Published on December 8th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance
“I don’t believe in music as representation … I don’t work with emotions in my music,” asserts Ben Chasny, guitarist and leader of experimental music collective Six Organs of Admittance.
“What I am interested in is creating works of force. I am interested in music that expresses something that can only be expressed through music itself.”
If “creating a work of force” was Chasny’s main objective with Six Organs’ two newest releases—for which he developed an entirely new method of “speculative” composition called the Hexadic System—then he has succeeded emphatically.
The music traverses two full-length albums, Hexadic and Hexadic II, both created within the system’s framework featuring a deck of playing cards and a hexagonal chart. Each card represents a note that, when arranged in a pattern, translate to notes on a guitar.
The music is disorientating, dreamlike, an Evard Munch painting come to life.
Various aspects of the system are explained in the Hexadic guidebook published in conjunction with the albums on the Drag City label. Already, other musicians have begun to experiment, changing or expanding the idea to suit their goals and posting the results on the Internet.
Hexadic is unlike the drone and folk that is a feature of Six Organs’ vast discography. Abrasive to the point of being industrial (similar tonally in some ways to early Godflesh), the album is also informed by Chasny’s love of Japanese improvisational noise rock.
It differs, though, in structure. Where the music of pioneers such as Keiji Haino is swept along on random currents of chaotic inspiration, the flesh of Hexadic hangs on a discernable—yet almost overwhelmingly alien—skeleton.
Echoing vocal loops emerge and submerge in sheets of teeth-grinding guitar and jerky drumbeats: the music is disorientating, dreamlike, an Evard Munch painting come to life. Variations in tempo, however, and the introduction of different instruments—especially in quieter moments on the album—give respite from a feeling of claustrophobia.
Hexadic II takes a different, almost pastoral approach, reinterpreting the raw material for Hexadic with acoustic instrumentation and “letting the intervals breathe,” according to Chasny.
We were fortunate to have Ben Chasny take us deeper into the Hexadic world, shedding light on his hopes for the project, and where these two albums sit in the wider Six Organs oeuvre.
BNU: The music on these albums seems to have sparked a bit of interest in the experimental music community, with a number of musicians including Stephen O’Malley [SunnO)))] using the Hexadic System to compose music. Has this been the most rewarding aspect of this project for you?
Well, to be honest I don’t think Stephen is using it to compose music for his projects. He did post a picture of some experiments with the Hexadic System because he’s always been very supportive and in fact, he’s been encouraging about this project, which I’m grateful for. He’s a great dude.
There has been a good amount of people who have been working with the system and putting up songs on Soundcloud and such. That is really rewarding and a great thrill for me. I love what everyone has done so far.
A few people, such as [Senior Lecturer with School of Film, Music, and Performing Arts, Leeds Beckett University] Phil Legard, have really inspired me to keep going and work with the system.
Prior to developing the Hexadic System, had you formally studied music theory before?
I studied a little bit on my own. Nothing official. This was when I first started playing acoustic guitar. I tried to examine types of counterpoint for guitar compositions. But then I got into drone and the independent study sort of stopped in that realm.
The Hexadic System … is an anti-theory approach.
I should say that the Hexadic System really doesn’t have anything to do with music theory. It’s more of an anti-theory approach. It’s more about parameters than musical composition. I really think it’s closer to the world of the French literary workshop, Oulipo, than musical approaches.
Did a feeling that “everything that can be done musically has already been done” prompt you to develop the system? Were you feeling bored with traditional methods of composition?
No, not really. That’s the beautiful thing about music. You can get a hundred people all playing the same note for the same amount of time on the same instrument and it will sound different for each one. I mean, that’s exaggerating but you get the picture.
I don’t have a fatalistic view about any sort of using up of resources in music. I mean, sometimes it does feel like Black Sabbath took all the great riffs, but there’s plenty more out there. I wasn’t bored. I just wanted to create and explore.
Did the idea for the system occur to you fully formed, or did it take a long time to develop? Were your initial experiments with it immediately successful? How did you know when a piece of music you’d written was “working” or not?
It was a slow, unfolding process. I basically had one idea, and that led to another and then another. Sometimes ideas would fracture. We put the Hexadic book out, but there was so much more that I could have put in there. What I tried to do is hint at other directions the system could go so that other people can take those directions up.
Sometimes it does feel like Black Sabbath took all the great riffs
It’s not exactly an equation-type thing where you plug something in and then you get something coming out. I tried to arrange the techniques of the system like an assemblage of ideas and points of inspiration. The various methods aren’t hierarchical, but exist in a way that can be combined or used on their own.
The most rewarding thing is when people ask me if I had thought about doing a certain thing, or a new technique. I love when they get an idea from the system that wasn’t explicitly worked out in the book.
An example is when Phil Legard asked me if I have thought using the 36 astrological decans in the system. I had, but I didn’t have time to work on it. And to be honest, someone like Phil is much better at working that sort of technique out, which he did a bit and he recorded the results. I’m hoping eventually there will be a second edition of the book with other people adding techniques and methods.
I knew what techniques worked by recording Hexadic. That’s why the book came out a bit after the record. But to be honest, there are a lot of points in the system where it’s pretty open. As if to say, “Hey, here’s an avenue, maybe it will work, maybe not.” One thing I noticed when I was developing it is that even things that didn’t “work” in one way it ended up working in another.
Can you explain simply how you use the system to write a song? I understand there are playing cards to play a game and the results create chords and notes on a chart. But there’s a spiritual or mystical element to it as well?
The most basic element of the system is that the notes on the guitar are aligned to specific cards in a regular deck of poker cards. From there, there are different patterns you can lay the cards out in so that they become a sort of “composition machine.”
There is a game aspect as well, but it’s only one of the methods within the greater system. That is why I have taken to calling it an “open system”. After the most basic aspect of aligning the cards, there are a handful of techniques that are non-hierarchical. There is a language aspect that gives one letters to work with, games, graphic components, and the previously mentioned pattern for composition. One can use all or some of these things.
As for a spiritual element, it’s only as spiritual as what you put into it. There are hints at things, but nothing overtly spiritual. I don’t even like using that word. Like David Chaim Smith would say, if you were really spiritual, you would recognize that dog shit has as many spirit molecules as anything else.
I don’t trust anyone who talks about his or her work as being spiritual. I say work, and see what happens.
Does using this system enhance or limit individual creativity? For example, if you don’t like the results you get initially, do you start all over again or do you modify the original results until you’re satisfied?
The ultimate goal is to create something that is worth creating.
One of the ideas about the system is that it is “open,” so therefore you can do whatever you want. You can make the parameters as tight or as loose as feels comfortable. The ultimate goal is to create something that is worth creating.
This might mean that the parameters need to be tight. Satisfaction is the ultimate goal. But maybe someone wouldn’t be ultimately satisfied if they bent the perimeters to satisfy immediate needs? These are questions only the individual players would be able to answer.
I’m wondering about the relationship between emotional expression and the “rules” that govern the system. If the bones of a composition are surrendered to an external influence (i.e. the system), then the emotion that is inspired when you hear the music must feel alien. I mean, you created it, but it’s not entirely from you that the emotion came from; the system “chose” elements of it.
Conventionally, you might choose a certain key or chord progression in order to express a feeling, either consciously or unconsciously. But this is different, right? Something else out of your control is influencing those choices?
Ah, I see what you are saying, but I don’t believe in representation of emotions through music. I don’t believe in music as representation. So it’s not a problem for me. I don’t work with emotions in my music. What I am interested in is creating works of force. I am interested in music that expresses something that can only be expressed through music itself.
I think that no matter what, an emotion will be expressed. That is sort of a secondary aspect of the music for me. That’s just me, though. I can see what you are saying and I’d say that for someone who wanted to express an emotion, that emotion would still come through in the playing. One is only creating parameters of notes and time.
Sure, maybe a minor scale is more “sad” than a major scale, but maybe the player should consider a different way to express sadness than a minor scale (as a basic example). It would create new challenges for the player. That’s the way I’d look at it, anyway. Challenges are good.
How did Noel, Rob, and Charlie come on board for the Hexadic project? Did you have the songs already prepared for them to play, or did all of you create the songs together?
I know those guys and have great respect for all of them as musicians. I came in with only the charts that were created with the system. I had no idea what the record would sound like as a band.
We all worked out how the specific songs should sound. We all explored the pre-compositions by improvising in the studio. When we felt we had figured out how the songs should be played, we hit record.
I wanted to make a loud and distorted record because I like to listen to those kinds of records.
Maybe Hexadic is similar to that of contemporary experimental composers such as John Cage or Faruq Z Bey, who you’ve stated were an influence on its development, however this is undoubtedly noise rock. The palette is also very dark. What influence shaped the raw “noise” sound, and why did you decide to do revisit the raw material for Hexadic and rework it for Hexadic II?
The production of the record was really a personal decision. It wasn’t determined by the system at all. I wanted to make a loud and distorted record because I like to listen to those kinds of records.
To go back to an earlier question, emotions can be conveyed through production, so there is a way to express oneself.
Back to this question, for Hexadic II, I wanted to make a record that perhaps let in a bit more of the system’s sound. The hyper-distorted production of Hexadic kind of keeps the listener from noticing the intervals of the composition because they are being assaulted with noise. So for the Hexadic II I wanted to let all of the intervals breathe.
I don’t know. I like noise. I like quiet.
You are involved in many different musical projects. Has your ongoing interest in the system changed how you feel about the music you play in other bands? Do you feel different now playing conventionally composed music? Do you see Six Organs continuing using the System in the future?
I sort of feel like the Hexadic world is its own world. Six Organs, and other bands, can dip into it if they want, but it’s sort of a conscious decision. There will definitely be more Six Organs records using the system, but that might be further down the road. I’d like to return to non-Hexadic Six Organs for a bit, then later come back with a massive Hexadic record. That’s the plan in my mind for the moment, anyway.
What opportunities or unexpected detours has the development of the system led to? For example, has it brought you into contact with people or scenes that you might not otherwise have meet or been involved in?
I have met new people through the system, such as the aforementioned Phil Legard. That has been really nice. I don’t know if anyone outside of my usual world has really noticed the system too much, though. It has brought me into contact with musicians who have been exploring the system. That has been the most rewarding thing.
What are you working on at the moment and what can music fans expect from you next year in any of your projects?
No more 12-tone. I’m going pentatonic, like Lou Harrison!
There’s a new Rangda record coming out next February. For a second there was talk of Rangda actually doing a Hexadic composition on the new record, but we had enough material.
I’m also writing a new Six Organs record. This one is going in the opposite direction. No more 12-tone. I’m going pentatonic, like Lou Harrison! I’m kidding, but I have been listening to a lot of Lou lately.
I’m also working on this musical play with a writer and director. The play is about Wallace Stevens. The writer knew I was a huge Wallace Stevens fan so he asked me if I’d like to collaborate. That’s something that is new and exciting for me.
I’m trying to expand the Hexadic system a bit for an eventual new version of the book and I’m hoping to put together the next Hexadic record, which will not have me playing on it.
You know, just keeping busy I guess.