How a 14th-Century Spanish Monk Inspired Six Organs of Admittance's Hexadic
Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance
Photo by Daniel Ahrendt
Playing by the rules has never been part of avant-rock maverick Ben Chasny's M.O. Working under his Six Organs of Admittance moniker — dude is Six Organs whether performing solo or supported by coming and going members — Chasny has carved his own niche in the underground as a genre-hopping guitar ace since his 1998 self-titled debut. Like fellow left-field Drag City label-mate Jim O'Rourke, Chasny has taken cues from folk-centric forefather John Fahey while experimenting with drone, psych, and noise over well north of a dozen records. Lest we forget, he leads the freak-folk movement and boasts membership in both psych-rock demons Comets on Fire and the Sir Richard Bishop–led Rangda. In other words, Chasny owns the cred.
So it's no shocker Chasny's latest vehicle is yet another shapeshifter. The recently released Hexadic is not only the polar opposite of his previous album (the psychedelic boogie of 2012's Ascent), but an alien trip where the scholarly guitarist — in a years-long quest "to break out of his habitual guitar playing" — hatched "a new way to compose music," as he tells it, though he isn't imposing strict methods and rules to abide by. In fact, his is an "open system," a malleable, chance-based compositional technique where he takes a deck of playing cards, assigns the numbers on the cards to the guitar fretboard's individual notes, and throws the proverbial dice. In Chasny's case, what came next using this self-devised method was Hexadic's touch-and-go beast of improbable notes, time-signature changes, tones, and scales.
Brainy stuff indeed, but Chasny, calling from the road, sees it in simpler — and much heavier — terms, considering his current Six Organs touring iteration. "I have Andrew [Mitchell], who is my go-to bass player, and Adam Payne [of Residual Echoes] on drums," Chasny explains. "Adam is a heavier kind of drummer. Some of Hexadic's songs are already heavy in a way, and it's interesting because when Noel [von Harmonson] played on them, it was kind of a 'free heavy,' and Adam has kind of a Dale Crover style. Adam hits the drums really fuckin' hard. It was like, 'Oh, shit. It's pretty fuckin' Melvins right now!' "
While Chasny reminisces about playing along to the Melvins' 1989 touchstone Ozma as a kid, it's a safe bet King Buzzo hasn't namedropped a Spanish monk from hundreds of years ago, a historical figure whose work helped inspire Hexadic.
"I came up with the idea — just like the actual pattern that is laid out for the cards — from Ramon Llull, who was a monk from the fourteenth century," Chasny says. "He built these wheels called Llullian wheels. They would have names where you consider these different aspects of God and you could realign them. You could consult your wheel and come up with an answer. I was influenced by that way to put the cards down in a wheel-type form and then spin them, so he was a really big influence as far as actual structure of the Hexadic form [is concerned]."
But as Chasny readily admits, his shuffling-of-the-deck composing style is "absolutely not a new idea" (seek out downtown avant-garde jazz legend John Zorn's Cobra and Game Pieces series, or John Cage's chance operations for more cerebral mind games). He has taken umbrage at reviews of Hexadic and their comparisons to Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, even posting a retort on his blog.
"I love Eno, but I just felt like people were just immediately like, 'Oh, it's cards like Eno!' " he says. "Actually, the system works exactly the opposite way Oblique Strategies is supposed to work. Eno was working with the idea that you need a quick way to rearrange your thoughts to give yourself a new outlook or sense of immediacy.' But when I was developing the system, I was thinking more in terms of, 'This is supposed to slow everything way down.' Besides, Eno's has nothing to do with notes — they are conceptual strategies — and [the notes as dictated by the Hexadic system] are specific notes to play."
Live in concert, Chasny may glance at sheets of music. "I have no idea how to read music, so those [papers] are fretboard diagrams," he says, laughing. "It's a total fuckin' Neanderthal style, you know?" That primal edge is one way to describe Hexadic's nine feedback-drenched, spacious songs, which indisputably offer Chasny's most sonically hefty assault as Six Organs. Not a clunker served up in its lucky draw, Hexadic features U.S. Maple–meets–free-jazzy weirdness ("The Ram"), a Japanoise-inspired punk riot ("Maximum Hexadic"), SunnO)))–like doom metal ("Guild" and "Future Verbs"), and fret-hurdling fuckery ("Hesitant Grand Light").
For those who want to geek out and gamble on Chasny's chance-based guitarscapes outside of a live performance, there's an instructional book (fittingly titled The Hexadic System) and a set of custom playing cards. And Chasny isn't done, either: He's already focused on Hexadic II (he's going acoustic for the sequel), and workshops are around the corner.
"I'm going to be doing a couple of talks at Supersonic Festival," Chasny says about upcoming plans. "One is going to be on the actual Hexadic system and the other on the history of combinatorial systems." Chasny is thinking big — with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. "I'm getting older, and this is my gateway into the lecture circuit," he laughs. "Put on the glasses and explain how to do this. All part of the big plan!"
Six Organs of Admittance play Baby's All Right on April 30 with Elisa Ambrogio. Tickets are available here.
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