Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 170: Earworm and Event — with Eldritch Priest

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Eldritch Priest

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Paige Smith  0:02
Hello listeners. I'm Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is reported on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar. Our host Am Johal is joined by Eldritch Priest, a composer and assistant professor at SFU School for the Contemporary Arts. Together they discuss Priest's journey with music, both as an art and a technology, his studies on the phenomenon of the earworm, and his newly released book, Earworm and Event: Music, Daydreams, and Other Imaginary Refrains. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

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Am Johal  0:46 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We have a fabulous guest with us, a faculty member with the School for Contemporary Arts at SFU: Eldritch Priest. Welcome, Eldritch.

Eldritch Priest  1:00 
Hi. Thanks, Am. Thanks for having me.

Am Johal  1:02 
Eldritch, Why don't we begin? Why don't you introduce yourself a little bit?

Eldritch Priest  1:06 
Sure. So I mean, as you said, I'm currently at the School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. I teach music there, composition. Mostly, however, I teach, and this is probably what brings us into conversation, I teach artists about theory, about some philosophy, specifically, philosophies of sound, and affect theory, so. My background, however, is as a musician. I was trained as a jazz guitarist, actually, many many years ago. And then I moved into composition, I studied composition before going on to do a Ph.D. in cultural theory. So, I have this kind of, what I understand to be a very interdisciplinary background, a background in the fine arts, and some more advanced training in the humanities.

Am Johal  1:56 
As I was sharing with you the other day, when we were on a little mini-pub crawl, was that you know, of the different disciplinary aspects to the School for Contemporary Arts at SFU, composition being one of them, dance, theatre, visual arts, in film, I feel like I have a relationship to the other disciplines in one form or another, have taken the History of Film class. Even when I was a Human Kinetics student, which is a fancy word for Physical Education, I took a dance class and, you know, have had a relationship to the other disciplines. To me, composition is something I feel maybe, not necessarily the most distanced from, but certainly, the one that I feel that I know the least about, in so many ways. So to me, it's a little bit exotic, in some sense, particularly experimental composition. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you found yourself moving from being a musician to getting into composition and theoretical aspects of it because you've been doing this work for a long time. 

Eldritch Priest  2:55 
Well, it's interesting that you mentioned the domain of experimental music being exotic, right? Why I find it's interesting is because everybody, almost everybody on the planet has some relationship to music in some way, right? Mostly, the relationship is one that's mediated via emotions, feelings, right? The way music affects us, right? So everyone has a sense of what they think music is, and that they have a relationship that is meaningful. Now, I think what's strange, or as I said, interesting, about your remark that it's exotic is that there's this whole other world, which is we sometimes referred to as art music, where music has been made into something very esoteric. And I think in some ways, that was done to itself, right? As the as music began to be studied by its producers, then by theorists, who produced a vocabulary that was really only meant to be understood and appreciated by the practitioners or other theorists, right? So became very, very academic, in some sense, a long time ago. And at least in its art form, right? So that said, I guess this is a way of segueing into what you were asking me about my move from being a musician and composer into being a cultural theorist, is that I think that was spurred by the fact that I was doing graduate studies in music, in composition, at the University of Victoria, actually, in the early 2000s. But I had been also taking courses in literary theory, for example, I was doing some work on a course on [Jacques] Derrida and there was something about the way in which cultural theory addressed music as a, I guess, you could say, to use a classic kind of poststructuralist language, music as a text, or it's something that can be read with respect to its position as a social situation, or as a cultural artifact, right? Also, I think I, what I found was that the writing in literary theory, the writing that attempted to understand literature was just more interesting. Like, it was sexier in some sense. Music theory is not terribly interesting, not necessarily as a discipline, but the way in which was being written, at least at the time when I was doing grad studies, it lacked a certain attention to the fact that language is a material as well because it was so caught up in understanding music as the object of study. 

Am Johal  5:24 
Eldritch, I'm going to pick up from there. Before I get into more of the theoretical work and some of the writing that you've been doing, I'm wondering if you can describe a little bit your compositional and music practice in terms of how it's evolved over the years? Because I'm interested in asking how the theoretical informs over time as well, but if you could speak to that a little bit?

Eldritch Priest  5:49
Sure, sure. I mean, to go way back, I started as a guitarist who was very much interested in, I guess, what was called speed metal, then, I was always actually very interested in the virtuosic element. And then I eventually moved through that kind of music into very, very rapidly into jazz actually. As I said before, and what propelled my move from being a musician and to being a theorist, is that there's just, there's an intellectual curiosity. I was fascinated with music as something to be, not necessarily mastered, but as something that has this open-ended, let's say, open-ended capacity to become better and better. And, you know, eventually, I, as I said, I grew weary of the speed metal and found jazz was something that filled that, that intellectual curiosity, so I moved from being a jazz musician, though, later into composing music, because I just found the idiom, the idiomatic elements of jazz, not, I don't want to say restraining, but it not actually letting me reach or explore those open-ended possibilities, as I was saying, which provoked me to move into jazz in the first place. So, this evolution from being a metal guitarist, to a jazz guitarist, to a composer, led me into this other world, where I started to read people, listen to people like Martin Feldman, John Cage, all of the people of the New York School like Christian Wolf and Earl Brown. And it was actually through that connection, I think, that my curiosity was sparked even further, to go beyond music, to go beyond just competition, right? People like Martin Feldman, I don't know if you know him, Am, he was an excellent essayist, as well. So, he was very good friends with John Cage, who was also a great essayist. But they were friends with all the abstract expressionists, the various poets, Frank O'Hara, for example. So I started reading all of these guys and looking at those works as well. And eventually, my practice evolved in such a way that I was writing chamber music for very strange instruments, mostly what was available, I was based in Toronto, there was a scene there that I became involved in, which included improvisers, as well as people who are so-called "classically trained." And it was a tight-knit community, but, and what was, I found, the most fascinating about it, is that it was actually a community that had developed a kind of sound, a sound that this one that this composer, great thinker as well, named Martin Arnold, characterized as slackness, or its characteristic feature was a kind of slackness. So, I suppose my music fits into that realm as well. A lot of the work that I've done, since especially the early 2000s, has been driven by pursuing a kind of melodic slackness, so a lot of the work that I write is based just on pure melody, right? So for example, from a while ago, I had this piece that I took to the extreme. I wanted to write something that was utterly melodic, and only melodic, and really long. And so I wrote a two-hour, non-repeating melody. And increasingly, this has been the practice that I pursue, sort of, just this idea of melody, as, I don't want to say it's like a, like a pure, there's nothing necessarily pure about it, but there's something about melody as being sufficient, and an exposing of certain kinds of musical parameters, things like rhythm, pitch relations, that when stretched over a long period of time, have weird psychic effects. And in fact, it's this weirdness that I probably pursue, try to pursue in my, in my musical practice. And this will be a segue, I think, into the way I do theory as well. There's a kind of strangeness to the writing that I do in language, also.

Am Johal  9:46 
Wondering if you can talk a little bit about where your first book came from, and the context in which you were writing, and what you were trying to do with it?

Eldritch Priest  9:55 
The first book came out of my Ph.D. thesis, as many first books do. I started shifting my work towards trying to unpack, what was it about this music that I was listening to, that I was involved with, part of the scene I was involved with? What was it that was somehow meaningful, with respect to culture at large, right? And this is when I started to become, I suppose, disillusioned in some way, with grad studies, as has happened sometimes. So it turned into the, into looking at concepts of nonsense, actually, nonsense and failure, as a, as a kind of aesthetic practice. That was, let's say, adjacent to the wonderful, became the focus of my research, right? So this book, The title was Boring, Formlessness Nonsense. And this Boring Formless Nonsense pursued, I guess, a kind of critical inquiry into the practices of the scene that I was a part of, plus also, more global examples of what I considered to be part of this wonderful-adjacent kind of aesthetics, right?

Am Johal  11:06 
There's a quote, and I'm gonna get it wrong. It's from the French filmmaker, Jean Renoir. It's something sort of, like, "all great societies are based on loitering." And there are these themes that you've grappled with, like failure, boredom, idleness, animals and dreaming, uselessness. And there's thinkers like Agamben, who talk about that the political act in the body is to engage in a form of uselessness because political activity has been absorbed into the body politics by the powers that be, and that the choice of uselessness or to render possible the impossible through inactivity brings back the kind of human-animal relation as well. And wondering, in terms of how you think through these questions, as trivial or as idle they might be, they are taken up very seriously, philosophically, I think in the way that you're intending them to be. Which thinkers and others are you influenced by, as you think through this space of liminality?

Eldritch Priest  12:11 
I think what's interesting for me about all of this is, I suppose it was, I suppose there's something very reflexive about my approach, insofar as I was writing music or starting to write theory, and I always felt, actually, a kind of sense of failure, in a way that wasn't exactly clear to me. So, part of my study was to actually look at what I think this experience of failure was actually doing. Because it was, it struck me that failure, uselessness, was still doing of some kind. A lot of [Jean] Baudrillard’s work, some of mostly his later work, when he starts to actually the kind of poetics in his own writing. But what struck me about his work, as well as people like [Georges] Bataille, who's, who had developed his idea of formless, or the inform, is that there's a way in which opacity produces not just a jamming in the system, but it has some kind of affirmative production of effects. And these effects have, as you said, like, they can be absorbed into the body and become taken up by the kind of political machinery, but I became interested in these niche effects that always escaped their instrumentalization, in a sense, and this is where, I think, my idea of failure developed, to take up what appeared to me as this paradox where there were effects like irritations, noise, let's say that's a popular trope. So failure had some kind of, at least, as I was seeing in the visual arts and a lot of literature, it had some kind of predictable effect that it could be counterhegemonic, right? So to me, the idea that failure could be perceived as counterhegemonic, yet also function in the art world as legitimate aesthetic practice shows a certain kind of contradiction, or tension, at the heart of failure, at the heart of these things. Like uselessness, right? So, my idea around failure was that actually, it can be very unpointed, and in fact, perhaps failure, to be most effective, can't be so focused, actually, as to identify a clear way of resisting norms, right? So, a lot of work I drew on, strangely, was Gilles Deleuze's work in The Logic of Sense, because of the idea of nonsense that I was working with. And perhaps most interestingly, in the last part of the book, where things become extremely reflexive, and they start working on a metafictive level, what drives the research around nonsense was actually studies on the occult, the, some occult theorists like Austin Osman Spare became a figure in the development of what I was considering a kind of theory of nonsense.

Am Johal  14:58 
Eldritch, you have a new book coming out in 2022, with Duke University Press. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the formations of that project, kind of where it began, if you could share a little bit about this work.

Eldritch Priest  15:14 
This book has a bit of overlap with my last book, insofar as my last, my book Boring Formless Nonsense, also talked about distraction. So, distraction propelled me into this domain of trying to understand how we listen without actually listening. And actually, perhaps, this kind of non-listening is a contemporary form of listening. One that is, perhaps, as we, some would say more bodily, but also takes place on nonconscious registers. For me, I somehow can't remember how it happened, but I found the phenomenon of the earworm, which, you know what an earworm is, yes?

Am Johal  15:56 
Yes, yes. 

Eldritch Priest  15:56 
Yeah, of course, right? So the song that gets stuck in your head, that repeats over and over again, without your say in intending it to do so. This became a figure that somehow captured the essence of this, this distractive kind of listening that I was after. And once I started looking at the earworm, I started to see how it connects to a certain kind of politics of the inorganic organization of bodies. Ziegler talked about the way in which mind and consciousness is essentially — they've been tied up with our mediations. So for me, I found I started to look at music less as an art form, and more as a kind of technology, right? And the kind of technology that doesn't just shape our emotions, but shapes our thinking. Now, earworms became, as I say, politicized for me in the respect that, as a form that could help shape thinking, and also help shape our feeling, it had been utilized, actually, instrumentalized, in the, especially the advertising world, we all know about jingles. I'm sure you can sing some jingles right now if I were to ask you to bring up some of your favourites. But these things had become instrumentalized in a way that are distractions, we're not letting our mind actually wander, but actually our ability to distract, had actually been captured, right? So our cognition, our ability to think, our ability to remember, becomes a form of surplus, surplus value. 

Eldritch Priest  17:25 
So, all of that is to say, I turned to, as I said, turned to music less as an art object, and more as a technology, and one that uses the imagination. I actually wanted to ask what role the imagination plays in contemporary culture now, whether there's space for things like mind wandering, for, ultimately, which brings me to the heart of the subtitle, daydreaming. Daydreaming as something that is not necessarily useful, but actually, this leisure activity that, in some ways, is valuable for its complete and utter inutility. Now, that said, part of the work I do in this book is looking at how daydreaming itself, like earworms have been, have been captured and recuperated. This idea that has developed over the past 20 years about the brain and what's been called the default mode network or so, with the brain, when it's not being tasked, it's been found to light up in such a way that it's suggestive of a coherent network. And brain scientists have said, or have asked, what is the psychological correlation between this network and their experience? And they found out it's, or they've decided that it's daydreaming or mind wandering. But of course, the kind of positivist inclinations of many brain scientists is that this has to be good for something. Clearly, we have to, the brain has to, it has to have evolved this network, this very prevalent network, because it actually flares up, which, it can be shown to be active about 50% of our waking hours, it must be good for something. And so, there's been a lot of dialogue about how the brain at rest is processing memories, rehearsing for the future, developing a sense of self, or some kind of coherent sense of self, right? So it turns out that the brain at rest is never actually resting at all, it's actually working all the time. And some of the critical language that has been, or some of the critical work that's been done, which I've tried to do in my book as well, is to suggest actually, that this idea of the brain at rest, which is never not at rest, shows the similar logic that informs a lot of neoliberal organizational models of labour where leisure and labour blend into each other. So "the brain at rest is never actually resting" is actually a kind of creep of neoliberal discourse, or episteme, I suppose. So part of the work that I do in my, in actually all my books, and my new one as well, is writing, what I call and I'll use this expression, sort of tongue-in-cheek, "theory-adjacent" type of work. So, it's informed by a lot of political theory, cultural theory, philosophy of experience, philosophy of mind. But my approach is not to necessarily write like a typical scholar. Now, in Earworm and Event, my new book, I take that step a little bit further, I don't make it more meta, but I do produce a kind of approach to scholarship, or to research, let's say, also, maybe just to thinking in general, critical thinking in general, that this tries to skew the idea of language being a, let's say, a means of transmitting signal, right? So, I make, actually, the medium of language, and the practice of writing, a kind of compositional gesture, one that I recognize is composed, and is a creative kind of thing, right? So this is, so the book itself, articulates that in the way that it's actually bound into different ways. It's a tête-bêche binding, right? So, one half is the Earworm book, and when you flip it over, the other half is the Event book. So, this is actually part of this practice of how I do research, which is a way of essentially turning scholarship into a kind of creative affair.

Am Johal  21:40 
Oh, when you were talking about advertising jingles and things, I started, like, thinking back in my memory of something that was still in there from another era, and the best I could come up with was, "The best thing about waking up is Folgers in your cup." No one even has instant coffee anymore, but that was like, the 80s or something, and it's stuck in my head, or the theme song from Cheers or something, something like that. 

Eldritch Priest  22:05 

Am Johal  22:05 
Wondering if you can talk, Eldritch, a little bit about how your being at a university, teaching. You know, you're you're around grad students, undergraduate students, how that informs, or shapes your own practice, in terms of looking at emerging composers, the questions that come up in a pedagogical sense, how that, you relate that to your own research. 

Eldritch Priest  22:28 
To talk about the relation I have with the students is that I ask students to actually pursue their thinking, and their research in these, for lack of a better term, like, an experimental way, a way in which you understand that theory entails a certain kind of fictional practice, right? Where you develop your methodology by inventing links between certain thinkers, and certain objects, and how these objects resonate with other objects, and can exemplify certain theoretical practices, but using various rhetorical maneuvers, right? So, this is something that I bring to my students. So I don't know if that's me being influenced by my students so much as me, I think, trying to influence students, and I've had fantastic results. Some of the work my students have done has been quite extraordinary. I have to say, though, I'm not alone in this practice, there are a number of people in this area that I'm working in who follow this practice, and particularly the people in the experimental theory band, I have to say, to be completely frank, is that I'm actually newly teaching music here. Usually, I've been teaching sound studies, as I said, or critical theory to the students at the School for the Contemporary Arts. So my relationship to the music area has been tangential, in some way.

Am Johal  23:58 
Being situated in a place like Vancouver, which has its own histories around composition and experimental work, in Vancouver New Music and other places. How you, having been in Vancouver for a number of years now, how you characterize or situate the scene here, and how it also informs your own practice and thinking.

Eldritch Priest  24:17 
In some way, my practice was put on hold over the past 10 years, as I pursued this academic career. And it's only been, I don't know, the past two years that I've really come back to my own practice, started writing again, producing sound installations, and various, you know, solo works, to what we might call chamber music. So I feel in some sense, a little bit distant, actually, from the music scene. Closer to the experimental improv music scene, I have an ensemble with Brady Cranfield called Alfred Jarry, after the great pataphysician, French pataphysician of the late 19th century. And we are part of, we participate in this, or in that scene, which is thriving, actually. It's, I think there's a really strong experimental improv, improvisation scene here, that I suppose it's been more directly, has influenced my practice in Vancouver, at least.

Am Johal  25:23 
I wanted to come back to this question about your interest in para-academic projects and work that you're developing that's likely to come in the future around this idea of the Idle Lab. I'm wondering if you can speak about that.

Eldritch Priest  25:37 
The aim of this lab, I think, yeah, it's been a long time brewing. And it comes from my work with, as I said, the earlier I mentioned The Occulture. And this is a group that I started, I founded with David Cecchetto and Mark Couroux, both of whom teach at York University. We started this group in 2013, back in Toronto, when I lived there before moving here. And it was essentially a group that was, I suppose, a kind of para-academic study group, I call, as I said, I call it a theory band. And it was like that, so much of what counts as knowledge, or what counts as significant is actually generated in its social setting, right? So the things that David and Mark and I talked about, took on importance, simply because of the fact that we created a very micro community, and part of The Occulture was a way of maybe formalizing this, in some sense, formalizing the sense in which knowledge is something that is practiced in a social... However, it hasn't, let's say knowledge has a sociality to it. But we also wanted to produce a space in which that sociality could be much broader than the three of us. So, The Occulture started producing a conference actually, back in 2013, as well, called Tuning Speculation. And this was a conference that brought in people from, actually, all parts of the globe. It was held in the Array Music Space. So off-campus, we decided intentionally to not have this space take place at a university or on a university site. So it was Downtown Toronto, people who are affiliated with universities presented, those and people who are not affiliated with the universities presented as well. And so part of the spirit of this was to create a space, as I said, create a kind of larger sense of the social networking, or kind of the social ecology of ideas, but also to advance the experimental approaches that we were taking to writing about, specifically about, a lot of us were writing those sound, sound art, aesthetics, and sound studies at that time. The aim of the Idle Lab or the Daydream Lab, whatever I'm going to call it, is trying to build on this practice somehow. One thing I want to do is, you know, it's called the Daydream Lab, the Idle Lab, I want to explore the, I guess, the powers of leisure, of loitering, the expressions of leisure and loitering as they exist now, and are being coopted, let's say, by various forms of capitalism. But I also want to try to establish again [??] in Vancouver because even though I've been here, five years, I say, I feel like a little bit disconnected from the community, in some regard. And that might be due to the fact that the institution that I'm in, well, university is such an institution that so much of our energies, our purview, is kind of restrained by the various obligations that we have to the institution as well. So, ideally, this lab will start in, get started this fall. And going to, along with one of my Ph.D. students, we're going to try to organize a conference.

Am Johal  28:47 
Eldritch, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. Is there anything you'd like to add? 

Eldritch Priest  28:53 
No, I don't think so. I think, I feel like I've talked enough.

Am Johal  28:59 
Well, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us.

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Paige Smith  29:06 
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Head to the show notes below to order Eldritch Priest's new book, Earworm and Event, and learn more about his work and his studies. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
April 26, 2022

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