Thursday, February 26, 2015

Interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance

Ben Chasny is smart. And knowledgeable. And enthusiastic. He's the person who would try to check out too many books from the library; and not to impose too much of my own read on the guy, but he's probably going to read those books and try to figure out the context for their creation, because Ben is creative and analytic. John Cage famously made a set of Ten Rules for students and teachers. The one that's always stuck out to me is "RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes." I actually find the claim a bit dismissive: I think it's more along the lines of one hand washing the other. Analysis surrounds the creative process. Some people don't need to inspect a story's trajectory before they write it, but those are special cases. The majority should analyze and then edit the fuck out of it. Same thing applies to most art, but art is also buoyed by context. The thing about context is it permeates consciously and subconsciously. So while there is always a degree of external context or influence in any creative process, some of it can be controlled, but not without analysis.

That's where Chasny's new album as Six Organs of Admittance comes into play. Hexadic is a powerful meditation on control and balance. And it's interesting for a lot of reasons, the first of which is its guiding core system, Ben Chasny's very own Hexadic system, of which I can't claim to know the fine details, but I can say is at once open-ended, attentive, and maybe even a little forgiving. He explains a bit on his website and also in the below interview a little bit, but to me, it brings up a lot of questions. What happens to authorship when a creation claims to emerge from a system, even an open one? And the real haunting question to me arrives from the nature of the Hexadic System being a product of creation from one mind and from many minds. Think of it this way: if Chasny is a prism, then certain influences (Agrippa, Bachelard, and Llull) might be the light going into him. Instead of just having a rainbow coming out the other end like you'd get from white light moving through a clear prism, the result from the Chasny Prism is the Hexadic system. So the system is a product of Chasny and it's also the product of the things he's put into his head.

But once the system is formed, it too becomes a prism for creation where Chasny might be the light moving through it, so we're back to the authorship question. What or who guides the light? Who built the watch that lies in desert sand? The rider and the horse, moving at the right speed, might be mistaken for one another.

Jordan Reyes: I started listening to Keiji Haino and Kan Mikami based on an interview you did with Pitchfork in 2006. I've always been somewhat enamored with Japanese music even before it became contemporary - folk music like with a shamisen, but hearing these people you mentioned really changed how I listen to music. Are there any musicians for you that you can pinpoint and say "That person changed how I thought music could be effective?"

Ben Chasny: I'd say the person that most changed the way I hear music is probably Rudolph Grey. His Mask Of Light record totally re-arranged how I listened to and appreciated music. His playing is often described as "action guitar," presumably to draw a line of correspondence with action painting. His whole approach was just so revolutionary. After I heard Rudolph, I listened to everything differently, even acoustic folk music. 

JR: Speaking of Haino, I caught Nazoranai last year and was totally caught in this abyss of the sublime where the volume and ferocity sort of filled me with a pleasant dread. Do you think fear can be a useful aspect of live or recorded music? How can it be used well?

BC: I think all moods come into play with music because moods are so important to life. Moods affect modes of knowing, and therefore communication. Fear is interesting. I think if one tries to actively make someone or an audience fearful it can come off as quite camp and easy. Some sounds cause fear as a by-product. So I think it's tricky to try to cause fear. Fear does come into play as a performer, though. Speaking as someone who is very reserved and shy, the fear of performing tends to heighten focus on the music. 

JR: I know that you've played and recorded improvisational music before. It's completely different head space than a practiced piece. What makes for a successful improvisation in your opinion?

BC: For me, a successful performance is one where I go places I've never been before and things seem to happen on their own. 

JR: Do you think that playing music with other people is important? Does a music experience need to be communal to be worthwhile?

BC: I don't think a music experience needs to be communal. I play alone quite a bit and it's still very enjoyable. Playing music with other people is a great way to grow as an artist, though. Every person I play with teaches me a new thing about music and that is a wonderful thing. I feel lucky that I am able to play with so many great musicians. 

JR: Your new record Hexadic is intense. It's ominous, almost like a harbinger of something. It's like that beast slouching towards Bethlehem in Yeats' "The Second Coming." Why did you decide to go this route?

BC: Thanks. I probably went this route because I haven't recorded a Six Organs record like that before. Heavier music has always been an influence but usually doesn't show itself. I just wanted to do a heavier record, my idea of heavier. I'm a huge fan of Casper Br√∂tzmann so I sort of felt like it was time to make some production moves that parallel his world a bit. 

JR: Is there a specific sound tied to the Hexadic system? Does music made from it require intensity and loudness?

BC: No, not really. I just wanted this particular record to be intense and loud. In a way, it was all meant to magnify the peculiar and strange aspects of the system. I did a lot of acoustic songs using the system before I recorded Hexadic and they actually show off the internal logic of the system much better than the record. But I wasn't interested in having the record be supportive of the system. I wanted to make a record first and foremost and just use the system to do that. I'm hoping to do some more acoustic work soon with the system. 

JR: This may tie into the previous question, but your Hexadic system seems to be somewhat unpredictable in musical qualities. Drum beats hit in unexpected areas in unexpected time signatures. Vocals come in at novel times. Obviously if it's a system there's some sort of consistency in its rules, right? But how does it manage to seem so unpredictable at the same time?

BC: It could be because we are used to listening to music in a certain way. The things you are describing are time oriented. The system doesn't create music in a particular time signature, but instead, creates fields of notes that are supposed to be played for a given set of time. For example, let's say we have 5 different tonal fields (you can think of a tonal field as a cluster of 6 octave specific notes that can possibly be played within a given time) that we will call A, B, C, D, E, and F. Those tonal fields could be assigned a particular amount of beats. So for instance, maybe the the cards might be assigned A=3, B=2, C=7, D=2, F=3. That totals 17 beats total. Of course one could make riffs and have make combinations to involve a time signature, but the system generally conceives of these tonal fields as clusters that are presented one by one. So in that way, it is a bit of a different type of configuration of time. 

JR: Flipping through some of the images of the Hexadic deck also seems to me at once familiar and far away. Parts of these images I've seen before. And perhaps that's because symbology tends to rest on archetypes and mythology. Do you find that many of the symbols in the Hexadic deck are tied into certain mythologies or belief systems?

BC: There is a lot of symbolism in the cards. I worked with the artist (Steve Quenell, who does a lot of covers for me) closely. In terms of belief systems, it's probably closest to Hermetic philosophy, which in itself is very fluid. Those who are familiar with that sort of thing will see that right away. 

JR: You mention three historical figures having an impact on your creation of the system. Did any of their writings specifically influence the system?

BC: Yes. Gaston Bachelard's epistemological break, Agrippa's Square of The Sun, and Ramon Llull's combinatory methods of contemplation all played a large part in influencing the system. 

JR: Do you think you will use the Hexadic system to create and write more music? Is there room to expand the system itself?

BC: That is the plan right now. There will be more music made with it. The thing that I have tried to explain but which seems to get looked over is that the "system" is actually quite open and consists of different techniques. The Hexadic figure is just one way to compose with it. There is also a language aspect that uses Agrippa's Square of the Sun. There are graphic elements. All of these different parts interact with each other as in an assemblage. Because it is an assemblage, parts can be used or not. Parts can also be added. So I guess that was a long explanation to explain that yes, I do see more parts to the assemblage being added. Hopefully by other people.

JR: Now that you're going to release the notebook and deck, are you eager to see if people pick up on trying out the system? Do you have any expected reactions?

BC: I don't really know if anyone will find it interesting or useful but I'd like to make these things because they are part of the project. I'd love for people to add to the assemblage more than anything. If people do want to use it that would be wonderful, but I don't really have any expectations. 

JR: I know you're touring soon. Will you be enlisting the people who recorded with you for it?

BC: For the West Coast tour it is the same band. Those guys have serious jobs and can't really get away too much so I'll have different people for the different tours, however. Not exactly sure who yet. 

JR: What all is in the future for Ben Chasny and Six Organs of Admittance?


BC: Rangda just finished recording a record and Comets has been slowly recording a new record as well. There are always projects. For Six Organs I will be mostly concentrating on the Hexadic system, but there's also been talk of working on music for a play about Wallace Stevens. 

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