Saturday, March 27, 2010

Children's Games (After Bruegel)

I'm interested in Pieter Bruegel's Children's Games of 1560 for several reasons. First of all, I love Flemish painting of this period and Bruegel made some of my all-time most favorite images. I like the way this painting balances the minor dramas of many small groups interacting within the architectural or map-like surface of the entire canvas. Each cluster is arranged within a network that both separates and connects. This painting supports extended viewing and can unfold like a narrative as the eye moves from one game to the next, but without any set order. Again, the idea of a network describes this structure, the evenly distributed clumps receding into perspectival distance.
A sense of detail and humor dominates, but with a strangely ominous undertone. The theme of children as adults/adults as children and that of game as life/life as game produce a distinctly resigned attitude toward the follies of existence. A poem of the time states: "Play, even if it appears without sense/contains a whole world therein;/the world and its complete structure/is nothing but a children's game." (Jacob Cats, 1622). This could be the epigraph for my new performance/sound/video piece as it develops.
Occasional bursts of violence punctuate the activities. It reminds me how, in my own childhood, games were closer to torture than pleasure. I was hyper-aware of the way that, just under the surface of "good clean fun", there broiled the dynamics of competition, challenge and disappointment.
Additionally, I'm attracted to the idea of treating art-making or art activity as a game. The research, the building of the piece, the sets of rules or limitations, the interactions with others to produce the work, could all be seen as an elaborate game (one that is ultimately very serious and totally absurd). Thinking of the work as a game attunes it with the experimental - there is no one expected outcome, many possible outcomes.
In a strange loop, I remembered reading about Inuit vocal games, just as I was finishing the score for the first vocal research session and searched through my archives. Listening to these lovely short, hocketing vocal interactions between women is a good reminder of how great work can be impermanent, primarily social, and basically "not art". The recordings I have (Ocora label) mostly end with laughter. A reminder of how art activity should perhaps be called "play" rather than "work". I love this video:

The very first attempt to use ipods as a scoring device resulted in something quite interesting, though raw. I know there's a kernel of something I like here, but I don't know yet how to refine. Is it better to have more different loops or less? More voices or fewer?
More silence? More "singerly" voices or more "ordinary" voices? The next step will be to record individual voices and to work with those recordings, both as scores and as their own result.
vocal research 3/10 (take4) by Seth Nehil

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Performance Aggression

L - R: Emma Lipp, Elie Charpentier, Robert Burns, Theo Holdt, Sara Mapelli, Kelly Rauer.
Ideas have been slowly gathering since November for a new performance/video/sound work. A session last week allowed me to try out some ideas for using recorded prompts as a score, with vocal performers listening and responding to prepared parts. Research will continue on how best to utilize this tool, which I think must recognize its mechanical, isolating aspects.
My inspirations for this piece have circled around the connections between children's stories and horror cinema, and ideas about violent imagery. Some of these concerns were starting to emerge in Bandage A Knife - certainly the relationship between cinema and performance, issues of cinematic violence and the division of style and content. Linda's playful sensibilities tempered my darkness in a way that was right for that project. Now, working on my own, I find myself increasingly drawn to the gothic... I'm wanting to make a piece which is overtly, even relentlessly dark. Much of this feeling is based on a forgetting of various "pop culture" sources - remembering things only as I want to see them, diverting things, or actively perverting them. And, like Catherine Sullivan, curious about the symptoms these artifacts reveal (and those revealed in my own process). At this point, I'm following many tangents which lead to various avenues of research: Suspiria to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the Brothers Grimm to Grimm's law of linguistic drift, etc. But not the actuality of any of these single things. Each of them could easily be a dead end, one fully explored by other artists and other works. It's something else...

I'm interested in writing and posting more about this work in progress. I want to explore and reveal the conceptual substructure of this work as it develops. At the same time, I want to be careful about allowing ideas their unexpressed ambiguity. In the past, I've been fairly private about sources and materials, thinking that they would distract from the work itself. Now I'm realizing that even "stupid" details might help to invite people into the work. On the one hand, I'm thinking of, for example, the "post-breakup solitary Wisconsin winter cabin" narrative that is constantly told around Bon Iver's album. It's a story that is united with the materials, mood and character of the resulting music, but it's a sentimental story - an overlay. I'm interested in a narrative which might itself be generative material, a narrative that is definitely unsentimental.
An area I need to research more is the question of "distancing". One of things that fascinates me about some horror films is where they remain undeveloped and flat. They are not interested in the depth of inner space, but rather the use of sensations, and a material manipulation to create effects. The wonderful Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel mentions her appreciation of this aspect of horror films and, like her, I'm interested in work which allows the experiencer to sometimes think "I am watching this." To simultaneously observe the operation of affects, and to feel effects. I'm not sure where this might overlap with Brecht's ideas.
I want to strip the surface of the work, minimize the materials, concentrate the use of insistence and repetition, extend the span of attention, focus on physical rather than pathetic effects. I'm interested in making work that might be angry, even forcefully so, but somehow without alienating or insulting the audience. The aggression of horror films is often on the surface - I want to drive it inward, create an implosion.
I've been thinking about an aggression which is not (or not only) one of content but of form. For example, a piece like Morton Feldman's "For Stephan Wolpe" which is absolutely beautiful as a surface - soft and open, composed of delicate textures - but on a formal level is so aggressively open, unresolved and unsentimental. It rejects many of the assumptions about musical form, but does so with elegant materials. This paradox and the music's utter sincerity are (among other things) what makes the piece great.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Performance Videos

So, as work begins on my new project, Children's Games (After Bruegel), I've finally started creating and uploading video excerpts from Bandage A Knife (2009) and Flock & Tumble (2008). Video can never quite capture the excitement and physicality of live performance, but at least this gives some sense of the goings-on. Many more coming soon!

Bandage A Knife excerpt two from Seth Nehil on Vimeo.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Knives LP out now!

Senufo Editions One. Clear vinyl, letterpress insert and cover art on chipboard sleeve, handstamped, numbered edition of 180.
Contact me for pre-ordering.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


First Thursday, March 4th, In House Gallery and Project Space

"Nehil earns a “B-” for hanging what might be the first cohesive show at Everett Station in four years. That, and he also has pretty good style." - Tanner Dobson