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15 Questions to Seth Nehil

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm well, thanks. I'm in my favorite cafe in Portland, Oregon (where I live).

What’s on your schedule right now?
I just took down an installation that I realized with dancer Linda Austin - three video projections and 8-speakers with a "set" constructed from rolled and folded paper. I've been very interested in working with dancers and also in creating sound environments, so this was an exciting project that combined those ideas. It was my first time working with multiple video projections - three different views of the same dance, which Linda created in response to my sound. This was in the Light & Sound Gallery at the Portland Art Center, a new space which offers great potential for sound art in Portland. In two weeks I'll be sitting down with the curating committee to choose sound and video installation work for 2007.

Also, the magazine that I design and co-edit, called FO A RM, is publishing its 5th issue, on "Autonomy".  This is a special issue on sound and will include an incredible CD with pieces by Jose Maceda, Arsenije Jovanovic, Barbara Held, Jonas Baes and Michael Schumacher. The issue itself is 150 pages, with Achim Wollscheid, Lionel Marchetti, Barbara Held, Francisco Lopez, John Duncan, Jose Maceda and many others. (see for more info)

And, I have a few CDs coming out this year, after a long quiet period. These are things that have been slowly developing for the last 4 years - there's a collaboration with Matt Marble called "Ecllipsis" on And/Oar, a solo CD called "Amnemonic Site" on Alluvial Recordings and my project with Brendan Murray called "Sillage" for Sedimental records.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
At different times, I have been inspired by the work of Iannis Xenakis, Giancarlo Toniutti, Michael J. Schumacher and Maryanne Amacher for their work with concrete sound and methods of spatialization within architecture, also Cornelius Cardew, Jose Maceda and Bronius Kutavicius for their use of simple material means and social engagement with participants, Phill Niblock for the sheer physical beauty of his sounds and images, Ann Hamilton for her use of sound within sculptural environments, and many others...

While I have maintained close creative and critical connections with a group of sound artists (esp. Olivia Block, John Grzinich, Brendan Murray, Matthew Marble), I find that the "art" world is far too multiple, simultaneous, fragmented, overlapping and large to allow clear traditions and movements anymore. Anyway, that will be the work of future historians (if there is a future, or historians). While my work might be placed into a trajectory following streams from either classical tape music or underground noise, my actual interests and inspirations are much more broad, encompassing music from all over the world and in many different traditions - Balinese, North African, African-American, etc etc.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

If, by "scene" you mean experimental/underground music, then I would say that it is an exciting time. There is a huge amount of interesting work being produced in the intersections between genres and a growth of self-produced work, both on the production and release/distribution ends. This could also be seen as the crisis - there is just too much to follow or be aware of. Creative networks seem to be more fragmented or smaller, while being increasingly global. The actual structures of distribution seem to be failing, or at least changing drastically - people are buying less music, audiences are small and don't seem to overlap very often. But maybe it's always been this way for experimental music. My interests are shifting more towards localized activities such as installation and performance.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?

I assume that you are using the phrase "new music" which usually refers to a certain strain of Western classical traditions within academia that I don't often find exciting. Or perhaps you mean the idea of music striking into new territories, a concept that I think is a bit dubious. I tend to think about music as a stream of contact points between individuals, genres, cultures, etc. These streams can influence or re-direct each other in very interesting ways... Or perhaps you refer to new technologies of sound production and re-production? Although I try to create work that is unique (a standard Western idea of quality I am unable to escape), I am not moved by the modernist conceptions of newness per se.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

I see no separation, since I work directly with the sounds that I record in composing a piece. In the circle of conception-realization, I am directly involved in the action of making and altering sound. My work is primarily concerned with timbre (what in the past may have been considered the "sound" aspects of "music" - a separation that your question seems to imply). So I am constantly assessing the textural grit, smoothness, density, spectral fringes and distance as integral to qualities of frequency/pitch - those aspects of the sound are what my ear turns to first, and, I think, the main quality of interest in my work.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Not at all. The sounds that I gather for recorded work are collected through improvisatory interactions with materials, either alone or with a group of people, and usually inside of a provoking space. The process of composing with those recordings is a more internalized, extended and thoughtful interaction, but still retains the quality of improvisation as I work over and through a slowly accreting piece, continually reconsidering.

In the pieces that I score for group performance, I attempt to create frameworks within which participants can utilize similar attitudes of improvisation in reaction to materials and the people/sounds around them.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

I like best to see and hear people who are engaged with the actuality of the performative context, either as instrumentalists or active participants in a dynamic system. My most recent answer to the unresolved question of how to present electronic or "speaker music" involves the use of multiple speakers scattered throughout the space, of varying qualities, volumes etc. and controlling the output from each of these speakers. Raw speaker elements can be manipulated by spinning, twirling, swinging, throwing and placing inside of tubes, in proximity to live microphones, etc. I am also interested in using FM transmitters, portable speakers that can be carried, and other means to further manipulate spatial distribution of sound layers.

Another stream of investigation, that I mentioned above, involves making pieces for multiple participants, preferably 12 or more, and scattering them throughout the performance space in choreographed arrangements. Each person manipulates a group of materials according to a score. The opportunities to realize this kind of work are very rare, however.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I would and could not draw a border, although I exist on that perceived "fringe", to be sure. I call myself a "sound artist" rather than a musician, simply because I do not play a musical instrument (assuming here that recording and editing devices are not intrinsically "musical"), I don't read traditional musical notation, and haven't had any formal musical training per se. My master's degree in Sound/Music at Bard College was focused more on conceptual and theoretical ideas regarding art production rather than music.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning? 
Popular music can be very serious. Pleasure and dancing can be serious, even revolutionary, depending on the context (Fela Kuti comes to mind). But of course there are forms of music, like those that I make, which will never be popular. I think this has more to do with the way my music can be used, which is not in a dance club or on a car radio.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
Of course, most artists work within a web of relationships, networks, audiences and ecosystems. These relationships imply a responsibility in the creation of meaning, which emerges from the work's interaction within that web.
However, work that is overtly political doesn't often appeal to me. I find its meaning to be mostly immediate and quickly "used up". I find the deeper levels of music to relate to broad social and perceptual questions.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.

True, but education is inherent within the act of listening. Increased familiarity with a type, genre or region of music, either on experiential or theoretical levels, will lead to increased understanding and perhaps enjoyment. On the other hand, the uneducated surprised state of a new discovery can be revelatory. The "misinterpretation" of a music's significance can be as interesting in some ways as a more educated understanding. Being eternally curious, I always want to know more about music/culture that moves me. This has lead to my current readings in ethnomusicology, audio culture, etc. I think it's important to mention that no body of knowledge will ever be "complete", especially one that is gleaned from books and recordings. There is such a huge access to music from around the world, but it is an access that is largely divorced from context and consequence.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?
I believe that is already very close to the current situation.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Actually, I am producing a small festival to celebrate the release of FO A RM, at the Portland Art Center. I am pleased to be including my good friend Olivia Block, and excited to hear her recent work which combines electronics and live scored instruments. Also scheduled is Seth Cluett, a wonderfully subtle composer from New York, and several local sound-artists/musicians. Additionally, we are showing a wide array of video work, both local and international. 
If money were no object, there are many other people I would like to bring to Portland. I would love to share Phill Niblock's work (at the appropriate volume levels and with multiple projections). I would be honored to facilitate a full-scale architectural piece by Maryanne Amacher, Arsenije Jovanovic or Michael J. Schumacher, or one of Giancarlo Toniutti’s sound-sites. I would like to fly many of my European friends to the states - John Grzinich, Hitosho Koji, Evelyn Müürsepp, Antonio della Marina, Giuseppe Ielasi, Paulo Raposo, Kemialliset Ystävät, Islaja, Jonathan Coleclough, Murmer, Toy Bizarre, etc etc. It would be a big party!  Also I am very interested in producing a play by experimental poet/writer Leslie Scalapino.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
No, although as I mentioned before, I am increasingly interested in live work which combines recorded material with many live participants, spatialized speaker systems and choreographed movement. And, importantly, I crave the time and space to properly plan and rehearse these ideas... Not a magnum opus, but a continuation of ideas that I've been thinking about for many years...

Seth Nehil 10/6/06

gyre (with jgrzinich), cut, 2006
umbra, ...edition, 2003
sunder, unite (with olivia block), sedimental, 2003
stria (with jgrzinich), erewhon, 2002
confluence (with jgrzinich), Intransitive, 2002
uva, 20City, 2001
from cloud to seed, Alluvial Recordings, 2000
tracing the skins of clouds, Kaon, 1998

Seth Nehil
Seth Nehil's FO A RM

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