A little bit of context before I dive into this one. For his new record Hexadic, Ben Chasny (aka Six Organs Of Admittance) has developed his own compositional method entitled the Hexadic system. The results are surreal and immediately beautiful. I’d thoroughly recommend listening to “Wax Chance” here for an instance of the system in action.
So, is it possible to talk about the mechanics of the Hexadic system and how it works?
It’s a bit complicated. We’re going to make a book out of it as there’s a lot of complexity to it, but I can talk about it a little bit.
I started working on it a few years ago, mostly for myself – I wanted to work with new ideas on the guitar, as I felt like I was going to the same notes all the time and things like that. Eventually I thought, “Fuck! I haven’t done a Six Organs record in a while. Maybe I should see if this system works.” It was a little bit scary going in. I’d done some acoustic things with it, but I didn’t know how it’d actually come out until I booked studio time and got in there with a band.
There are different parts to the system. It’s not one linear thing where you plug something in and get a bunch of results. It’s all these different aspects – there’s a parlour game aspect, and then some sort of compositional methods where you can use any part by itself, or combine different parts together. I’ve been thinking about it more in terms of an assemblage, where each part exists on its own or can interact. When they interact with each other they become more than their individual parts. Some of the parts use chance operations and some use a combinatorial process; once you have a certain aspect you can combine and recombine tones, and you get what I call a “tonal field” – possible notes that you can play for any given time. Most of the tonal fields are six notes, which I call a “hexafield”.
It’s really weird, because I’ve been in this universe for the past two years. I’ve been trying to write this book to explain it – for me I think, “oh, you take the hexafield and combine it with the intensity card, and then you combine that with the hexadic field and there you go!” I have to use normal English to explain it, which is what I’ve been doing with the book. I didn’t realize how deep into the rabbit hole I got.
The first aspect is that I use a deck of poker cards, and align the deck to the notes on the guitar. Some of the compositional methods involve laying the cards out in a certain pattern in which they will interact with each other. A majority of the record was composed in that way, and the album front cover is actually the pattern in which you lay the cards out. If you ever look at the record cover, everything’s in sixes – that’s why it’s called a Hexadic figure. You have six little clusters of six cards going all the way around, and then you also have six cards forming lines through the centre of the pattern. In essence you get six notes that are octave-specific, and 12 of those tonal fields.
None of this is making any sense, I know! The most basic aspect is the cards. Since I was using cards for certain patterns and chance operations…cards are used for games and there’s actually a couple of games to play within this work as well. Actually, do you know the guitar player Rick Tomlinson? He does a band called Voice Of The Seven Thunders.
Yeah, I know them.
We’re good friends. He came over a couple of months ago and we ended up playing some of these games. I think they’re really entertaining if you chuck in some beers – I mean, they’re really nerdy, but we had a good time playing them. A lot of laughs.
There’s a part of the system that has to do with language as well. There’s a way that the fields create a structure of consonants, and once you get that you can fill in the vowels and create words. All of the words on the record were created with the system after the tonal fields were determined. Those aligned with certain words and notes. But again, it doesn’t give you the whole word or the whole order of notes – it just gives you a basic structure that I use to build the lyrics off of.
Some of these musicians like Anthony Braxton…well, that guy’s a crazy genius. I’m not anywhere near that level, but now I kind of understand that these musicians are in their own worlds and it’s hard for them to get out in order to communicate. I’m trying to balance between both worlds so I can communicate what it’s about.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m following all of this, but hearing you talk about it is brilliant. It’s so clear that this is something surrounding you on all sides. That comes through on the record as well.
I didn’t realise how much I’ve been enveloped by it until I started trying to talk about it. I don’t think any section of the system is new. It’s got hints of surrealism and hints of serialism, but I’m specifically making it for guitar players. The guitar is the base limit – so a low E in standard tuning is where we start off with aligning the cards. The way the different aspects of the system interact is new, and that’s what I’m really excited about.
So this is the longest gap between Six Organs records since…forever? Or just quite some time?
Since the beginning of Six Organs. I put out my first record in 1998 and it’s never gone longer than a year and a half between full lengths. It’s a lot easier for just one person than it is for four people to get together – Comets On Fire haven’t done a record for eight years. But this album broke the cycle for Six Organs. I did this band New Bums last year though.
That New Bums record is awesome. So you were working on New Bums and Hexadic in parallel? That must have been strange.
Yeah. I think this sheds some light on the New Bums record too. I let Donovan Quinn take the reins, so the lyrics are his. It was fun but it didn’t take up the same mental space as this system, you know? We just had fun playing music, while the other aspect of systematising things I was doing with Six Organs.
Is there a sense of disconnection when you’re playing the material from Hexadic? Does it feel like it’s coming from you?
Yeah, it does. There is a system and there are these structures you engage with, but part of my theory is that by having an overt structure that you are aware of and conscious of, it actually allows more freedom in the playing. I think a lot of people have the semi-romantic notion of, “I’m going to sit and wait for inspiration from some sort of other”. No matter how modern somebody is, there’s supposed to be this genius or this great daemon or whatever that gives you your thing, right? When people think that way, they’re not actually aware of these underlying structures that they’re following. My idea is that if you have an overt structure, you actually free yourself and open up to new ideas from that other.
This record sounds crazier than any Six Organs record, but it has these overt structures on top of it. We can just be absolutely free within this certain structure, whereas with the people that say, “I can be as free as I want”, there’s something holding them back that doesn’t allow them to be free when everything actually comes out.
Absolutely. I make music too, and whenever a strange chord progression takes place in a record I’m listening to, I’ll go, “well why can’t I think of that?” It’s just a cluster of notes and yet it would never enter my mind to put them together, even if I think I have no particular compositional agenda. It must open doors for you that you never knew were there, right?
That is exactly what the whole thing was supposed to be about, because I found myself the same way – I pick up the guitar and I’m always in the same tuning…even when I’m trying to do new things, there’s something inside of me that’s not allowing that to happen. I’m always following certain structures. I totally agree with what you’re saying. Part of the system was to be like, well – now you have a choice. “This is an interval you wouldn’t normally play; make it work.” So you’re still absolutely engaging with your inner inspiration, but you have to work with it a little bit more. And then in the end, you do start to think about intervals in a different way, and you do perhaps have a wider palette of ideas to choose from. There’s definitely a pragmatic aspect to the system.
On the first listen to Hexadic, I think a lot of listener will feel like I did; coming from the perspective of knowing much of your previous work, it definitely feels like there’s some distance to cross before one can understand it. Yet I was listening to the track “Hollow River” just today, and it’s got the most gorgeous chord progression running through it. It’s an overtly beautiful record as well – not just a sequence of abstract shapes.
Thank you. What’s revealing itself is the internal logic of the system. So although the system doesn’t follow what’s “correct” harmonically, you can hear how there is a logic within the system in the way that the notes are supposed to interact with each other, as well as the timing of the different progressions. I can’t be objective about it, but I’m hoping that by the end of the record people think, “oh – there is a certain logic to how it all unfolded.”
And so “Hollow River” has a specific scale, and those descending notes were created using the system. Cards also determine the timing of each hexafield. A lot of these pieces aren’t in a regular time – not 4/4, or 7/8 or anything – and the pieces are made up by how long each hexafield is played for. So you’ll have one hexafield played for four beats, one for one beat, one for nine beats…but if you repeat it over and over again, you get a cyclical thing and then it does make sense
But also, I’m aware that I made a difficult record. I tried to get the harshest guitar tone I possibly could, and I wanted it to be a rock record and dive into my love of High Rise and Musica Transonic…super-distorted guitars. That amplifies everything just a little bit, so I’m aware of that as well.
Who else is playing with you on this record?
On drums is my friend Noel [Von Harmonson]. He does all of the noise in Comets On Fire, and now he’s playing guitar in Comets too. He used to play in a band called Low Down and he was in Sic Alps for a while – I’ve known him forever in Comets. Mostly on bass is my friend Rob Fisk. I am in a band called Badgerlore with him. He’s an old, old friend. And then I got my friend Charlie [Saufley] to play bass on it as well. Three people at all times, with Charlie and Rob switching off on bass.
And how did they take to using the system?
It took a while to convince them! They were just like, “what the fuck man?” There’s something really joyful about it though. This is the first record where we actually had to have charts in front of us, and it’s the first record in any band I’ve done where we actually had music stands. Everybody helped decide how it would sound too. The process was, “here are your notes – play them however you want”. So the record didn’t have to sound the way it does. A big part of it is their playing, and everybody coming up with how these songs were going to sound. We’d work on a song and play it for nearly an hour, and then go “okay – let’s record. This is how this song sounds right now”. So that’s another funny thing; it sounds like the most insane Six Organs record, but we had fucking music stands in front of us!
So if you were to take the songs live on the road, could they sound vastly different to how they are on the record?
That’s a really good question and I’m still trying to put together exactly what to do. The shows will begin in February, and my original idea was that every show would be different. But now with this record…I kinda like the songs. I feel like they’re songs and now they’re set, so it’ll probably play fairly close to how they’re produced on the record, although it’d definitely depend on who plays. If I have a different bass player or drummer, it’d probably sound different. If I can get the same people as on the record – and I’m trying to get them out – it’ll probably sound as it was.
But a big idea for this record is that I’d like to do shows using the system where every single show is different. So I’d probably need two days at every date instead of one, with one day to get it together. Each time we’d use the system to compose the set, and then the next day we’d go over it for an hour or two. So every city would have a brand set of music that was composed the previous day, in that city. I’d even like to work toward playing with people in different cities – showing up and playing with a particular group of musicians for a week and then performing. So basically, it’s anything from sounding like the record to being a totally different show.
I didn’t realise the system was going to be as vast as this.
I think the openness is really key to the whole thing. Umberto Eco wrote this book called The Open Work. I think of the system a lot like that, in that it’s a malleable system that’s open to work with – you can interact with it in a lot of different ways. That’s why it’s hard for me to call it a system, as a system has this closed aspect to it. You plug in this and you get this. This is a very malleable thing and you can do all sorts of things with it. It’s been so long with Six Organs that I wanted to do something a little new, so that’s part of it.
Were there any particular reference points for you when putting the system together? I’ve seen performances by other artists based on John Cage’s work with The Book Of Changes…
Well, in no way am I trying to bum-rush the academic field; this is trying to stealthily steal some ideas and take them back to the rock realm. It’s definitely caveman style, you know? It’s caveman music.
I was reading Give My Regards To Eighth Street, the book of Morton Feldman writings. They’re so entertaining. Actually, Damon [Krukowski], who runs Exact Change with his wife Naomi, gave me a copy and I started reading it the week I came up with this. I started to sort of half-dream these ideas with cards as I’d be waking up. So Feldman was the beginning, which is funny because in those writings he claims to be very anti-system. He really gets mad at certain composers who explain their systems. He’s just so entertaining; such a funny guy. So that book was probably the beginning.
I saw a performance of Feldman pieces at Café Oto actually, which was the quietest I’ve ever seen that venue. His sense of tonality is so bizarre to my ears.
Oh yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s invigorating to listen to him too…some of those intervals wake you up a bit, despite how quiet the music is most of the time.
Perhaps it’s too early to start considering this, but have you thought about how you’re going to approach the next creative project after Hexadic? Is it possible for you to go back now?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I generally work in opposites; if I do a loud record, I’ll usually do a quiet one next. Something will probably reveal itself. Since I’ve been working on this, I’ve thought that I’ll probably try it for the next few years. I keep seeing more and more parts of the assemblage that can be created, so I’ll probably incorporate those and start working with them as well.
So you’re releasing a book that explains the system too – presumably to help other people shake themselves of their own creative habits?
I guess so. I mean, that’s such a fucking dickhead thing to do, like, “I will come to help you!” It may be interesting to some people if they want to. And also it’s just a kind of an art piece in itself; no matter how much I try and make the system look normal, it’s just a crazy conglomerate of drawings and everything. I’m kind of hoping that as people see that the system is all of these different parts, that other people will also start doing stuff – maybe there will be a second book with ideas that other people have come up with. I really want to put them up on my website, if people have ideas that they can add on to the assemblage; new games, new language aspects.
You mentioned that it’s more of a “caveman” thing that an academic one. I’m sure one of the most academic thing you could do is to refuse people’s suggested amendments. “Fuck you – the system is perfect!”
[Laughs] Yeah, totally. This is totally fucking caveman – bring that meat to the fire! Let’s cook it up!
Plus, I suppose that the system exists in the form of this record at the moment. It’d be great to see someone composing, say, a bassoon piece using the Hexadic system.
Oh, absolutely. Another part of my big idea is that I’d like to get some of my friends to do some stuff, and maybe do a compilation – four guitar players or something. Hopefully I can get some of my guitar player friends like Richard Bishop to work on it. If anyone else worked with it, it’d sound vastly different to what I did. I’m really curious.
And are you coming to the UK with this?
Absolutely. It’s looking like June for sure, and I’m hoping I can get there in March as well. I’ll probably be over there a few times next year. That’s my hope.
Hexadic will be released on 17th February 2015.
Six Organs Of Admittance website – www.sixorgans.com