Nils Bech: “I started performing alone at the Salvation Army for my grandma and her friends”

Interview by Hanne Mugaas


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Bendik Giske with Nils Bech

The Norwegian singer and performer Nils Bech is in New York to present two parts of his piece Look Inside at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and Greene Naftali Gallery as part of Performa 11. In his performances, Bech creates rituals as tools, allowing him to reenact emotional circumstances from his life through voice, movement, music and text. A classically trained singer, Bech entered the art world 10 years ago, and has since performed at an extensive list of venues, including ILLUMInations at the 54th Venice Biennale; ICA, London; the Frieze Foundation, London and Performa 09, New York. Hanne Mugaas, who curated his Performa 11 projects, caught up with Bech to learn more about his upcoming performances and his background growing up in Oslo.

Hanne Mugaas: Can you tell us about the Performa 11 events, Look Inside, Part 1 and 2?

Nils Bech: Look Inside Part 1, at Greene Naftali, is a retrospective of sorts, investigating how a singer like me ended up in the art world. The performance is performed A cappella by me, with Bendik Giske on saxophone and flute.

Look Inside Part 2, at the New Museum, is a song cycle describing a close relationship and how it affected me as a singer and performer.  The performance is based on my upcoming album, and includes Bendik Giske and Sergei Tcherepnin on different instruments and electronics. Both performances include sculptures by my friend Lina Viste Gronli.

When did you know that you wanted to become a singer? When and where did you first perform?

I knew I would become a singer when I was five. My grandmother told me I should join a boys’ choir, as my boy soprano was such a good one. But - I’m from a very small Norwegian village, which had no boys’ choir, so I started performing alone at the Salvation Army for my grandma and her friends. 

               Nils Bech at Performa 09. Set by Lina Viste Groenli.

Who were you then, and who are you now, inspired by?

I haven’t really been that into other singers, the only poster I had on my wall growing up was of Kurt Cobain – I sang “Rape Me” at a school party when I was very – probably too – young. I’ve always been inspired by dance, I wanted to become a ballet dancer as much as a singer when I was a kid. But in my tiny village, only girls were allowed to take ballet lessons. So I started singing lessons instead. When I got older I listened to the Smiths, Maria Callas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kate Bush, Nina Simone and Beyonce and Destiny’s Child. Nowadays I’m into Beth Ditto, Bjork and Beyonce. I’m still very much inspired by dance, but also by fine arts, especially painting, ceramics and sculpture.

You’re part of a tight knit group of creative people in Oslo who’ve been close friends since you were kids (The artists Ida Ekblad and Lina Viste Gronli, fashion designer Michael Olestad Nybraten, etc.).  How important have these people, as well as growing up in Norway, been to your process?

These people have been incredibly important for me. When you’re a classically trained singer you need to keep up with a long tradition and a lot of rules. My friends in fine art and fashion design showed me how to employ their tools - to think more conceptually, and more importantly, that rules are there to be broken. When it comes to growing up in Norway, it’s a great place for art and culture because there’s a good support system of grants and awards.

What is different about performing in an art context as opposed to regular music concerts? 

Within an art context, there are several challenges when it comes to the setting and stage. I find the art audience more curious and seeking than a regular concert audience, which is exciting!

Nils Bech will perform at Greene Naftali on November 9th, 2011 at 6pm, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art on November 11, 2011 at 7pm as part of Performa 11. He will also perform at Santos Party House on November 11th, starting at 11pm.Look Back Part 1 is presented by Art Since the Summer of ’69 and Greene NaftaliLook Back Part 2is presented by Art Since the Summer of ’69 and Rhizome.

Hanne Mugaas is a curator at Art Since the Summer of ‘69.  

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