The sun leans into civilization and the air feels dark, weightless and calm. Thousands of miles away from stable currency, fast-food grease and a decent shower, I’m surrounded by warlords, terrorists and elite killers sent by the United State’s military, and “I am the Dead” off Eyvind Kang’s Virginal Co-Ordinates is pacifying me. It’s an odd moment; I never thought Mike Patton could sing like a monk, nor did I ever imagine that Kang’s violin could compose such spatial lullabies. In Afghanistan though, stranger things have happened.
It was just days after details about the military’s blunder in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison began to pop like M16s in Jalalabad. Wearing Chuck Taylors and with skin as white as an iPod, I was standing along the shadows of 60,000 Sunni Muslims, smelling the hate with fear.
Haji M., my friend of 15 years and a native of Jalalabad, is a rabid fan of Faith No More and the Melvins. We met in the invisible smoke of what was known as the Cold War and have been trading stories through music ever since. Reunited once again, this time looked at as the enemy rather than a Stinger missile salesmen, Haji decided I shouldn’t stay in the city to play Virginal Co-Ordinates for his Western-music-loving friends. Instead, we traveled further north in the Nangarhar providence, checked out the poppy fields and relaxed in the record’s audio opiates.
Kang, known better throughout underground avant-jazz circles, has made a quiet reputation for himself outside familiar territory. Whether it’s been arranging or playing strings on Blonde Redhead’s Misery is a Butterfly or working with prominent multi-media composer Laurie Anderson on Life on a String, Kang has added delicate sounds of soothing noise and noir landscapes. What makes Virginal Co-Ordinates different from his previous six releases is how the eighty-minute composition captures the clearness of each musical instrument; the album slowly unveils the essence of the instruments’ relationships as the ancient lifeline and language of the human heart.
I explained this to Haji as we rode in his battered Ford Ranger on slim rocky terrain, occasionally swerving to avoid a donkey or landmine. Haji wasn’t talking. He nodded every quarter mile then motioned to hear “Innocent Eye, Crystal See” again, which begins with bells, a flute, and a panning guitar, carrying along Patton’s chants midway through.
“Patton cannot be the only singer,” Haji finally said.
“He’s the only vocalist credited,” I told him. “It also says he runs the electronics.” I told him I would give him the headphones to home in on the brisk electronic “fly-bys” that occur throughout the album, wondering if the peaceful noise on the album would remind him of the deadly noise of Stealth Bombers, F-16s, or hissing bullets.
We arrived at our location like a motion picture cliche. Two minutes into the buoyant finale, “Marriage of Days,” break-beats sped up as the jagged mountains parted into blue sky, the vocals repetitively chanted like a dove in climax, the orchestra circled along the structure like cultures grasping hands. And right next to the skeletal wheat stalks were the milky poppy plants.
“Asshole, why are you parking on the poppies?” I said. Haji said he parks were he wants.
“This is my grandpa’s farm,” he said. “We’re parked on an old onion field; there’s enough poppies to go around. No one plants onions here anymore. Grab your soundpack (iPod), we’ll sit further up the mountain and observe Afghanistan with Virginal Co-Ordinates.”
There is a “spot” in Northern Afghanistan that displays all the beauties nature has to offer, which seems suffocated in mysterious Western silence. Embedded in the lush landscape, Haji put the headphones on and drifted away into a peace he rarely feels. We were not high, only lost in the tiny moment of musical patterns, and that is the magic within which Eyvind Kang created on Virginal Co-Ordinates. It doesn’t beg for attention, nor does it linearly move. It is up to the listeners to drop their surroundings unequivocally and imagine …
– May 2004