Boring Formless Nonsense - Interview with Eldritch Priest

Written By:

Eric Meyer

Published:

November 30, 2017

1. Introduction

Very few people think of failure in the same way as Eldritch Priest, Professor of Aesthetics and Sound Studies at the School for Contemporary Art at Simon Fraser University and author of the book Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and The Aesthetics of Failure. But, then again, to think of failure in the way he does one would have spent insufferable amounts of time contemplating ennui.

Priest’s argument critiques contemporary art’s fascination with failure and its limitations of full aesthetic expression. His meditation consists of three sections or modes: Boring, Formless and Nonsense. Using experimental music to drive his argument and an unorthodox use of literary form, Priest creates an experiential critique of failure.

I watched failure develop in the arts into a ‘cutting-edge’ concept. It was becoming codified by the self-help industry and business world as a model for improvement and success.

2. The Aesthetics of Failure

Photo credits: Anton Lukoszevieze
Photo credits: Anton Lukoszevieze

During the early 2000’s, Eldritch Priest lived in Toronto focusing on performance and composition. While there, he formed the Neither/Nor ensemble (borrowed from Morton Feldman’s essay of the same name) with fellow musician John Mark Sherlock. They staged a series of “festivettes” between 2001 and 2011 including “inconsequence” (2003), “obscurity” (2005) and “failure” (2007) mainly showcased “for …composer-performers whose experimental sensibilities were guided”, by what Priest and company called, “the right to be esoteric” (also a concept from Feldman).

He expands on Neither/Nor’s philosophy, “…for us this ‘right to be esoteric’ is expressive of a playful indifference, or maybe even mild irreverence, towards the demand that art’s possibilities be readily available to the maker, or the receiver for that matter… In effect,” Priest continues, “we were trying to support and cultivate a certain aesthetic disposition in a musical scene that could accommodate being misunderstood, or more radically, not even liked.”

Failure as a contemporary art aesthetic began gaining cultural prominence while Priest worked towards his doctorate. He goes on to say, “[I] watched failure develop in the arts into a ‘cutting-edge’ concept, while at the same time [it was becoming] codified by the self-help industry and business world as a model for improvement and success."

But to Priest, the art world’s use of failure is too structurally relative to cultural norms, where it flourished not as a condition of being but, instead, embedded in a set of prescribed normative principles or a “critical gesture or a form of success in disguise. In his view, “failure could be just what it is” and, as he says, “[it was a] suspicion of its celebratory uptake that ultimately led me to interrogate its form and function.”

His concept of failure “…is predicated on the assumption that failure, if it’s going to be compelling, can’t be so easily determined”. To meet Priest’s criteria, it requires temporization. It cannot stand still both in how it’s presented and communicated. If it does, it runs the risk of viewer awareness exciting the boring, giving structure to the formless and making order out of nonsense. He expands on failure by saying:

“In Boring Formless Nonsense, I try to say that failure is extremely uninteresting and not all compelling if it’s just a taken as a judgment made against norms. This is how I suggest Kim Cascone’s idea of “glitch music” works, and it’s basically how I continue to see it being invoked in arts. It’s also how I see failure being mobilized by someone like Jack Halberstam, whose book, the Queer Art of Failure, treats failure as a critical resource… Failure that’s grasped with respect to norms assumes that the latter is certain of its terms of success and effects. But this assumes too much. Power structures and normative forms are, as I write, not so clearly defined that a well-aimed failure can bring it to its knees. To be articulated in a way that doesn’t just leave normative structures in place, I suggest that failure requires temporization, which makes it difficult to appropriate to any normative regime, be it an aesthetic, social or political. Conceived in this way failure isn’t a matter of function but a measure of relation. Failure, in other words, doesn’t refer to whether something behaves or exists in the way it’s expected to or not, so much as it expresses how one relates to ideas or practices, and how this relation continually modulates its measure of satisfaction”.

But how do traditional mediums and composition keep failure fresh? To understand Priest’s ideas, one can look to BFN’s many, what he calls, “performative” structures. For example, in Formless, Priest turns traditional essay style text sideways by injecting key ideas into the footnotes. The reader is forced to pivot back and forth between text, to the bottom of the page and back again (repeat) creating a sense of distraction. This works up to a point. Eventually, the reader becomes familiar with Priest’s unorthodox structure. The narration becomes predictable, the reader adjusts to the form and is no longer distracted. Within this lies a key point to Priest’s argument: Formlessness needs constant change to sustain failure. He further expands on his approach to writing and BFN’s structure:

“In the book I move from a very standard kind of scholarship (boring), to a fragmented and polyvocal way of interrogating my subject (formless), to a hyper-reflexive procedure that raises paradox to the level of method and fiction to the status of fact (nonsense). The actual final chapter takes all this and goes over the edge. It’s a long poem that I made by using an online service to generate one-hundred paragraphs of Esperanto text that I then machine-translated into English. Only about 60 percent of the text was translatable by the translation programme, so I finished the translation by trying to complete the “thought” suggested by the surrounding English text, or by forming an English word or phrase from the spoken sounds of the Esperanto words. I suppose in this way, the theory I do in BFN can be considered 'performative'”.

To illustrate, Priest references experimental film maker Ryan Trecartin whose work exemplifies his thinking of “failure as an ongoing event.” He further explains, “…his works strike me as absolutely pointless, and what makes them fail (in my sense) is one… their depiction of life as an exercise of pure expenditure… and two, their formal tenuousness that keeps the work from collapsing into any kind of coherent narrative or becoming a purely sensuous mess.”

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3. Experimental Music

Why experimental music to showcase his argument? He clarifies, “…there’s something peculiar to music (not all music of course) that lends itself to conceiving of failure differently than it has been in the visual and literary arts. This has, I think, mostly to do with the fact that music’s satisfaction, which is to say, how one relates to it, is elusive.”

Finishing his thought, “For instance, a musical experience can be had in a number of ways: You can compose or perform or listen to music, but you can also study with it, or dance to it, or protest, or feel to it such that it’s difficult to say what counts as a proper musical experience. And it turns out that music is also something that you can theorize to.”

Around the time Priest joined Simon Fraser University, he revitalized his role as a composer and performer. But that relationship seems more complicated than it once was: "Since becoming a faculty member at The School for the Contemporary Arts, I’ve begun to perform and compose again, so my relationship to music has become more direct than it has been in years, only it’s now it’s fraught with a kind of dubiety that makes it seem preposterous rather than experimental. After years of not being particularly interested in experimental music, and at times completely persuaded of its utter stupidity, I'm finding that my impulse is to make works that are not so much “experimental” but “inane.”

"I still like the sentiment of the experimental, but I’ve cultivated a deep suspicion of its merits over time, mostly in those places where the experimental is supposed to do political work. I’m more interested in the way that simple curiosity can bring something into being that can then be promoted to a level of existence where it seems to matter. I don’t mean this in a cynical way so much as I’m astonished how a curiosity can be raised to something to more than what it is. The obscure French philosopher Etienne Souriau suggested that all art (actually all of existence) entails a process of what he called “instaturation.” Although he was writing from a relatively conventional position as an early twentieth-century aesthetician, and therefore concerned with fairly standard types of artworks, his concept of “instaturation” , of modulating the existential value of a created thing, nicely describes what I think is preposterous about my own efforts to make music at all. Here’s an example: I’ve been working on a piece for years that takes all of the pitches from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and maps them onto the rhythms and tempos of the Charlie Parker Omnibook, a book of transcriptions of fifty of Parker’s solos. The piece is going to last hours and will basically sound like someone completely strung out running scales. I wanted a Disklavier to perform the piece, but my friend Marc Couroux is insisting that he will play it. I have yet to finish the piece, and I’m not inclined to call it experimental because it’s instauration as will be nothing but preposterous."

4. Distraction, Nonsense and Boredom

Priest isn’t concerned with failure these days, but his commitment to abstract theoretical concepts remains strong. He nurtures experimentation and literary form and his thoughts on aesthetics, art and music are still a focus. “Recently I’ve been writing in a way between a dream journal and bad poetry. These are usually shorter pieces and typically do their work through association and allusion.”

Furthermore he says: "I also wanted to explore some of the writing techniques that I developed in [Boring Formless Nonsense] to think through the paradoxes and inconsistencies at the heart of things like distraction, nonsense and boredom… I’ve been developing a more experimental way of ‘doing theory’ that, in a sense, enacts some of the performative ironies which are crucial to the way I think about failure."

He’s currently writing a new book with the working title: Earworm and Event: Thinking, Music and Other Abstract Refrains. He works with “The Occulture”, a collective he formed with David Cecchetto and Marc Couroux, who, together with Ted Hiebert, co-wrote Ludic Dreaming: How to Listen Away From Contemporary Technoculture and host “Tuning Speculation”, an annual conference which will be held next year in Bloomington, Indiana USA.

"Marc Couroux, David Cecchetto and I began Tuning Speculation in 2013 and intended it to be a conference where presenters could discuss and advance wildly speculative ideas in ways that didn’t have to entirely comply with the protocols that typically regulate how ideas are shared at academic events."

It’s Priest’s paradoxical relationship with his art and experimental approach in BFN (and beyond) that invigorates his sense of failure. And to recreate a state of mind so inundated with the mundane is an incredible endeavour. But the mundane, the boring, the formless, and the nonsensical surround and inform art in perplexing ways so that only when these are extracted from the “otherness” of excitement, sensuality or transcendence does failure’s essence comes into view.

But, then again, to Priest this assessment could be another shining example of failure… and nothing else.

About the Author

Eric Meyer

Former sound engineer, musician and current sound blogger based out of Chicago, IL USA. He maintains his own blog at spacialsound.com, and when not writing about experimental or contemporary music, you can find him dancing in DIY spaces, warehouses and second rate clubs.

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