In a recent post, Mikhail pointed out that I had mis-spelled “timbre”, writing it as “timber”. As is so often the case, this slip of the tongue turned out to be fortuitous as it led me to recall one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. The piece was either a trash can or map holder that I witnessed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was a young boy. What made this work so amazing was that it worked with the rhythms and contours of the wood itself. The core of the piece of wood had been carved out, making for an irregularly shaped opening. Likewise, rather than creating a smooth, cylindrical shape, the artist had polished the knots and grains of the wood according to their pattern, creating an irregular surface.

For years I had believed that this work of art was Japanese or Chinese Imperial art. However, when talking to my parents this evening, they told me that it was the work of the carpenter of George Nakashima. You can get a sense of the concept behind his work from the photograph to the left above. What makes Nakashima’s work so profound is the manner in which it works with the singularities of the wood with which he works. Rather than forcing the wood into a predefined form or model, Nakashima instead allows the immanent form of the wood to contribute to the form that emerges. What we have here is a beautiful example of the timbre of timber. The finished pieces that Nakashima produces have their own timbre that arises from the timber of the wood that he’s working with. The differences immanent in the piece of the wood that he carves provide the singularities that preside over the finished form. All media that we work with contribute to final forms through their singularities. However, what makes Nakashima’s work so gorgeous is that he highlights the matter in which his chosen medium contributes to the final form, giving rise to an aleatory form that couldn’t have been anticipated at the outset. Rather than human logos imposing a model on a passive matter, we instead get a variety of active media giving rise to form as an emergent result.