In an English translation of "Une Charogne," one of the more famous entries in Charles Baudelaire's 1857 volume Les Fleurs du mal, or The Flowers of Evil, the French poet writes, "Her legs were spread out like a lecherous whore/ Sweating out poisonous fumes." He's speaking of a rotting corpse that he happens upon while strolling along the roadside, finding—as he often did in his work—a haunting beauty where others might describe disgusting decay.
Puerto Rican artist Dan Buchen was taken with that image. In fact, that particular Baudelaire poem inspired Buchen to create a cantastoria—a sung reading. As a friend intoned the words, Buchen spun a scroll of images by hand through a box he fashioned from a dresser drawer.
"It was this beautiful poem about the cycle of life and love, told by using this image of a carcass rotting away," Buchen explains, taking a break from his own walk through the streets of San Juan to talk. "As I was reading it, I realized it was a waltz. You could sing it as a waltz."
That was 2003. Today, Buchen is preparing for the fourth iteration of his Baudelaire in a Box series. Since 2010, the project has aimed to create similar cantastoria for every poem in the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal by the year 2017, the 150th anniversary of Baudelaire's death. Buchen has performed previous versions in New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico, most often with his friend Chris Schoen providing the score. The fourth installment, "Bad Luck," will open this week with three dates across the Triangle, featuring a quartet of local musicians. Underground rock legend Dexter Romweber, Red Collar frontman Jason Kutchma, theatrically inclined folk singer Curtis Eller and pop-noir duo New Town Drunks will take turns setting Baudelaire's words to music.
"You get handed a whole book of poems, of beautiful poetry about bars and opium and prostitutes and all the sins and beauties of life," says Roberto Confresi of the New Town Drunks about adapting Baudelaire's odes. "Each one is more incredible than the last."
A chance meeting between Confresi's New Town Drunks and Buchen brought Baudelaire in a Box to North Carolina. While visiting Confresi's homeland of Puerto Rico, the husband-and-wife duo saw Buchen perform. They talked with him after the show and sparked the idea of utilizing Triangle rooms and musicians. Confresi took the organizational lead locally, booking the spaces and recruiting the musicians. He even thought to book both a cultural venue (Carrboro's ArtsCenter) and two rock clubs (Durham's Pinhook and Raleigh's Pour House) to emphasize the juxtaposition of high brow language and gutter-drunk subjects within Baudelaire's work.
Buchen lauds Confresi's work with the idea, calling him "the most together producer I have ever worked with." But he doesn't seem one for sweating the details, either: On the phone last week, he had yet to finish painting the scrolls for this week's performance, but he chuckled lightheartedly at the end of each response. He was equally nonchalant about not having heard any of the music that would accompany him.
"It's all a mystery," he says. "My head is just so in the midst of still painting it that I pull my head up from the paper, and the next thing I think about is, 'OK, what's the next one?' I'm very much looking forward to getting on that plane and going to rehearsal and just sort of being surprised by it all."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gross beauty."