More Formless

Arraymusic has a concert coming up on December 3, 8PM, EST. It’s called Formless. It features existing works by a remarkable collection of composers: John Abram (CAN/UK), Joanna Bailie (UK), André Cormier (CAN), Laurence Crane (UK), Nicole Lizée (CAN), and Cassandra Miller (CAN). All of these composers are artists I intend to collaborate with in the next few years to create new work for The Array Ensemble.

The title of the concert invokes Georges Bataille’s famous definition of informe, usually translated as ‘formless’. Part of that definition reads: “On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a [squashed] spider or spit.” Bataille’s informe does not embrace any kind of lack or a denial of substance, but rather it’s a challenge to the activity of abstracting an outside that can be generalized and evaluated as separate and distinct from an inside.

But I misspoke. Even though the sentence quoted above is from an entry Bataille wrote for the “Critical Dictionatry” (a reoccuring section in the quasi-Surrealist magazine Documents, published in Paris in 1920 and 1930, edited by Bataille)—an entry dedicated to the word informe—definition was precisely what Bataille was interested in defying. Definition, from the Latin definire—from de- “from” (in this case implying a kind of completion) + finire, “finish” (from finis, “end”)—is all about fixing meaning, holding it still, ending the flux of ambiguity (from ambigere “waver, go around,” from ambi- “both ways” + agere “to drive”). Bataille is prostesting against the power and control he perceives asserted by fixed, static meanings, against the dominant structures—the cultural forms—that set and authorize the parameters of what a word represents. In his entry, Bataille imagines a dictionary that “no longer gives the meaning of words, but their jobs/tasks (and “jobs/tasks” is a translation of the French les besonges, a word that implies the mundanity of a chore; he chooses “jobs” rather than the richer, grander idea of “uses”). As Denis Hollier says in his remarkable book Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille:

“The distinction between words’ meaning and their jobs makes language into a place of specific productivity. In language and in every connection to it some practice is at stake. To privilege meaning at the expense of work is to believe that this practice can be put into parentheses. The French word besonge, with its overtones of drudgery, has a contemptuous ring. The job is not the usage. Usage doubtless introduces a certain historicity of language because it refers to linguistic practices in current use at the present time and in the present society. […] Usage only functions in a space still dominated by the category of meaning—formulable meaning. What Bataille calls job is of a different order, a tonal one. It indicates all those processes of repulsion and seduction aroused by the word independent of its meaning.”

And Bataille proposes in his entry what he considers the job of informe (formless) to be: “Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere like a spider or an earthworm.” But Bataille is not protesting against this designation, he’s celebrating it and this celebration is vital and active (though certainly he’s vilifying the squashers). “Affirming that the universe resembles nothing” might bring the idea of the universe down, but it is not a dismissive affirmation. While the power structures that authorize meaning might want to squash this designation, Bataille wants to get down and dirty working in this splatter, this “place of specific productivity.” To say the universe resembles nothing pulls apart the integrity of what the idea, the meaning of “universe” might be said to represent; the form of the universe is not analogous to other forms because no form is being asserted. To affirm that the universe is formless, allows “universe” to do a different job: it’s just everything, or rather, all-the-things (plural), shifting arrays of amorphous yet radically specific places where work can be done.

Okay, if you’re hoping that eventually I’ll make some kind of clear, direct link between the above and the pieces that will be presented at Formless (the concert), I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. And there’s a lot above (and below) that won’t be unpacked by me in any context and that is well in excess of the concerns I am thinking about here (I’m all for starting things I would never want to see finished). And of course it should be underlined that Bataille is valourizing the formless as a way to think the world—a plural universe that resembles nothing—and being in it. That is, any experience, any phenomena can be engaged as formless. That includes every musical experience. But I will say that each of the pieces that will be played on Dec. 3 encourages me, in utterly particular ways, to engage it as a distinct place of specific productivity rather than a meaningful structure expressing ideas (the ancient Greek word eidos, often translated as Idea, is also translated as Form).

Maybe the end of the programme note Laurence Crane sent me for his clarinet and piano piece Sparling—to be performed Dec. 3—relates to this somehow; regarding his composition: “It’s essentially static but the tiny amount of change that does take place in the work happens in what might be thought of as the accompanying instrument in a traditional duo relationship. What is foreground and what is background in this piece? I’m not sure.”

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