James Plotkin/Oren Ambarchi/Keiji Haino
Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia
May 18, 2014
In his epic Dark Tower series, Stephen King tells of Roland, hero of a world that has, in the author’s parlance, “moved on.” In his quest for the eponymous tower, Roland enlists the help of others from our own world. His doing so is foretold by the drawing of three Tarot cards, each manifesting as a door that allows him to slip into the minds and bodies of those fated to aid him. We fortunate few who were upstairs at Johnny Brenda’s bar in Philadelphia on a cool May night surely knew something of what it feels like to be overtaken by Roland. Overtaken, yes, but cognizant enough to realize we’d become lungs for some unfathomable force breathing through us. Fate, indeed, was in effect, challenged to the core.
Presented as part of Ars Nova Workshop’s ongoing concert series, the performance in question brought together American producer-guitarist James Plotkin, Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and Japanese underground legend Keiji Haino. Although Haino’s name loomed largest, as it would on any roster, it soothed this admirer’s soul to witness the intuitive progression of each set interlocking into the next, in the order in which it was received. Soothing, too, to see that the ubiquitous electric guitar was the nexus of nearly all the activity that blossomed on stage.
As Plotkin slipped through the first door and into the depths of our attentions, it was clear that something cosmic was waiting in the wings, in the form of wings. An insistent loop—part firmament, part earth—awoke an automaton whose limbs had stopped working long ago, repairing circulatory systems abandoned by aortal vagabonds. There was much to hear in Plotkin’s six strings and the modest array of machinery used to suck out their innermost dreams: a pulse, a video game turned on its axis until it screamed, gestures buffed into oblivion, hints of sampled drums. Even so, traction was at best an ant burning in the fulsome, gravity-biting sun. With quiet turnings came disquieting streams. Static, beep, out.
At first intermission, the cards got a thorough shuffle, unleashing bits of wisdom from between the pasteboards. First: Screaming and whispering are the same—only a knob turned either way stands between them. Second: Manipulation is not an act of omniscience but of incorporation. Third: The torch may flicker out and die, but its ashes are immortal.
Through the second door stepped Ambarchi, an ear’s depth away. From this breach issued a low drone. There was something fleshy about it—in a way, vocal—that attracted us like fingerprints to a touchscreen. Into his wires Ambarchi threaded an unusual current of hope, a feeling of shocking bliss that awakened signals in the spine left dormant since birth. As if along the skins of fish, watery molecules glided smoothly around us, and through their collective conflict bore silver unto the ocean. Indeed, the door had opened. In its frame, a multitude of stars, each shouting above the rest in effort to be heard over a tangle of astronomical calibrations. The result was profoundly beautiful. Algorithms flickered and died, but their light stayed behind to teach us how to mourn. There was a rhythm, one beyond the capability of any drum to shelter. It found us, no matter where (or when) we were. To end: a peeling away of Saturn’s rings until only a gaseous orb remained.
At second intermission, the cards were reshuffled. From them came further wisdom. First: The drone is a bone with marrow made of shadow, which feeds off the terrible fear of silence to which we must all one day pay respects. Second: Harmony is a force that takes a million light years to reach, but only a blink to extinguish. Third: Solar flares are secrets just waiting to be reborn as givens.
Haino passed through the third door without needing to open it. And so it began, this magic called “now.” As the master haunted the stage, it was as if leaves turned into flame under his step, somehow affirming in their clarion force. Through a tableful of accoutrements, Haino evoked nerve endings of uncharted muscle. Each change was a spectral reaping, a mantra given freedom to dance where borders fell into themselves. Be it a contact microphone on a leg, the onslaught of his guitar, or a bowed strip of magnetic tape, each cell formed a stained glass mosaic of mounting proportion. Even an amplified slinky became fair—and compelling—game for expression. In the end, however, it was less about the medium than the message, even if that message was in his visceral scream and in his body, both of which held kinesis so tightly that two became one. This was where ice storms courted volcanoes, where rhythms were not heartbeats but failed programs, recognizable gnarls in the fallacy of experience. As if to assert their intuition, single notes shone through like rays of light from cloud. The almighty chord screamed until it was glued to us. “Someone is always lurking within the heart,” Haino sang. “It is fate!” And later: “Something is praying, something is waiting…” The magic of lore turned cosmic and free. Galactic nightmares turned benedictions. Dark matter turned spirit. Drop and exeunt.
Although offstage Haino is undoubtedly a part of this reality (he is, in fact, of the nicest and most playful personalities you’re likely to encounter in the game of life), onstage he inhabits another plane of existence entirely. His contributing wisdom was simple: Those who search for a pulse will find nothing but mirrors of their seeking. And for good reason. With only a ghost of feedback to show for all that had just transpired, it’s a wonder any of us could hear our thoughts, for all the din of vortices opened within. In the wake of such visceral experience (here was the transfiguration), “catharsis” had become a dirty word.
Like the ringing in my ears that lingers even as I write this, the search for meaning in this trilogy of happenings has left its traces, pieces of sonic shrapnel too microscopic to tweeze out and which will outlast me when I expire.
Sometimes, planets align. Other times, they explode. The supernova is king, queen, and jester all in one.