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Nels Cline: Finding Others

By Published: April 8, 2013
AAJ: But with campus Arts faculties, that is the one area where experience trumps degrees. If you were in psychology, then get your Ph.D. and maybe we'll think about hiring you. But Fine Arts departments are full of teachers that have actually been practicing for years and years. And Fred seemed to lament that his role seems increasingly to be the administration of the program, suddenly he had to worry about...

NC: Right, he got "the responsibilities."

AAJ: ...exactly. And I'm sure as your parents learned, there needs to be accountability. You have to make sure that, if you're in a school, that students need to learn x, y, and z, this is how we're going to teach x, y, and z and this is how we measure or test x, y, and z—doing that in Arts can be a hard thing. Both you and Fred are motivated and inspired by visual arts. You each have a piece in John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
sax, alto
's Arcana series of books—Fred mentions Francis Bacon and Andrey Tarkovskiy and you mention Robert Motherwell and have a Boltanski quote at the opening as well as the Dirty Baby project with David Breskin. When you're playing, do you think in cinematic or artistic terms?

NC: I think in my case of growing up with cinema and, in my case, going to musicals and stage plays with my parents, and being encouraged in terms of visual art—and my twin brother, [percussionist] Alex Cline
Alex Cline
Alex Cline
, who really positioned himself to be a visual artist in his life rather than a percussionist—we were encouraged to be checking out art and all kinds of other things beside music. We just got obsessed with music. But I think that while playing and listening, because of our media-drenched growing up there is a certain amount of difficulty in completely disassociating the act of listening or playing with some kind of imagery or emotion terrain that we've been basically taught—or maybe it's innate—that when we hear a diminished chord in a Beethoven symphony that we get tense. That does seem very Western thinking but then again on my whole background, DNA-wise, is that... I wonder about these things. In my case, it's just a matter of, I think, inspiration and a matter of feeling that the idea of expressing oneself in some sort of artistic manner is one's path and then finding others who do it in various ways and investigating that learning about that person, the feeling that something about the work and finding what's basically a vast universe or pool to draw inspiration from.

Of people that I've felt particularly close to, in terms of visual arts over the years, some have remained since I was a boy like Joan Miro. Others that emerged later are, like in the case of Robert Motherwell and in general most of the abstract expressionists, I think that like many people I attach a certain amount of romanticism to the idea of the gesture or the idea of the iconoclastic energy behind that school of the repudiation or at least the breaking away from the Parisian model but at the same time, the Parisian model is very potent if you start adding in the Surrealists and the Dadas who are endlessly inspirational to me and constantly pointing the way to not just iconoclasm or innovation but also the Surrealists were sort of fun and sexy, too.

AAJ: It was humor to provoke a response...

NC: ...but also crafty and in some ways really, strikingly beautiful. I don't consider myself to be any kind of intellectual giant in terms of what's going on in contemporary art or conceptual art but I draw inspiration from all corners of the creative realm. You mentioned cinema—I am a movie fan—and checking out people who become icons like Marina Abramović or Sanja Iveković, whose work is decidedly confrontational and at times very pointedly political but not always about the object or about galleries or museums—these people inspire me even though I'm nothing like them. But they're so brave they make me feel better about the world.

And then other people, you just feel close to them like Christian Boltanski and his wife, Annette Messager, are such intriguing artists and they have so many common areas and they're married and they're Swiss and the whole thing is delightful on the surface and perplexing in a way—how do they make this work, how are they both so successful and so visionary. And then I think about the art world as not just the work but sometimes the individual themselves and I find it helpful because I'm not... I don't consider myself a trailblazer... I think I just squish along.

Well, I went through a whole phase where my interest in political thought went through a socialist/communist perspective, inspired by people like Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and then checking out the whole South American political scene and this whole idea of the worker and I ended up, psychologically and mentally, downplaying the idea of myself being an artist and I became really uncomfortable with it and it became more in my mind that I was more of a worker and as such I stopped doing as much creative work for myself and started playing more with other people and trying to learn how to play with a lot of other people and musicians. Some of that was a survival mechanism but some of it was a decision to not call attention to myself and yet I still made records and did my own music but not in a militant way so I think I'm sort of squishy—I do a little of this, a little of that, and I like collaborating anyway.

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