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Interview with Seth Cluett

By Bijan Rezvani
Thursday, May 13th, 2010
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by Bijan Rezvani

seth cluettThis Sunday at 8:30, Seth Cluett presents Three Forms of Forgetting at downtown experimental venue Roulette with the help of the audience and cellist Okkyung Lee.

Cluett is a multidisciplinary artist with a background in photography and a special focus on sound.  His work includes installation, live performance, composition, video, critical theory, and more.  On Sunday he’ll be presenting pieces for paper and stones, cello and oscillators, and a long solo finale to explore intersections of physical actions, listening, and memory.

In anticipation of Sunday’s event I asked Seth Cluett to share some of his thoughts on sound, listening, and the upcoming performance.

Bijan: How does your background in photography inform your sound work?

Seth Cluett: I tend to think photographically, even when I’m working with video or music. I like holding something still and seeing what happens when you move things around it. This happens in photography with seeing through the lens. I’m a fairly pragmatic person, so I’d much rather have a limitation like a lens and solve the problem of what fits in the frame in order to make an image that is legible. I approach composition this way as well: I’ve been trying to find ways of holding material still to draw attention to details the way the eye moves around in order to make sense of an image. A lot of music relies on constant motion and change, which I love, but lately I’m fascinated by exploring what is available from stillness.

B: In descriptions of your early work, you mention photographing images that you found to be worth photographing and recording sounds that you found to be worth recording. What makes a sound worth recording?

SC: I can only answer for myself here, of course. I like sounds that bring the place they were recorded along with them. Sounds that have something going on that needs some decoding; sounds that require a little work on behalf of the listener are fascinating to me. I like sounds that offer a sort of everyday exoticism that can be both aesthetic and social.

B: You grew up in a rural environment Upstate and have since lived in some of the biggest cities. How do these environments and your sonic experiences of them differ?

SC: For me the biggest difference lies in the perception of speed. I tend to feel out of sync in the city; the bustle and pace moves past me like a movie. I’ve found, though, that my own pace has changed over the years; I feel like it takes me some time to adjust to the slow pace of the rural community where I was raised when I visit there. In terms of sound, the relationship between urban and rural is very different. I think there is a misconception that the country is quieter than the city – I just don’t think that’s so. When I listen to a city like New York, I hear a very constant baseline murmur, a steady state that ebbs and flows. Sure, there may be more abrupt and jarring loud sounds in the city, but in a way the shape of listening is the same in both environs. In a rural space, the background is quieter, but that heightens the contrast with foreground sounds. I think for many people this is a much harder thing to acclimate to. I grew up with it, so it feels more like home to have a less mechanical sound and a higher contrast between background and foreground.

B: At what point does collected, extra-musical sound become music?

SC: At the point that the listener starts thinking about it as music.

B: I’ve heard you say that you are interested in teaching sound to young students…

SC: I am, though young people are a subset of something larger I’m interested in. I like developing sound-making pieces for people who have no training. I guess I could have said ‘musical training’ just now, but I think that ‘sound-making’ is more appropriately broad and perhaps not so coded and weighed down. I’ve developed a number of pieces for paper and stones, cans of compressed air, and the sound of drawing basic shapes. These pieces are intended to engage people in constructing very complex soundscapes without ever feeling as though they need a special skill set or vocabulary to do so. This works well with groups of any age because they are immediately successful, they have fun, and they get something rewarding to listen to. I hope when I work with members of the audience at Roulette on Sunday that a similar kind of thing happens.

B: You’ve expressed an interest in exploring the details around the “boundaries between urban and rural, private and public experience.” Are you talking about sonic details, or is your sound work somehow an exploration of social and other details beyond what’s merely heard?

SC: For me, scoring sound or making an installation is very much about an exploration of social workings. The problem I am interested in is precisely that we often ‘merely hear’ instead of attentively listen. There are patterns to social behavior, ways of functioning within society, that art and music are capable of mirroring, exploring, exposing, and critiquing. I’m interested in the patterns of commuting and the interactions between members of communities. I’ve been making scores for ensembles and installations meant to be engaged by the public that try to explore these patterns at work. Traditional chamber music sometimes appears as a public display of the intimate interactions between a group of musicians who have a bond, a social contract that must move in sync with the score. That is just one, particular, centuries-old conception the aesthetic potential for a particular type of action between people. Seeing neighbors you know at the farmers market or the nod you give each morning to the subway booth attendant are very real parts of human interaction. I’m trying to see what kind of chamber music comes out of these more irregular, cyclic, routined human interactions that haven’t yet become intimate, but could.

B: How did Okkyung Lee become a part of this weekend’s performance?

SC: A year and a half ago, Okkyung invited me to improvise with her at Roulette for a benefit, along with Brian Chase, Shoko Nagai, Miya Misoaka, and Marina Rosenfeld. We had seen each other perform before, but this was our first time playing together. I’ve been working on scored works for improvisors for a while and I’m in a cycle of solo works now with other pieces for Boston-based vocalist Liz Tonne, Welsh Harpist Rhodri Davies, the German-based American guitarist Seth Josel, and the trombonist Tucker Dulin. Okkyung and I started talking about collaborating almost immediately after the first Roulette gig and have had this Sunday’s piece in the works ever since.

B: What role does memory play in your work?

SC: I’m interested in the oscillation between memory and (in)attention. Put simply, if one doesn’t attend to the sounds of a piece for a while and then begins attending because something has drawn them back in, how can I draw attention to those moments of connection? When these moments become clearly defined they become something like objects of memory. When you think about it, memory isn’t a continuum, it’s a string of assembled of moments. I’ve been trying to think about how to explore this in my work by making a rich sound set that doesn’t require constant attention. On top of this I construct levels of events to draw the listener back in to a place of awareness. I’m not sure yet whether its working… sometimes people fall asleep calmly and sometimes people say that it feels surreal.

B: Tell us about Three Forms of Forgetting and the three works or movements that are a part of this performance.

SC: There will be three pieces presented on Sunday evening. The event will start with an untitled piece for paper and stones to be performed by the audience. The second is a piece called ‘overflow and drift’ written for Okkyung Lee that includes a tape part consisting of sine-wave oscillators and very slowly modulating unison reed drones. I will end the evening with a long-form solo performance called ‘forms of forgetting.’ All three pieces are ‘forms of forgetting’ of one kind or another, each began as a year’s worth of long-form (45-minute or more) performances. I approached these performances as experiments to explore the role of sound memory and attention in live performance work. The first two pieces focus on details that came out of this work, and the eponymously titled solo piece has some elements that came out of previous work and some that are specific to the acoustics and the environment of the specific venue in which it will be performed. I’m hoping that the concert can be a slow, quiet evening out.