Keiji Haino with Steve Noble
At the first night of Butoh blues master Keiji Haino’s latest Oto residency, accompanist Steve Noble’s battery swamped the performance space. Noble needs no more than a small kit set to work wonders. Here were arrayed a 36″ bass drum, two timpani and a suspended 40″ gong, all fronted by an array of china and ride cymbals, each topped with a smaller, thicker bell cymbal. This setup promised a special set, and so it proved.
Haino, accompanying Noble on electric guitar, had apparently considered performing this set in a mask, to emphasise the decision he’d taken to preserve his voice for his following night’s vocal-only performance. It was a wise decision: any attempt to match his voice to the occasionally racked and amped onslaught he unleashed with Noble would have punished his larynx severely.
Not that the Haino/Noble duo was all fire and brimstone. Noble applied his customarily busy style to the broad percussive canvas at his disposal with a true dramatist’s feel for light and shade; exploiting sympathetic resonance, making sparing use of the tympani’s pedal effects, or striking the timpani head while pressing and releasing it with his fingers to produce a harmonic vibration. Haino matched him, initially holding back his customary aggression, drawing harsh and ascetic tones from his guitar through the enveloping amplifier hum, and allowing them plenty of silence in which to decay. At more dramatic moments he flung himself bodily back and forth in his chair as he ripped cathartically into his fretboard. Haino has made some powerful and matchless music on drums, hurdy gurdy and ethnic instruments since , but the guitar sound pioneered in the 90s with Fushitsusha, and reconstructed this night, remains his most powerfully affecting.
Originally a trumpet player, Minton has for the last 30 years carved out a hyper-specialised niche as a vocalist. Taking the art well beyond scat, Minton uses his voice more like a Foley artist, producing an array of sound that beggars belief and must be witnessed to be fully appreciated. Minton extrapolates from the universally recognisable: he creates implicit narratives from all of those noises we make between articulate sounds, say when breathless, or in fear or exasperation. Sometimes he whistles in approximation of birdsong. More often the effect is explicitly human and interior, his maieutic music the aural equivalent of all those elliptical constructions in the writings of Samuel Beckett. Minton reinforces these effects with the drama of his facial expressions, his exertions sometimes evident in tautened sinews and flushed skin. He’s a marvel to watch, and the packed house listened in silent, rapt appreciation.
Haino began his own performance seated, singing through a condenser microphone to capture rarefied breath sounds. Inevitably, the effect was anticlimactic. After the actorly magic Minton wrought without props, Haino’s trademark billowing black vestments and dark glasses made him appear self-conscious, the narrowness of his aesthetic and emotional range exposed. But Haino’s shtick is essentially other than Minton’s. He’s all about channelling energy into incantation, and when he stood to sing through a dynamic microphone, with his voice channelled through the constant electric thrum of the PA, his set took on much more cumulative power.
Haino used multi-tracking to layer his voice, creating a nightmare liturgy of guttural incantations and tormented keening punctuated by breathless convulsions. The accumulated mass of ghost audio was finally unleashed in a piercing squall of feedback via an amp at the back of the stage, and an unmanned electric guitar positioned in front of it. Haino skilfully modulated the signal-to-noise ratio, effectively taming electricity.
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