Though he may be best known as the mind behind the long-running ambient drone folk project Six Organs of Admittance, guitarist Ben Chasny is also a member of the noisy psych band Comets on Fire, and he’s made musical contributions to the legendary apocalyptic folk group Current 93. His most recent project is an interesting one—in collaboration with former Emeralds synth magician John Elliott, he’ll been spending the month performing live background (and foreground and middleground) music for a new work by playwright David Todd, also the author of Feeding Back, an excellent book of conversations with underground guitarists.
The play is called Things as They Are, and it’s a theatrical exploration of the life, work, and mystique of the great modernist poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens was lawyer and an insurance executive whose first poetry collection, Harmonium, was published in 1923, when he was already 44 years of age. Though it was published by a major house, its first edition was small, only 1500 copies. Its reputation took time to spread, but Stevens’ cult grew, and by 1955 he’d won a Pulitzer and was offered a faculty position at Harvard. Stevens’ poetry was highly symbolic and can be utterly baffling when taken at face value. Attempts to decode his works are futile, and they miss the point anyway—Stevens’ use of language creates beauty by privileging cadences and whimsy over meaning as it’s ordinarily understood. Take “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage.” It’s clearly “about” Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus but…well, you’ll see.
But not on a shell, she starts,
Archaic, for the sea.
But on the first-found weed
She scuds the glitters,
Noiselessly, like one more wave.
She too is discontent
And would have purple stuff upon her arms,
Tired of the salty harbors,
Eager for the brine and bellowing
Of the high interiors of the sea.
The wind speeds her on,
Blowing upon her hands
And watery back.
She touches the clouds, where she goes
In the circle of her traverse of the sea.
Yet this is meagre play
In the scrurry and water-shine
As her heels foam—-
Not as when the goldener nude
Of a later day
Will go, like the centre of sea-green pomp,
In an intenser calm,
Scullion of fate,
Across the spick torrent, ceaselessly,
Upon her irretrievable way.
Since these are in the public domain (a state of universal public ownership works of art used to enter before Disney and Orrin Hatch decided otherwise) here’s the even more elliptical “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”:
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Stevens was mercurial about the meanings of his works—“explanations spoil things”—and so Todd and director Anjanette Hall have a great deal of freedom in interpreting his life and words, seeking a unified picture of a man who contained many competing impulses while reconciling often contradictory-seeming truths. Accordingly, the play alternates between literal vignettes from Stevens’ life, surreal interludes, and anarchic commedia dell’arte-inspired sequences, nodding to a reference to that very old form at a key point in the play’s text. Its lead actor, Robert Hawkes, has a huge job to do, and he does it superbly—not only does he possess a complex and compelling presence, he’s actually a pretty good ringer for the poet, as well.
Todd and Chasny sat down to talk with Dangerous Minds about Things as They Are before a recent Six Organs of Admittance performance.
CHASNY: There’s different types of music involved, some of it’s incidental, some of it is being performed with choreography, some of it goes with readings from Stevens. It’ll be mostly fingerpicked guitar, with John Elliott playing synths as well. I met John in Europe, and I love his playing. There are some pieces that’ll be underneath the writing, but there’s only one I did specifically to go with a specific poem, it’s super-minimal to let the words fill in space, but it’s not like I’m interpreting his poetry, the compositions are more responsive to the play’s script.
TODD: It’s a collage play that kind of explores the life and the imagination of the writer, trying to capture Stevens’ sensibility along with his biography, trying to create a kind of three-dimensional portrait. A model for the idea was Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, combining episodes from his life with episodes from his plays, with a prominent integrated musical score. With Wallace Stevens, he was a really dualistic guy, trying to merge different worlds of avant-garde poetry with business, and then the idea of imagination contrasted with reality, so having this score with really organic acoustic guitar playing with synth seemed fitting. It’s important that some of the music has a non-incidental function.
CHASNY: I’ve never done this before, that’s why I really wanted to do it, and I think that’s why John wanted to do it as well, a brand new challenge. I’ve done projects that were outside the normal, like residencies where I was supposed to travel the countryside and compose something specific to a place, so I’ve stepped outside of band things. I did the music for a gay porn, so I HAVE done some soundtracking! [laughs] The actor wrote out descriptions of the scenes, I didn’t even see the film beforehand—I’ve seen it since, the opening scene is this guy packing, and he throws a Six Organs CD into his bag, and he wears a homemade Six Organs t-shirt for a little bit—but I met him after a concert, and he asked me if I’d do a soundtrack. A year later I performed it live in Italy and the actor who wrote it DJed. It was quite an experience.
DANGEROUS MINDS: Does the film include a scene that involves, you know, six organs?
CHASNY: [laughs] No!
DM: Seems like a missed opportunity!
CHASNY: It does, it does!
DM: In terms of stepping outside of band processes, what compositional approaches did you take with this project that differed from your more familiar work?
CHASNY: I actually did a totally new thing that I’ve never done—I was visiting my sister during the wintertime, and I had my own room, and I would get up really early, probably 5:30 AM, and wrote all the music before like 10:00 AM. I really want to do that again, I LOVED IT!
DM: I remember reading once—and it was a long time ago, so I’m sure if I tried to quote her I’d end up misquoting it, but it was Lydia Lunch talking about being in the habit of getting up crazy early in the morning to work in solitude while the world was still peaceful, which I thought was interesting for someone who makes such confrontational work.
CHASNY: Yeah! That’s really interesting. I agree, it was really cool. And I haven’t worked on any new music since then, and I’m kind of excited to take that method forward.
Chasny and Elliott in performance
Robert Hawkes as Wallace Stevens. Production photos by Steve Wagner
Chasny and Elliott were gracious enough to record some excerpts from their music for the play especially for the enjoyment of Dangerous Minds’ readers. Since Elliott curates the Spectrum Spools imprint for the Vienna-based label Editions Mego, it doesn’t seem altogether unlikely that the music could be released at some point, but for now, unless you come to Cleveland, OH to see the play (or wait until it’s produced elsewhere, but who’s to say if Chasny and Elliott will go everywhere with it?), this is the only place to hear this music. However, the play will be simulcast in its entirety this Friday, May 26 2017, so anyone anywhere with an internet connection can see the play and music performed live. HowlRound.com will archive the stream for those who can’t watch it live.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Emeralds: ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here?’
‘This Ain’t the Summer of Love,’ the proto-punk screamer covered by BÖC and Current 93