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An epic composition: brown study at IMOO

eldritch Priest , IMOO at UMI Dec. 12, 2010 ©Brett Delmage, 2010Ottawa composer and guitarist eldritch Priest is currently in academia (writing his dissertation). However, he is still seen regularly around Ottawa playing with other musicians interested in avant-garde jazz / new music / experimental music.

"eldritch jumps selflessly into the problematic, setting up aesthetic conjunctions which cannot be absorbed into reductive categories, but which resolutely unlock the floodgates of a critical listening ethic. It is the listener in his/her capacity as co-creator (pace Duchamp and Cage) wherein eldritch’s progressive ethics can be gleaned: art as open dialogue, subversion, dehierarchization – a means of returning the listener's sense of the world to one imbued with wonder and amazement." – Marc Couroux (2007)

On Sunday March 6, IMOO will present a full-scale production of eldritch's epic, two-hour composition, "Brown Study", at the Umi Café. It will feature ten of Ottawa's best improvising musicians.

OttawaJazzScene.ca asked eldritch to tell us more (via email) about the composition.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What is the significance of the title "brown study"? What is it supposed to imply?

eldritch Priest: It's a fourteenth c. British idiom that initially meant something like "in a dark mood" but later came to refer to a state of being lost in deep thought.

OJS: What do you personally get out of playing this piece with other musicians?

eldritch Priest: Honestly, I get a bit of anxiety. The task to play just this melody, with no obvious pulse or harmonic allusion is just weird enough that it throws people off, makes them vulnerable – even top notch players – and I feel this as the piece unfolds.

However, this isn't always the case; I had a remarkable performance in New York a few years ago where the players, from the beginning, were right there, naked and eager to see what they could do when there were no sleeves to hide tricks up.

OJS: How would you describe brown study to someone who hadn't heard it?

eldritch Priest: Basically put, the piece can be characterized as a two-hour, uninterrupted, non-repeating melody. But pleonastically speaking, the brown study is a gloomy contemplation out of which a local history and society of adventitious errors can develop.

Philosophically speaking however: The brown study is a melody, though more accurately it is a situation that orchestras difference. It is not about anything insofar as "about" means that it is meant to mean something.

Instead, it may be that what the brown study is "about" is difference. It does not mean "difference" but rather it lingers "about" – lingers around (in)difference. The work then is "on about" what it does, and what it does, while it dallies in difference, is "tune" difference. Heidegger introduced the term Befindlechkeit to describe the experience in which one is said to find his/her "self" participating in the world; in other words, to have awareness of being situated and contextualized. We find our "self" then when and where we are "attuned" to the cultural and historical, as well as material and ethical, differences that shape a situation. The difference of 'this' or 'that' situation - its "mood" (Stimmung) or mode - is a condition immanent to the experience of our "being-in-the-world." It is always to the specific configuration of difference that one is attuned, and to which one's being-t/here is expressed as being in a "mood." But this formulation, however, elides the processual and ongoing nature of tuning.

We are always about tuning into the difference(s) of our situatedness. That this tuning takes place before we think about it does not mean our eventual awareness of it is ever secure or fixed; rather, at best, finding ourselves is punctual and discrete. Thus, insofar as we ever find our "self," we do so only in the past, as an image of when we were and not as we are becoming. To have a sense of what we are becoming, rather than what we have been, requires that we be about tuning itself, which means that we cannot be about this or that thing, but only about-the-between this and that, and that and that ... I suppose that if the brown study is "about" anything, then it is about how "we" are continually "in-tuning" how we are about or among the echoes of a process of composing a situation that composes us.

OJS: In these days of three-minute pop songs, how does this piece work in a much longer duration?

eldritch Priest: Well, it doesn't. But in the context of experimental music, two-hours isn't so long. The American composer Larry Brown wrote a string quartet, The Long Telegraph, that times in at about seventeen hours. And then there's the Scandinavian artist Leif Inge's twenty-four hour distention of Beethoven's 9th - 9 Beet Stretch.

OJS: How do you handle the logistics of different musicians needing a break sometime in the two hours?

eldritch Priest: I don't handle it, they do. During one performance in Montreal, a musician got up and left the building to have a cigarette. I tend not to leave as I prefer to suffer the entire event.

OJS: Does the instrumentation vary by performance and availability of musicians? How might this be a unique, live performance?

eldritch Priest: The piece always varies from performance to performance, which is by design. But keep in mind that it's not only the instruments that vary, but the musicians and habits, skills and incompetences, interests and tolerances that chance as well.

OJS: How do the musicians judge the success of a performance?

eldritch Priest: Perhaps by how well the mistakes hang together as expressive obliquities. Otherwise, I'd say the piece succeeds when its failures are interesting enough to have eclipsed the context that renders them failures.


You can hear a 110 minute version of the brown study for 8 performers at eldritch's website, www.allthenames.net/~priest/works.html, in addition to other unusual recordings. There is also a 7 minute version at www.myspace.com/outremonk