SOUNDWALK COLLECTIVE with PATTI SMITH
soundwalk collective’s stephan crasneanscki traveled to the cave in the sierra tarahumara mountains where french poet antonin artaud experienced the peyote ritual and conceived the book “the peyote dance.” crasneanscki recorded sounds of stones, sand, and plants, and mixed them with native instruments, capturing the sonic ambiance that artaud may have experienced under the influence of peyote. patti smith read, sang, and improvised on artaud’s texts, letting him speak through her and giving life to his trance- like experience, which long preceded the beat generation’s satori, or state of enlightenment. here, patti smith and stephan crasneanscki relive their creative process.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Antonin Artaud used to say that he had burned up 100,000 human lives already, from the strength of his pain.
PATTI SMITH — The will of that man, the energy. If we, the living, send out radio and energy waves, the energy of those last poems is still reverberating. It can’t be silenced because we understand that this work and the artists are not dead — they find life when we are recording them. We don’t go into the studio and say, “Well, we’re going to make collages out of this work, we’re going to fragment it, we’re going to cut it up.” We don’t say anything. We always go into the studio thinking: “I’m going to read this as it stands.” But once we’re there, when I’m marching with the sonic elements you have prepared — which come from the mountains and the earth — it draws out of me the life, the still-living energy of the work.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — When I’m traveling, I’m trying to hear a hidden sound that holds a memory — a sonic, earthy sound that embeds existence. I know that when it will be heard in context, it will reveal its true nature.
PATTI SMITH — When I’m in the studio, I’m listening to a soundtrack of elements, of sticks, rocks, rain, air, and wind. They take me places because of their purity — and the purity of their intent. They were recorded in dangerous places with absolute love, unconditional love, and that comes through and just takes me on another journey. Because I’m not making the physical journey — it’s you who made the physical journeys — I can only make journeys through the performance and language. But these are big journeys. We help each other journey, right?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes. Every time, you are traveling with me in spirit. Your presence, as well as that of our poet, is always part of my adventure. You are there with me, and sometimes I think there is no decision making involved when it comes to capturing the sound, as though it was already there, waiting for me. My sole responsibility is to be present in order to listen.
PATTI SMITH — When I was younger, I would be overly conscious of the fact that I did not go to the mountains or to the dangerous areas in Mexico — I did not risk my life over and over. But now, I don’t feel that. I feel like I have. You have taken me with you to perform these pieces and leave your channels open to be assaulted by this great man. He enters the bloodstream, he enters the cells. For a moment, one is Artaud. These are things that we can go through a lifetime hoping for. Joan of Arc couldn’t make her voices come any more than I could make Artaud come, being filled with his love-rage. You can’t ask for it, you can’t buy it, you can’t take drugs for it to be authentic. It just has to happen — you have to be chosen as well as choose.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It’s like Artaud’s idea of black magic, where maybe the tragedy on the stage is no longer enough, and it is brought into one’s own life.
PATTI SMITH — It reminds me of Willem de Kooning’s work, Woman 1. They did an X-ray of it and studied it, and they showed that he had murdered six women. The first one he did was pretty great, then layer after layer, he kept on obliterating one woman after another to get to this final woman. It’s a masterpiece. It’s the way that one works sometimes.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The physicality.
PATTI SMITH — The older I got, the one thing I learned is true love, if sustained, what does it become? Is it passion? No, it’s sacrifice. Sacrifice is beautiful — what greater show of love?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Sacrifice could sum up The Peyote Dance, sacrificed for his perfect vision.
PATTI SMITH — Absolutely.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — For those of us who travel the world so frequently, home is a mindset. It’s an evanescent space, and you know that space is not coming necessarily because you want it, but it comes when you’re in the right time and space.
PATTI SMITH — That’s exactly right. I was thinking when I came home the other day, jetlagged, disappointed with certain things — they were jackhammering the streets, it was ugly, it was so humid and sticky — I kept on wondering, “Why am I here?”And then, the next day, I woke up at five in the morning, and I started writing, and I couldn’t stop writing.I was on fire! Then I suddenly found my place. I realized it had nothing to do with my own bed, my house in New York City. Nothing. It’s this bubble that we create, this alternative universe. It’s almost like we’re living inside a crystal. I was suddenly filled with joy, elation, and you’re exactly right: that is home.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, like a state of bliss, being in love.
PATTI SMITH — It’s the one thing that we’re faithful to, us vagabonds, faithful and enslaved to our work.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — And also, we know that when we can no longer see, it’s time to go. The mystery is here in its entirety and always has been — it’s just that we cannot see it anymore. This entirety is what you like to call “the pool,” no?
PATTI SMITH — I got this idea of the pool when I was a child. It’s the one recurring image I can go all the way back to, as soon as I could form words that articulated abstract thought. The pool to me is—call it “God” — it’s where all wisdom is. My problem is: is the pool the highest? Is there God, then the pool? The pool is all of man-made wisdom in one place, and we keep adding to the pool every time we have a realization. But where do these realizations come from? To me, it’s one of the most beautiful things about being alive, having this consciousness that can reach out and go there. That’s where we channel from: it’s all energy. Those poets are all dead, of course. I go to visit their tombs, but their energy — radio waves and brain waves — that’s what the pool is: it’s the liquid energy of everything. If you thought of it as a great set of encyclopedias, you can go to the pool and find the Rs and find Rimbaud. To me, the pool is also pre-Babel. In the Tower of Babel story, everyone speaks the same language. They had the miracle of telepathy. They are building the Tower of Babel, and they can raise stone, so powerful is the unification of their minds. In Genesis, God looks at them, and he can see that they want to see what he’s up to. He’s looking down, and he thinks: “What the fuck?! My people all speak of one mind so they can do anything, and they are coming up to my house. Because of this, I’m going to confound their language.” And they were trying to talk to each other, but one person is speaking Greek, one in Somalian, and they couldn’t communicate to build the tower. To me, the pool is pre-Babel, when man knew everything, and they were only this far away from God. It still exists; he didn’t destroy the pool — he just made it hard to get to. When I was really young, I was studying the Bible, and I had this idea, and I tried to ask the elders about it, and they were thinking: “What are you talking about? Stop thinking about that, it is not what it means.” But I had such a vision of this, and I didn’t know where to put it. Because as a kid, who is going to talk to you about the wisdom pool?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — In the act of collecting and recording, we are trying to restore what came before language. Like an intuitive sense of truth.
PATTI SMITH — Well, we are preserving and encoding these notebooks with chicken scratches and encoding the process of channeling, of accessing the pool and taking from it, and then giving process to the pouring and receiving, like a figure eight. As an anthropologist preserving what otherwise would be gone all of a sudden, like all the indigenous people are killed, or no more access to the mountain, or no one cares anymore. On so many levels, art, anthropology, spirituality, entertainment, all kinds of things in obscure works that aren’t even obscure anymore because we opened them up with a can opener. Like William Blake, he did his work, people made fun of him, he died in poverty, but he put work down, and now we can access it.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Antonin Artaud took risks for us, and this is the whole reason for living.
PATTI SMITH — Some people knew this. John Lennon knew this. Bob Dylan, in a certain way — he’s a bit selfish, but he gave us one of the most beautiful bodies of work of the 20th century… Our present culture doesn’t value this as much as it was once valued. This courage of Solomon. He was in conversation with God, who asked him: “What do you want? You can have gold, silver, jewels, or wisdom…” Wisdom used to be highly priced and has slipped on the scale. If you were stocking wisdom, you would be losing money right now. It’s all the more important that these concepts and ideologies and kinds of love are translated, reinterpreted, and expanded on for future generations as well as our own selves.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It’s like a “perfect vision,” which in our case is a musical triptych. It’s interesting that we went through places like Mexico to search for a “perfect vision,” in spaces where you can still feel a sacred presence — where the gods are still among you. In this idea of perfect vision, there is also the idea of oneness, and with that comes a sense of supreme love.
PATTI SMITH — That is also why, when I was 14 or 15 years old, musicians like Albert Ayler, [John] Coltrane, Ornette Coleman appealed to me so much. I love R&B music, I love a great beat, I like to dance, but the idea of having an artist present music that had the possibilities of keeping going… Of course, Coltrane had to stop because of the constrictions of record albums that were only 18 minutes a side, so he could do a 14-minute “My Favorite Thing,” but then he did a “Love Supreme” that’s all on one record — it just keeps going and going. Who can imagine, if these guys had lived, where they would have gone, where Jimi Hendrix would have gone? Because they all wanted to go there — Jimi told me that only weeks before he died, when I was 22. His plan was unbelievable. I wrote about this in my book: he wanted to find musicians all around the world with different instruments and take them all up to Woodstock when the weather was beautiful. He would sit them in a field in a circle, and they would all play, discordant, without harmony, play and play, hour after hour, until they found it, till they churned like butter and developed a universal language. Then he died, three weeks later. What does it say in [René Daumal’s] Mount Analogue? “And you, what do you seek?” Don’t you love that? I remember reading that and going [gasps]: “wow.” What do you seek? Everything.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Unlimited vision.
PATTI SMITH — Well, you know, if you’re going to have unlimited vision, you’re going to see a lot of difficult things. You are going to see death, loss, hunger, and exquisiteness, all of the same weight. The price Artaud paid: look at him with no teeth, with raw skin. You have to be raw at least once. You have to wail like an animal.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Absolutely. The poets paid the price for their insurrection and for intuitively following the truth…
PATTI SMITH — Because they value the pursuit more than themselves. I mean, look at Robert [Mapplethorpe] — the price he paid for his pursuits. Going as far as he could with everything, whether it was art, sex, everything. It’s a Faustian situation.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The question is: who are you making a pact with?
PATTI SMITH — You can make a pact with the devil, which is a Faustian pact. But I think you can also make pacts with angels, like Joan of Arc did, and you pay an equally terrible price. She made a pact with an angel and burned by fire. Saint Bernadette made a pact with the Virgin Mary, and she died a horrible death like Rimbaud, with giant tumors. Pacts with angels are equally as dangerous as a pact with the devil.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — When you see once, you cannot unsee, which can sometimes sink us into chaos.
PATTI SMITH — But what do you see? If you make a Faustian pact, it’s often because you want worldly goods, fame, or fortune, power. So, you don’t see anything. That’s the price you pay: you die not see- ing anything. But if you make a pact with an angel, you’ll die seeing Christ, or you’ll die seeing the Virgin Mary. Or you’ll die seeing the archangel Michael… [Even Solomon], with all his wisdom, was still beguiled by all the gold, the women, the power, and he fucked up. When I was a kid, this bothered me so much.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — There is always a duality in all of us. An apocalyptic as well as wise mind, and both states exist in different moments of our lives.
PATTI SMITH — We don’t want to define it, what we’re doing. But if I was to talk to William Burroughs about it, he’d say, “Okay, this is a product of the third mind.” But if you think about it, it’s of the fourth mind because you, I, and the work make up the third mind. Mutual, mental fluidity-producing work. But because we are working with other people’s work — and not just reading it, but channeling these people in terms of the unspoken rules of channeling — they become a fourth mind. It can’t really be broken down. We are not trying to scientifically prove that you can channel the dead — it’s not about that. It’s about channeling the intellectual, spiritual energy of a fellow worker.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It’s like trying to find a breath that has fossilized on a rock and that we are trying resurrect, recording its exhalation again.
PATTI SMITH—Yes, awakening the space.It always exists. If you’re creating space for others, it’s up to them to enter it and use it, whether it’s Blake’s created space or the space that da Vinci created in the eyes of his Christ. Artists create space. I remember in early punk rock, people would say to me: “What are you trying to do with your music? What is Horses? What are you trying to do?” And I’d say, “I am creating space, so other generations can ask, ‘What does doing an album mean?’” Jimi Hendrix was a great space creator. It takes the artist out of the realm of the egocentric to the benevolent — because artists will die, but the space they created lives.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI—Those spaces, for me, have been where all of them laid down, like Antonin Artaud’s cave in the Copper Canyon of Mexico.
PATTI SMITH — Antonin Artaud left behind the ritual language, and the password to enter his space is found in his work. You think about people who practice black magic: they are looking for the secret words of Mephistopheles to try and understand the secret language. They have to utter it aloud in order to enter that particular realm. We are entering the realm of art, the realm of infinite knowledge, the tree of good and evil.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Sacred words, I often see them as oscillation since sound is only made of vibration. And in space, everything is vibration. As sound travels, it trans- ports energy from one place to another.
PATTI SMITH — It’s a journey because of the mental travel. I travel, but I am not like you: you really travel, you’ve been everywhere, you will go to forbidden places where you could die. I go to dangerous places mentally. I am a mental traveler. I know you are, too, but in the way we work, those two things are covered. I’m interpreting your travels orally, the elements you have gotten, as well as interpreting the artists we have chosen to pay homage to. Physical travel is such a high level of travel. I have been practicing mental traveling for most of my life—well over half a century, at least.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — When we composed and laid down those sounds in the studio, you had the song in your ears, and you started to channel the space, entering and finding your way inside it.
PATTI SMITH — Exactly, and so you can understand that, every once in a while, I’ll ask you to remove a sound. It could be anything — it’s not just that I don’t like it, but it creates sonic obstacles instead of portals for the way my mind works. Certain sonic patterns mean I can’t travel. I have learned so much from all of these things through all the years I’ve been recording: what I am capable of and how much there is to learn and how exciting that is and how there are whole new territories to pioneer. It’s funny because I began in 1970 with oral poetry, which I was always impatient with because it was never enough. I wanted more sound or something. It was Sam Shepard who suggested: “Why don’t you have a guitar or something?” I was getting ready for my first big reading. It was in February ’71. I had one psalm that I’d written for Sam, and I went and asked Lenny Kaye if he would play feedback on his guitar. We did a couple of little songs, and he played with a little tiny amp. It was in St. Martin’s Church. Nobody had ever done poetry with electric guitar feedback, and it upset a lot of people, but it gave me more scope for performing poetry… I had so much energy, me at 23 — on 78 speed, naturally. Now, all these years later, I’m returning, finding a way to read poetry where I can keep pushing. That’s why I improvise so much, like “Constantine’s Dream” on Banga. “Radio Baghdad,” that was a really visceral improvisation because I had that push. And these journeys are interesting because we have been probing territory — the mind, the spiritual aspects, the bitter pills — all these different aspects of these three writers.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It’s pushing but maybe also digging?
PATTI SMITH—Yes, it’s digging, but instead of down into the earth, you’re digging in both ways, into all the elements, into the wind, the sky, the earth. There’s your gold. You go on all these travels, but you don’t come back with loads of diamonds or lapis lazuli — you come back with these humble-looking stones that can only come from that particular part of the world. I think of it when I go to these sacred places or to Jerusalem, thinking,“Whose feet walked on these stones?” I don’t care about the big opulent churches with their golden statues — I mean, they’re beautiful — but the stone on which someone walked…If you could find a stone on which Christ or the Apostles or John the Baptist walked… You’ve been in the Cave of the Apocalypse. I’ve been in the cave of Ho Chi Minh, where he wrote the Vietnamese declaration of independence. This cave, you go down, and there’s nothing. His bed and everything are made of stone. You can see where he slept and an extra stone where his head lay. You could almost talk to the space — it spoke to you, his presence is so deeply concentrated, and his mind, can you imagine? Deep thought, concentration, going through the self, like you said, until someone comes to wake the space up. The space is there, electric.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, I love waking up the space, as if it had been in a long coma. Sometimes, I question what we are all hearing. Is Antonin Artaud hearing the same sound of the rain under the trees of the Copper Canyon as I am, the same drops on the leaves?
PATTI SMITH — Only you and I can do what we’re doing in the way that we are doing it. Allen Ginsberg read his poems, and Lenny Kaye gave him soundtracks. People have been doing this forever. It’s just attempting, within it, not just to create a body of work, but to create a breathing body of work that keeps growing as you do it. It’s alive… We have wind from the top of sacred mountains, we have the sound of stones from the dangerous parts of the mountains in Mexico. The places that you have been, it’s not been done. I’m not just talking about our process — I’m talking about the components. We have high ambitions because we want to do good work, but they are not material ambitions. We are not trying to make a living, to have physical gold in our hands. It’s a different type of gold — it’s metaphysical gold. The only time we’re able to hold onto it is during the process. The greatest material thing that the artist gets is the process. In the end, it goes out into the world, and it becomes whatever happens in the world, or what happens when the future can use it, if someone in the year 2070 uses it as a springboard for another work.
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