Ma

Bang! The air pressure changes. You feel the air recede, as with waves at the beach. The water pulls back from the shore, fills up the wave, then crashes in the sand. The wave is full, waiting at the stage. Here it comes. Woosh! The wall of sound hits you. A moment of silence. The music and dance continues. The giant drum on stage, not only impressive and beautiful to behold, but also a pounding bass like you haven’t heard before. You are not alone. The rest of the audience baths in the waves coming from stage. You are at a taiko concert. Drumming and dancing is combined in an amazing choreography like few people in the world are capable of producing. Memories for a lifetime. True story.

Ma (ma) is a term that was widely used in traditional Japanese art, especially music, dance, and theater. It is a an interval in space or time. It is the very absence of sound or color. One uses it strategically in order to accentuate the overall rhythm or design. Originally it was used in music. Later it gained a metaphysical meaning, and was adopted into other arts. Japanese music uses it to a similar effect as Western music. Traditionally Japanese musicians had more freedom in lengthening or shortening a rest. Compositions were subjected to the musicians interpretation. Western music has similar interpretations. For example, “moderate” can be the pace of walking or of a heartbeat. It is not strictly defined as is the case with beats per minute (bpm). The same applies to singers, dancers, and speakers in drama and dance. Highly dramatical effects can be attained by stopping all motion momentarily during an act in Nō drama. Gestures and words are performed to maximize the effect of stillness in Kabuki. Outside of performing arts the concept is used too, for example with painters. They create a “meaningful void”. It is a deliberate use of a blank space. In landscape gardening the blank space is used to accentuate the whole.

Further reading:

“ma” In: Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha.

“rhythm (music) In: Encyclopedia Britannica. [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/501914/rhythm#ref529702 8 September 2014]