Kaigo Kioku Kyoku is a tender, touching archive of aural relics collected from Hiroki Tanaka’s time as the primary caregiver for his dying family members.
For Hiroki Tanaka, home is truly where the heart — and the art — is. The former Yamantaka // Sonic Titan guitarist’s first solo album is Kaigo Kioku Kyoku (which translates as “Caregiving Memory Songs”). The album is a tender, touching archive of aural relics collected from his time spent in the house he was born in while acting as the primary caregiver for both his grandmother (who lived with Alzheimer’s) and his uncle (diagnosed with terminal cancer). In his own words, Tanaka says he “wanted to provide a voice that I hadn’t heard before, one that illustrated the experience of being a caregiver in stark detail.” Kaigo Kioku Kyoku not only preserves the fragile and delicate nature of caring for someone at the end of their life but also celebrates the bond of family and honours his multicultural heritage by using hymns and Japanese folk songs as blueprints for the songs.
I can only imagine how profoundly moving and transformative it must have been for Tanaka to tend to his grandmother as her illness progressed while she rested in the very room in which he was born. Not only does the dichotomy of life and death pervade Kaigo Kioku Kyoku, but so too does the contrast of sound and silence. Anyone who has intimately cared for someone who is actively dying will know the feeling of prolonged periods of outward silence in a hospital ward or patient’s room while your internal monologue is screaming out in agony, sorrow, and fear. Tanaka miraculously finds a way to manifest that through field recordings, like the one of his grandmother singing the hymn “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, Hear Me” upon which opener “Bare Hallways” is built. As Tanaka describes in his lyrics, the house itself mirrors the matriarch’s decline, structurally deteriorating as priorities shift from keeping up the house’s outward appearance to maintaining the dignity and comfort of the dying dwelling inside.
Amidst distorted guitar and found sounds on “Eternal Host”, Tanaka chronicles the stress of watching someone in the throes of distress and panic. Mere moments after it’s over, the patient won’t even remember it happened, blissfully unaware that they’ve handed over the memories and trauma to their caregiver to carry. That his grandmother’s continued survival is predicated on his own mental fortitude weighs heavy on Tanaka on “Inori”: “I’m frightened she’s dying / But if I make the call / They’ll take it all / Take it all away / If I break they’ll just take it all away.”
On the verdant, vivid “Snowdrops”, Tanaka recites “I Have Good News” by American poet Tony Hoagland. One line in particular resonates as Kaigo Kioku Kyoku’s central thesis: “The dark ending does not cancel out the brightness of the middle. Your day of greatest joy cannot be dimmed by any shame.” As the song reverts back to the tape of his grandmother recounting memories of her youth, I’m left thinking about my young nephew and niece who’ve recently started interviewing and recording my mother’s own recollections about her life. I realize that I too have been thinking a lot about what we will do with the house that was my home for most of my life, the home my mother still lives in on her own. What happens to that place when she is no longer there? I can’t imagine it never being there and realize that, deep in my own subconscious, I’ve always imagined it as the house I will call home in my twilight years.
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” snaps me out of my internal musings. The hymn’s familiar medieval folk melody — arranged and performed on the harp by Tanaka’s aunt, Jacqueline Goring — is in a way a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead, as its final notes flow into “Utopia”, the album’s elegiac conclusion. Like a good and faithful servant, Tanaka accepts the reality of mortality, repeating “It’s time” over and over as both a soothing mantra for his own sorrow and as a way of offering permission to his family members to let go of life and find comfort in what comes next. It is a haunting, heartbreaking finale to what one can only guess is a cathartic and healing work of art that, for Tanaka, will always hit close to home.