Guest Spot: Carla Kihlstedt’s Necessary Monsters

Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi: Still You Lay Dreaming: Tales for the Stage, IICarla Kihlstedt & Matthias BossiStill You Lay Dreaming: Tales for the Stage, II (12 Cups, 2/1/11)

Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi: “Subsequently”

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Oakland-based multi-instrumentalist Carla Kihlstedt has had a hand in upwards of 50 albums in less than 15 years. As a member of groups such as Tin Hat, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and The Book of Knots, Kihlstedt sings and plays violin, organ, percussion, and just about everything else.

Currently, she’s set to premiere Necessary Monsters, a song cycle based on Jorge Luis BorgesThe Book of Imaginary Beings, in San Francisco on July 29 and 30 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Read more about the project and the corresponding Kickstarter campaign on the Imaginary Beings Project website. We gave Kihlstedt the opportunity to write about her personal relationship with these monsters and how they unlocked a world of objectivity and imagination.

How Monsters Changed My Life
by Carla Kihlstedt

At first, they’re all so cute. Even the one with only one arm, one leg, one wing, and half a tongue; the one who goes around with hatred in his heart stealing speech from animals; the one who weeps in the forest, and if she’s caught dissolves herself into a heap of bubbles and salt; the little one made of string, dust, and a broken spool of who-knows-what; the one with one eye and a maniacally monotonous, monocled perspective.

But then you let them in for long enough, and as the spectacle wears off, they start just looking like friends with foibles. OK…large foibles, exaggerated features, caricatures for sure…nonetheless familiar, and almost friendly. And that’s when you’re in trouble, but believe me, it’s a necessary kind of trouble, a trouble that teaches you more about yourself than perhaps you were prepared for.

I’m referring, of course, to imaginary beings. My encounter with them begins with an innocuous moment when I was in college, home for vacation, looking at my parents’ bookshelf for something to read. The Book of Imaginary Beings jumped out at me, both because of its title (scholarly yet full of fantasy) and because I had heard this fellow, Jorge Luis Borges, referred to with an equally compelling combination of reverence, amusement, and excitement.

There were those who had read Borges and those who had not. I had not. Having read Borges was a kind of a badge of intellectual hipness. He would laugh to hear such a thing, he who said, “I think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes. And one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.”

Now, I normally whinny, rear up, and gallop in the other direction when faced with a peer-pressure-inspired badge of anything! But in this case, my curiosity led the way, and since then, I have grown to love him as if he were my own grandfather. (Listen to his set of three lectures from Harvard’s “Norton Lecture Series” here, here and here, and perhaps he’ll become your surrogate grandpa too!)

He is (I use the present tense because he seems so very present to me through his words) an incredibly intelligent and well-read (not to mention well-written) man with a generous heart and an unstoppably inquisitive mind. He writes what could arguably be called adult fairy tales — unmistakably adult, but full of whimsy and a very mercurial logic.

The Book of Imaginary Beings is a collection of Borges’ favorite fictional creatures from across the world and throughout history from a wide array of mythological, literary, and religious traditions. He didn’t so much write it as curate it. And still, it is both a portrait of Borges and of humans, as told to us by our own collective imagination.

This book lived in my bathroom in college and beyond. Most writers would take offense at such base placement of the evidence of their life’s work, but I think Borges would understand, and perhaps would even approve. He tells us in the preface that this book is meant to be read in bits and pieces, not in any particular order — a page here, a page there — so it is the perfect potty book. And so it was for me for several years.

Now, I’ll fast forward so that we can get to the fun part about revelation and transformation. More than a decade later, I was invited by the wonderful and brave folks at Alverno Presents and at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art to come up with a concept for a new project, and to apply for a development grant with them from the National Performance Network, and they would give me the opportunity to perform this new piece in their respective theaters. The Book of Imaginary Beings fairly jumped off of the shelf of my mind and wouldn’t let me look away. This was the beginning of my five-year (and counting) journey.

I asked my friend and favorite poet, Rafael Osés, if he’d join me in creating a set of songs after Borges’ book, and off we went. We picked nine of the beings, making a kind of an arc through which we could trace a human life (beginning with an animal dreamed by CS Lewis, who is the embodiment of expression): from a great and strange song-dog who lives in the woods and yelps and howls her joyous song for no one, to Odradek, a collection of odds and ends from our human activities, who will outlast us all. Odradek lives under our stairs and in our entrance halls and subtly reminds us every day of our own mortality.

The piece we created is called Necessary Monsters, again, a tribute to Borges. He states in the foreword to The Book of Imaginary Beings:

“We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature…”

It is scored for seven musicians and an actress, who tries in vain to corral these creatures into an orderly field guide as they parade out of her mind over the course of one sleepless night.

I have now lived with An Animal Dreamed by CS Lewis, Hochigan, the Squonk, the Nisna, the Double, the Ink Monkey, the Lamed Wufniks, the One-eyed Being, and our little, gently menacing friend, Odradek, for quite some time. They are my housemates. They take up no room at all, and yet they more than fill up every corner of my mind.

Here’s what they have taught me: They are all me. And some of them (I) are (am) not so cute. I’m sure the implication is not lost on you here: they are all you too. In fact, there is not a single one of us whom these little critters don’t inhabit. They live side by side within us, sometimes fighting, bickering, and clawing at each other, and other times oblivious to each other’s existence and utterly ambivalent towards the person we like to think we are.

Every creature that humans can possibly imagine is a just magnified reflection of one tiny aspect of our own thoughts and experiences. We have each simply chosen to let different beings take over at different times. For some of us, the menagerie is constantly rotating, taking turns with who gets to sit in the pole position, and for others, one particular being has hosied the steering wheel and won’t let go… for years, or even for a lifetime.

What this means, like it or not, is that we are all more the same than we are different. Yes, you and I, you and your obnoxious neighbor, you and your greedy boss, you and your credit-card collections agent, you and your favorite Hollywood heartthrob, you and your least favorite FOX News jockey…I could go on, because that’s actually really fun, but you get the point.

In case you haven’t gotten the point, here it is further explained: I’m sure that at the core of all of your favorite books or movies is a transformation of some sort. An average Joe becomes a superhero, the girl next door becomes a werewolf, a grumpy chef opens her heart and lets love in, a myopic divorcée goes on a solo voyage to Cuba and learns the meaning of family, love, and life… again, I could go on, because that’s also fun, but I won’t.

Even if you only watch documentaries and read science textbooks, it’s still always about transformation: a community learns to accept each other through fighting for a common good, a boy grows up and becomes a serial killer, a cell decides whether to be a brain cell or a heart cell. Even the nonlinear films of Stan Brakhage and the writings of Gertrude Stein are essentially about the transformation of our language and our perception. I went on. Sorry.

The point is that we are hard-wired for transformation because we are utterly teeming with these imaginary beings, these glimmers of potential. The ones that come to the forefront are the ones that we have nurtured. The rest may be silent or invisible, but they are still there, hiding, lurking, waiting for the right moment to spring. We harbor them in the deeper recesses of ourselves. This is not good versus evil, for they are all more complicated than that, and then even more so in cacophonous concert with one another. It’s like taking your life’s direction from a table of advisers all drawn by Dr. Seuss.

The gift of the imagination is the gift of objectivity. It’s much easier to look at these aspects of ourselves and our fragile, complicated humanness when they don’t look like us, or when they don’t even look human. They fool us into believing that we’re looking at something other, something foreign, and, dare I say, something exotic. But exotic only exists from afar. Exotic evaporates when you get up close to it. Exotic entices us to look, to gape, to gawk and point, and buy the postcard. But then, if you have the courage to get up close, you’ll find, rather sheepishly, that you are simply pointing at your own being…or one of them.