Perfect Sound Forever

Keiji Haino

1996: His Unofficial Year of Prayer
by Mike Wood
(December 2006)

In a Sept. 1996 Wire interview, Keiji Haino spoke about his music as a form of prayer, one that may lift or degrade the listener, depending on his own performance. He believed his music was a "diagram of white magic," but that if his efforts were to fall short, his music would reveal itself as harmful black magic. "I can't change your hate into like unless there is an equal amount of like corresponding to your hate." While acknowledging that "Prayer exists because nothing is perfect," he felt that his work was an exploration of that imperfection, attempting to voice what was impossible: "I'm trying to express in music the satori that the Buddha achieved but couldn't explain." Whichever genre he has chosen to seek that void where the inexpressibly spiritual may be expressed—Psychedelic Rock, Noise, solo drumming, Acoustic Blues—his quest has never been anything less than a raw, naked search to speak the unspoken. He has, in the process, expanded both the definition of a spiritual artist and the uses for improv and Noise, as did the Free Jazz explorers of the late '60's.

Haino has released a slew of records in the last 25-30 years that stand as personal a statement as any artist has made in any genre. Whether with his power trio Fushitusha, his work with Bill Laswell in Purple Trap, or solo, he has chased the Void, seeking in free-form music a voice for the emptiness that is insight. His Buddhism and anarchy drives this seeking; true emptiness, for him, is uniting with the universe in perfect peace. That noise may seem an incongruous form of expression of peace and compassion is a problem addressed and resolved in his music.

In 1996, Haino released a trio of astounding records that can stand as an unofficial trilogy of that attempt: A Challenge to Fate, Execration That Accepts to Knowledge and The Book of Eternity Set Aflame. These are records that in their naked expression of emotion, rank with some of the greatest spiritual seeking and/or confession work done in pop music:

The first paradox of this aim is that he places the spiritual success or failure of his music on himself, rather than on the listener. While this may suggest hubris, it also illustrates the stakes at play in his music. Risk is all in this work. Despite his words to the contrary, his music challenges the listener to decide for oneself whether or not it is healing or harmful. There are risks for the listener as well as the artist here; for Haino, prayer is action, presence. His Noise and Blues are Buddhist, in the sense of reaching for the emptiness that holds truth; it is a personal expression of anarchy in its best sense--total freedom with a compassion for others. This dualism is common to both Buddhism and anarchy; while the former accepts the pairing of light and dark as natural and not in conflict, the latter finds unity in absolute personal freedom and cooperation for the common good. Both express a comfort with jarring contradictions; he freely explores these contradictions in the context of prayer, using guitar, hurdy-gurdy, drums, psychedelic music, Blues, and Noise. All are merely the vehicles at hand for a singular vision; they are merely tools chosen over others. The spirit of improvisation is essential to his openness to the void he is chasing, and to the musical form he tries to shape around his prayer.

In a July 1996 interview in Halana, he said that "It is OK to think about music, but not until you have experienced it first." On these three records, Haino makes that statement explicit: while it is possible to talk about the structure and modes of his music, ultimately that is irrelevant unless you have first approached it as a visceral experience that will shed light or encourage darkness.

A Challenge to Fate opens with feral anguish, which could be either despair or insight. "First Blackness," with its bloodcurdling a cappella screaming, hunts for the ultimate depths of emotion; that this is a live track makes the raw exploration more intimate, risking both embarrassment and ecstasy, and daring the audience to seek its own depths. "Second Blackness" continues the verbal assault on the void, seeking inside that dualism of anguish or ecstasy.

"You who will in no way I who can in no way" is more meditative but no less intense, a combination of noise and gentle drones. The challenge to fate is to become light, without ever being sure that darkness is not a step away.

Execration That Accepts to Knowledge consists of one 41 minute track that can serve as a bridge to Book of Eternity Set Aflame, though was not released in that sequence. Execration, when compared to the 3 untitled tracks that comprise Book, take Haino's concept of music as prayer that brings glory or harm to the creator and listener deeper into the mystic. These tracks are essentially free-form guitar improvs, layers of sound and risk, extended jams that allow for repetition and variation of themes.

As with Free Jazz, noise can be an outlet for meditation through its disorienting of the senses as well as through its repetition of sound-themes. Blues can reflect a simple struggle between darkness and light, with a hope that present darkness is not permanent. Simple drumming or hurdy-gurdy, the musician lost in the possibilities the single instrument offers for contemplation and exploration, wrestles with finding sonic solutions, non-verbal struggles deep inside the player. Keiji Haino made such a quest to name and resolve such spiritual warfare most explicit in several of his releases in 1996. That year was both a creative peak for the artist, and, for those willing to follow, a deepening of the spiritual possibilities of improvisation.

Also see our other Keiji Haino article

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