REVIEW: New Voices from Japan
When it comes to exposure of western audiences to wild Japanese music oddballs, John Zorn is often the man in charge. And one must concede he has demonstrated a strong ability to tackle the task over the past two decades! Having spent quite some time in Japan back in the day and being apparently fluent in the language, Zorn had a chance to make a whole lot of contacts there and developed collaborations with an incredible array of like-minded Japanese underground artists. Lucky for us, Zorn never forgot his New York roots and has always worked hard to strengthen the East-West connections he helped establish. Results of his efforts are on full display on the unique 'New Japan' series of the Tzadik label he founded in 1995.
Ten years later, Zorn took things to the next level opening The Stone, a tiny music venue in NY's Alphabet City, entirely supported by the downtown community and showcasing on a regular basis some great experimental live acts. Even though the diversity of The Stone's schedule reflects the many different interests of Zorn, ranging from klezmer to avant-rock to contemporary compositions, a peak was certainly reached in December 2005 during a month-long Japanese festival which will undoubtedly be remembered by many and for a long time (see the calendar and die!). The festival presented a dazzling number of sets with (sometimes improbable, often challenging, always intriguing) combinations involving Makigami Koichi, Keiji Haino, Tatsuya Yoshida and Otomo Yoshihide, all Tzadik recording artists.
The 'New Voices from Japan' two-day mini-fest that recently took place at the Japan Society can be seen
as a concentrate version of The Stone's schedule of last December: a first-class opportunity to approach
the versatile personae of some of the most important figures of Japanese avant-garde and, for those too blasť
who've seen them all, an all too rare occasion to check them out in unprecedented situations! All that brought
to you by Zorn obviously. The three 'voices' were Keiji Haino (who obviously needs no introduction here),
vocalist, theremin and jaw-harp master Makigami Koichi
and demented Hanatarash/Boredoms
frontman Yamataka Eye. The killer line-up was augmented by fellow US performers Jim O'Rourke, Ikue Mori, Mike Patton
and of course Zorn himself. Awesome, isn't it? I just couldn't believe it myself when I first heard about these shows
and I wasn't long to get me a two-day pass more than one month in advance!
I had seen all these guys many times to say the least and my first encounter with Haino goes back some ten years ago, in France, when he was starting to become internationally recognized, getting tour dates in Europe. At this time, during an extremely loud live gig of his, he basically altered my way of listening to music (as well as my auditory capacity) in an irrevocable manner and opened up for me a whole universe of sonic discoveries and category-defying forms of expression. Obviously he's been my hero since then. And he was logically the prime motive for me to go to the Japan Society those two evenings.
The Japan Society is a nicely designed, seemingly well-funded private institution in midtown Manhattan which sponsors corporate events, exhibitions, lectures and occasionally performances. Not necessarily the kind of place where you expect to hear ass-kicking material from unpredictable mavericks but hey who cares? I don't know exactly what were the reasons for picking the venue but it seems that there is some kind of link between the Japan Society and Roulette, an organization presenting innovative music in New York and where Zorn is listed in the board of directors. And indeed, when working together in the past, the two already made some good things happen such as an 'onkyo' marathon curated by Carl Stone (onkyo being a micro-genre of experimental minimalist electronic music originating from Tokyo).
So anyway, on Friday, May 12th, I was quite excited to go see the highly anticipated and sold out gathering of high-profile Japan/US explorers. Just like most of the couple hundreds of people who had had the same idea I guess. I say "most of" since I'm not sure whether all attendees were actually fully aware of what to expect. Some old folks and several suits and ties seemed indeed suspect to me and were probably guests or maybe just got the date wrong. Plus I wouldn't be surprised if some were fooled by the possibly misleading 'new voices' title and thought they would find traditional Japanese vocal music with koto and shamisen! Corroborating this impression, a few old-timers, visibly pissed off by the performance, had to leave the room 15 minutes after it started. Fortunately, others did not come by mistake and many faces familiar to anyone who hangs out in the NY experimental music circuit were easy to spot everywhere.
Now there we go, almost 8 o'clock, the Japan Society's auditorium is packed, I'm seated not far behind Bruce Gallanter, proprietor of the Downtown Music Gallery record store, the large stage is occupied by various electronic devices on different tables, amps, mics, etc. The space is divided in such a way that every performer would have their own spot with their instruments/machines set up and where they would have to stand. The distribution from left to right would then always be: Zorn, Mori, Patton, Eye, Makigami, Haino and O'Rourke. Eventually three of them showed up:
1- Keiji Haino / Jim O'Rourke / Mike Patton
and started some improvisation right away. Haino was playing his now customary air-synth/digital theremins. O'Rourke had some hard to identify electro-acoustic kind of box with tons of wires and maybe some small keyboard coupled to it (hard to tell from where I am). Patton was on vocals and electronics. Haino stayed true to himself and uncompromised, setting the tone, proposing directions and actually finding quite a response in O'Rourke's palette of organic noise constructions that can be quite crystalline at times and that blended well with Haino's multilayered harsh electronics. Patton, on the other hand, seemed to be more disconnected from the other two, both on a musical and spatial level. I personally have never been into his projects really and I'm not too familiar with his recorded output as well. So not surprisingly I found him quite uninspired not to say boring at times. Maybe the pressure to be confronted to other extreme vocalists exerted some kind of inhibitory effect on him. Unforgivably though, he tried out some sort of quick-but-lame beatboxing: awkward! They didn't stretch past the 8 or 10-minute mark anyway: this would also set the average time of all the pieces to come. After leaving the stage, they were quickly followed by...
2- Makigami Koichi / John Zorn / Ikue Mori
Always a blast to hear Makigami's incredible sounds. He's one of the most talented vocalist on the planet and definitely one of my favorites (only a tie with Phil Minton). Makigami is also a jaw-harp virtuoso and showed some of that briefly too. His main instrument this evening was the (regular) theremin, which he played in a terrific kung-fu-like manner! Long-time associates Zorn (alto sax) and Mori (laptop) helped create a pleasant soundscape, intense at times. At the end, Makigami was the only one to stay on stage, only to be joined by his fellow compatriots to form the super trio...
3- Keiji Haino / Makigami Koichi / Yamataka Eye
Holy S**t! The one and only combination featuring all three headliners and them only: do I need to say more?! Some cathartic moment to be expected for sure... The new element for this one was the enigmatic Eye who did what he does best: screaming, babbling, stammering, all that more or less processed through electronic devices. His behavior typically oscillated between some agitated monkey trying to shove as many microphones he could down in his throat and a weird fucked-up kid indefatigably playing with toys the wrong way (or vice versa). Total nonsense mostly hilarious! Despite the fact that Haino, Eye and to some extent Makigami have been covering quite some noisy territories in the past, I think similarities end here and trying to establish some unifying link between their personal histories is bound to fail. However put them together on a stage and they won't be long to find common ground in a stunning manner. Mostly vocal, the trio displayed an intricate mixture of raucous to strident sounds, sometimes overwhelmed by Haino's guitar and/or Makigami's theremin. I think that was also during this particular set that Haino played for a half-minute an amplified traditional Japanese vertical flute (don't know what it is, not a shakuhachi though). Pure bliss overall!
4 - Keiji Haino / Ikue Mori
The next configuration was all Japanese too, Mori being originally from Tokyo and having moved to New York in the late seventies to join the then burgeoning No Wave scene. As always, quirky clicks and beeps came from her PowerBook and made Haino return to electronics himself. Abstract sounds that slowly melted into a low-key improvisation... Strange meeting, which seemed a bit timid and uncertain at times.
5 - Makigami Koichi / Jim O'Rourke
One of the best duets during this festival, hands down! Both players were listening to each other all the time and were always interacting in a constant yet subtle manner. Makigami's astounding throat-singing technique coupled to circular breathing allowed him to sustain for a very long time unique overtones that he accompanied with equivalent theremin sheer sounds. O'Rourke electronics evolved in the same harmonic range producing high-frequency chords that sometimes mimicked Makigami's voice then suddenly moved to act as counterpoint. Almost reminiscent of some East-European sacred music at times, this sounded somewhat closer to a carefully composed score than free improv. Great meeting of minds!
6- Yamataka Eye / Mike Patton
Eye and Patton are recurrent Zorn's collaborators and they both used to appear as guest vocalists at Painkiller gigs here and there. Logically they seemed to get along well together on stage, using pretty much the same material: their voice distorted beyond recognition. Not totally thrilling but enjoyable. And probably Patton's best moment during the festival.
7- Keiji Haino/ Makigami Koichi / Yamataka Eye / John Zorn / Jim O'Rourke / Ikue Mori / Mike Patton
The show's grand finale brought together the whole list of performers who collectively improvised for the last 10 minutes or so. It was just amazing to see all these guys at the same time on a single stage! Everybody did their own thing so that the resulting volume-drenched piece was quite dense but still the sound of each individual contribution could be identified (really good sound system by the way). Actually, the visual pleasure and the mental excitement were probably greater than the music itself, which was totally OK but didn't show much interplay between the participants. That's sometimes what you get when too many strong individual voices are put in a blender....
As far as I'm concerned: quite satisfied overall and eager to come back the next day.
Here we go again, on Saturday evening, for the second and last part of the festivities. Lots of people made it for both nights so that the audience looked very much the same, just a little less crowded than the day before. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame were there as well as many other NY musicians and artists (I remember seeing Aki Onda, Okkyung Lee, Shanir Ezra Blumenkrantz...).
1- Keiji Haino / Yamataka Eye / John Zorn / Jim O'Rourke / Ikue Mori / Mike Patton
The Japan/US coalition started where it left, i.e. with the full line-up minus Makigami who was allegedly ill that evening. Quite a disappointment as he doesn't play very often here and he's certainly the more under-recognized player of the group. Again a sonic magma was poured in our delighted ears, visibly more focused and united than the night before. Then everybody left, except our man...
2 - Keiji Haino
who blessed the appreciative audience by a short solo piece. Silence interrupted by piercing and tearing screams. Progressively Haino superimposed sampled loops of his own voice to create a rich texture of eerie sounds for a few minutes. He then brutally switched to his drum machine with which he produced some chaotic deflagrations, soon to be dissolved in heavy guitar chords and ambient air-synth-generated noise. Admirable as always.
3- Yamataka Eye / Ikue Mori
The next configuration allowed Eye to mix his own spasmodic gurgles and growls to the quiet computer-generated rustles of Mori. Quite an unlikely pairing between a professional madman and an immutable introvert...
4- Keiji Haino / Jim O'Rourke / Mike Patton
Strangely enough, we had the opportunity to hear again this trio who already played the night before and which had probably been considered most satisfying by the performers. Again the Haino/O'Rourke exchange worked quite well but nothing was much different than the first time.
5- Yamataka Eye / John Zorn
Well, if I only judge by the number of copies of the Eye/Zorn duo records that were sold that night and the night before, I'd say this "legendary" association was also much anticipated to be revived on stage! Last time the two buddies played together in New York was during Zorn's 50th birthday celebration at Tonic in September 2003 (this particular set is actually documented in the relevant Tzadik series). Quite different from their recent partnership, what Zorn and Eye offered this time was more a reenactment of their old Naked City-like sonic duels of the past (think "Torture Garden", "Heretic" or the Zorn/Eye duets featured on the Painkiller box set). A lot of air furiously blown through Zorn' saxophone and lots of vociferations eructed by Eye, alternatively or together. Part gimmickry, part ecstasy, it felt good anyway to witness the genuine collusion between the two.
6- Ikue Mori / Mike Patton
Seems like Mori had to compensate for Makigami's absence that night as she was featured in two independent duets not involving any of the Japanese bill-toppers... Perhaps one of the least interesting combinations presented. Or maybe this was just to take a break before...
7- Keiji Haino / Yamataka Eye
Yep! They did it: two utterly distinct approaches to extreme vocal performances next to each other! Eye's patented gibberish interfered with Haino's otherworldly lamentations in an odd but mesmerizing kind of way. Similar to combo #3 the night before but this time without Makigami to act as a missing link, adjusting noise levels and somehow tying things up. Very contrasted, very passionate, this particular duet was one of the highlight of the festival and was all-too-brief.
8- Ikue Mori / Jim O'Rourke
Back for her second duet, Mori teamed up with O'Rourke who, once again, proved to be an attentive collaborator. A gorgeous association demonstrating that electronic music can be delicate, evocative and ethereal. At some point O'Rourke took the lead and was responsible for extending the piece for apparently longer that Mori initially planned. She reacted well and they did a swell job overall.
9- Keiji Haino / Yamataka Eye / John Zorn / Jim O'Rourke / Ikue Mori / Mike Patton
The last piece brought back together everybody again and had its moments, thanks especially to Haino's inimitable guitar playing. At the end insisting clamors from the audience succeeded in getting us a couple of encores:
Yamataka Eye solo who did a less-than-one-minute "heeeee-ooooo-eee-aaaahhhh ah ah ah aha ah aha ah ah ah ah ah aha ah a ah ah aha ah ah" (accuracy of lyrics not guaranteed but you got the idea...) and Keiji Haino / Yamataka Eye who did a very short alternate version of what they presented before. Nice!
Hmmmm... Yes, very nice indeed...