In conversation with Anne Hilde Neset 29.08.2012

Roar Sletteland

The thing is I'm not a performer. I'm what you might call a professional listener. I think like a member of the audience, not as a composer. Perhaps that makes a difference to the way one arranges concerts. One is also part of a professional field, but not a performer oneself.

This is how Anne Hilde Neset describes herself in an interview with Roar Sletteland. Neset is the new artistic director of Ny Musikk, a national organisation that promotes radical, experimental, interdisciplinary music. The organisation has branches in all of Norway's major cities, and Neset was recently in Bergen to get acquainted with the local scene. Her background is as a writer for the influential music magazine The Wire and as curator working in a broad, interdisciplinary field with an emphasis on sound.

On my first day as presenter, I was told that, if something went wrong or didn't work properly, I should just throw the microphone out the window. Then there would be a soundscape.

Anne Hilde Neset (AHL) – The Wire has been around since 1982, but initially its focus was entirely on jazz. In the early 1990s, it changed its profile to reflect more broadly experimental approaches, covering everything from experimental rock, hip hop, improvised music, and contemporary classical. I played a part in this redefinition and have experience of most areas in the field. I worked a lot in radio. We broadcast weekly programmes on Resonance FM, a London-based art channel. It was very ad hoc: grab something from the desk on your way out of the office, rip the packaging off a CD in the studio and present something you had never even heard before. It was fun. You sit there doing everything yourself, your own hand on the mixer, and it's all live. On my first day as presenter, I was told that, if something went wrong or didn't work properly, I should just throw the microphone out the window. Then there would be a soundscape. So I thought, okay, if that's the attitude of those who run the station, then you're alright. You can relax.

Most of my radio work at the moment is for the BBC. I contribute to a programme called FreakZone. They have a number of regular guests who come and talk about a selected field of music. I did one programme about music and decay, where I played stuff by William Basinski and Ross Bolleter, among others. Bolleter is an Australian who makes music on pianos that have been left outside, exposed to the elements. There was one programme about underwater music and one about Jim O'Rourke, whose activities are very wide-ranging; consequently an entire programme was devoted to him. I also contribute to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3, a ninety-minute programme of experimental music. It's on very late in the evening. Radio 3 is a well established channel with a long history, which plays primarily classical music. Late Junction is one of the few programmes on the channel that shows a more inquisitive attitude towards genres and experimentation. It's very listenable and covers all genres, not just contemporary. Next week there will be a major focus on John Cage, and I'm making three programmes about him. I have three ninety-minute slots exclusively about John Cage. It'll be quite a challenge to put together ninety minutes of material that also functions as a listenable whole.

Mixing genres

Roar Sletteland (RS) – Do you intend to cultivate this same diversity in your work with Ny Musikk?

AHL – Yes, the contemporary music field is large and complex. It's not just about composers writing scores for ensembles. It includes everything from conceptual instructions to electronic experiments – anything you can think of really. The field stretches from video and installation art to dance. Personally, I don't care much about what genre a thing belongs to. What matters to me is that it must be very good. With my background as a critic … I have a critical ear. For me, the context is highly important and has to be conveyed. It's not just about experiencing the work, but also about being able to think and talk about it and assess it. One has to treat it as a part of life.

RS – Do you find your background gives you a different perspective on what the organisation ought to be doing?

AHL – In the past, the artistic director of Ny Musikk has traditionally been a composer. In the long history Ny Musikk, there has apparently been one director who was not a composer, but even so, I'm still an exception. Maybe that's symptomatic of our times, an indication of the professionalisation of the arts. I believe that as a non-composer I can exercise greater freedom with regard to genres. Since I don't really have any special loyalties, I feel I can bring a fresh approach to things. Personally, I'm not aligned with any particular genre. In that respect, my relationship to the field is a bit promiscuous. And then I like to mix things. So too did Øyvind Torvund, my predecessor as artistic director. He often spoke of hybrid concerts, events that might feature hypnagogic pop alongside Schubert. A truly excellent approach, in my view. These days people are far less committed to just one specific genre than they used to be. They have different ways of listening. They don't just listen to a record from beginning to end, but mix tracks in personalised playlists. And this I think has led to people to develop interests outside of what they regard as their own field. They listen to many different things, even though they might never have imagined they would.

More than just concerts

In the field of music, one sits in one's room at home, composes a work, gets it performed, and then runs back home. And very little happens in between.

AHL – One approach is to invite someone to give a performance, who then turns up, plays and leaves again. There's nothing wrong with that, and the result can be a fantastic experience. But one can also take things a little further – add some context to what happens. Many people find contemporary music incomprehensible, which it isn't. One just has to talk about it. It seems to me the visual arts have done a better job in this respect. There's more contextualisation in that field; they create catalogues for every exhibition, there are numerous different critical activities and panel debates, with artists talking about their work, and so on. It's an entirely different tradition. In the field of music, one sits in one's room at home, composes a work, gets it performed, and then runs back home. And very little happens in between. This is  something I want to address. As a critic, one really has to immerse oneself in a work and to take a stance on it. And whether or not the artist agrees, that process helps to foster quality. It must be so difficult for a composer to work in a vacuum. Without a critical network, one can only create things in a vacuum.

RS – Does that describe your approach when you were working for Electra, which you helped to found?

We felt that, rather than sulk over the lack of girls in the music world, why not just go out and do something about it?

AHL – Yes. Electra is a production and curatorial organisation that was founded in 2003. We set it up to produce the group exhibition «Her Noise» in collaboration with the South London Gallery. «Her Noise» included works by Christina Kubisch, Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman, Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether. We created an archive of interviews with female sound artists and composers, collected things like fanzines, magazines and books, and then acquired an audio collection. To us the field of sound seemed very masculine. It began with a series that I and Lina Dzuverovic organised at the now defunct The Lux in London. The programme we put together was fairly broad based and had a focus on sound. One event featured Harry Partch, another was about turntablism and another about the theremin. All sorts of things in fact. It took us two years to realise we hadn't featured a single woman in the entire series. It was something we hadn't thought about. It was a bit shocking, and made us feel that, as curators, we simply had not been searching hard enough. Women artists exist, but we hadn't been looking for them. Around the same time I did an interview with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and she said that someone ought to make a film about women in the field of experimental music. I thought about it for a while – that this was a history someone ought to write. And so we contacted her again. One initial idea was to make «Her Noise» a documentary project. It didn't turn out that way, but we did manage a collaboration with Kim. She had just started a project about women in experimental music, «Other Women», together with Thurston Moore, among others. Eventually, the collaborative project consisted of us presenting them with our interviews and them giving us theirs, which allowed us to build up an archive. Both Kim and Jutta were also involved in the original «Her Noise». They presented something they called Reverse Karaoke – a tent containing a full band setup, in other words, a drum kit, guitar, bass and microphone. Kim recorded a three-minute song, three minutes of her singing vocals, to which people could play along. People could put together their own band. To one side there was a table with paper and coloured pencils where people could make their own covers. It was a chance for people to try an electric guitar for the first time, to experience what the vibrations feel like, to try hitting a drum for the first time. Many people have never done such things. It was very popular. All sorts of people came, from nursery school groups and school classes through to the homeless – and everything in between. We now have an archive of thousands of CDs, each made in two copies, one for the archive and one for the performer to take home. It was an installation that just kept on growing. We were very inspired by the Riot Grrl movement, which was all about taking personal control of the means of production. It was a kind of democratisation. We felt that, rather than sulk over the lack of girls in the music world, why not just go out and do something about it? The archive has since been donated to the London University of the Arts. It now sits alongside the Stanley Kubrick archive and many other archives in the university's possession. Which is really cool, but also rather problematic, in that we created it as something people should contribute to, something to which they could add their own stuff, so as to form a kind of self-written history. But now that it's in an institution, it's much harder to get at. People can borrow things and view them on prior arrangement, that sort of thing.

International collaboration

RS – What's it like to pass from the international to the Norwegian scene? Will you begin by importing international stars?

AHL – My network is more international than Norwegian, and for me it's natural to work with people and institutions in other countries. After all, this is a small field, globally. The number of people working with contemporary music isn't in the millions. So I see Ny Musikk as one node in an international network. But to me it seems the international artists are in fact already here. They are often invited to Norway, and not just to Oslo. Last year, Christian Wolff played in Trondheim, for example. I  invited Diamanda Galas, who contributed to the Her Noise archive. We collaborated with Ultima and the Museum of Contemporary Art to bring her over. She's creating a new work for the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. It's the first time she'll be playing with a symphony orchestra. I think it'll be great. She's collaborating with Jon Øyvind Næss to write the score. It's an approach I've never tried before, but it's very interesting. She wants to continue working in this way, cooperate more with Jon Øyvind, and then tour the work. That gives one the feeling that Ny Musikk is really making a contribution. It's quite exciting, to have moved beyond being just a critic. One gets so involved, and you feel you're actually adding to a landscape. It's really nice. That was probably one of the reasons why I founded Electra. It wasn't enough just to sit in an office, receiving music and assigning it to the no, perhaps or yes pile. It's nice to be helping to create something, to make something happen.


Kunstjournalen B-post #1_12: Sound