’t say kuku kuku like a metronome.”
Ma seems to me a beautiful organising idea. Poetics applied to living, creating, making, any ‘ing we might conceive of. Designing with Ma, we always start with nothing, then we decide to fill it with something. With how much stuff do we fill the void? Its the space that shapes the experience whether it be material, physical, sensual, or spiritual.
I used that idea when I designed books and I certainly use Ma when designing, a product or service even. Perhaps, were we to employ the concepts of Ma in what we wish to bring into this world. We might make more beautiful enduring, valuable things.
Here is a poem about Ma
Thirty spokes meet in the hub, though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay, though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house, though the space within them is the essence of the house.