More Than 20 Lines on Ethereality

Here’s what an online dictionary says about the word “ethereal.”

e·the·re·al, adj.

1. Characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; intangible.

2. Highly refined; delicate. See Synonyms at airy.

3.

a. Of the celestial spheres; heavenly.
b. Not of this world; spiritual.
4. Chemistry Of or relating to ether.
I was in New York last week and spent some time with friends and at some of my favorite places. One is Cafe Pedlar at the corner of Court and Warren in Cobble Hill. Cafe Pedlar is an example of what makes New York what it is, that here on an almost random street corner is a place that serves amazing coffee and espresso and is designed an extremely subtle and detailed way.  The interior is primarily white, with an ivory colored wainscoting and ceiling, with a large blackish molding between. I say blackish rather than black because I think it is more like a very dark charcoal than actual black. And I love that subtle, though important, distinction. Though most of the white is cool, the ivory and charcoal warm the space just enough. Pedlar is one of many places, though one of the few cafes I’ve seen, that adheres to a very au courant scheme that owes more to the early 20th century, and even 19th century, than it does to a contemporary or even mid-century aesthetic. This is an aesthetic popular in bars that focus on cocktail recipes from that time and boast decor to match. In Cobble Hill, there is also Henry Public, one of those bars, and the aesthetic of Pedlar and Henry Public are similar. A lot of white with a dark punch for contrast. Furnishings eschew such references as Eames and Danish Modernism in favor of late Victoriana through the 1930s. It’s a machine-age industrial look that is the interior equivalent of steampunk sans the sci-fi embellishments. Chairs at the bar are wood and dark metal, chairs at the tables are original-style Thonet bentwood, a design from the 1850s. The tables are round and brass with warm (and worn) marble tops. Marble is one of those amazing materials which can work in any type of interior. It can look contemporary and cool or it can look Victorian. From the 20th century, it works with Knoll tables and Saarinen Tulip tables. I also visited the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Queens, and there again, was marble, used in sculptures. One was called “Roar” and the surfaces changed between rough unfinished marble and smooth finished, giving an opportunity to see, in one piece, the same exact marble in its raw and polished states.
At Pedlar and again at the Noguchi Museum, the word “ethereality” kept popping into my mind. What was surprising is how differently I experience that feeling compared with how I used to. Previously, I saw ethereality as an escape from mere reality; in fact, the further from reality something was, the closer to ethereality it could be. I remember the difference between a song like John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” and a track off, for example, the Cocteau Twins album Victorialand, an album I saw as a high water mark for ethereality. Now I love both that song and that album, so here I’m criticising neither. I remember, though, hearing “#9 Dream” and wishing I couldn’t hear the timbre of the guitar, the pinging of the electric piano.Those sounds led me back to earth, whereas I felt the song wanted to take me elsewhere. On Victorialand, however, to describe Robin Guthrie’s guitar as a gauzy haze is nearly an understatement. Elizabeth Frazier’s wordless vocalizing focuses on the sound of each syllable rather than a meaning of a word. The guitar does not bring to mind “guitarness” and the singing does not bring to mind associations one might have with words. It’s an experience outside the realm of things and words, it’s pure atmosphere.
Lennon’s song, based, he said, on a dream, is about the flashes of reality one experiences in a dream. It’s not outside the realm of real-world experience, but instead filters reality through the subconscious. The instruments do their best to reflect this: the guitars sound like guitars and there are strings and electric pianos abound. When I first heard the song, the electric piano sounded dated and was distracting. After spending the 90s listening to bands such as Tortoise and Stereolab, they sound completely contemporary again. I can think of few bands outside of punk that don’t use them now, or at least few bands I listen to. The dream reality of Lennon’s song sounds more ethereal to me now than it did when I first heard the song as a very young person.
This brings me back to Cafe Pedlar. I thought for a long time that ethereality was fuzzy, like living in a cloud. Reality should not intrude. I was thinking of this a lot when after visiting the Noguchi Museum I passed a store on Vernon Boulevard in Queens called Ethereality. Truth be told, it was basically a cheesy tween boutique, but I thought seeing that word was an interesting coincidence. Then I remembered a quote I read in a book the day before at MOMA about the painter Giorgio Morandi and attributed to him: “Nothing is more abstract than reality.” I’ve started to see reality in an abstract manner, so long as it has a sense of clarity and space so that it can be read in an abstract manner. Rather than going with the first definition of ethereal listed above, basically insubstantiality, lightness and intangibility, I’m starting to correspond it with more the second definition, “highly refined and delicate.” That’s how a place like Pedlar fits in. Instead of black, they use a dark charcoal so that the contrast is there and still strong, but less harsh. And the charcoal sits next to the ivory border rather than the cooler white used in the center of the wall so that, again, there is strong contrast but not harshness.
As much as I love Victorialand, the ethereality in music I prefer nowadays is more like that of a Swedish band I’m obsessed with called Testbild! (yes with the exclamation point). A favorite song is called “Rain and Air” from the album The Inexplicable Feeling of September. Even in the titles there’s a great deal of atmosphere, but it’s an atmosphere of reality, or at least one I can directly relate to. “Parts of you will start dissolving into / rain and air,” is the last line of the chorus. The second verse begins “Remember willows used to grow / colored by sunset and by snow”. Reality, the kind I see in a small cafe or in the brownstone-lined streets of Cobble Hill or Brooklyn Heights or even the redwood forests of northern Humboldt County in California, that is what I think of as ethereal now. Willows are colored by sunset and by snow. That’s atmosphere and it’s reality. It’s my new ethereality.
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