Sunday, September 14, 2008

Phill Niblock: At the Heart of the Sound Wave: Interview, Paris, March 29th, 2008

Composer Phill Niblock, key player in the New York minimalist scene, isn’t finished making his heady drones ring out all over the planet. On the road eight months out of the year, this composer and filmmaker will set down his suitcases next Thursday in Nantes for a landmark performance at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

In the music world, Phill Niblock is somewhat of a renegade. Unlike his classically-trained mentors, the four founding fathers of the minimalist school (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass), Niblock admits to never having felt much of an interest in the whole conservatory tradition. Indeed, it was photography, "something very natural for me," which provided the platform for his first creative peregrinations.

In the mid 1960s, Niblock met choreographer and experimental filmmaker Elaine Summers, who introduced him to video. Their collaboration culminated in 1968 with the creation of the Experimental Media Foundation, "an artist-run organization, […] run for artists," dedicated to promoting "Intermedia" productions--"Film, slides, dance, music, combined, as a performance event." Based out of Niblock’s loft in SoHo, the foundation quickly became one of the nervous centers of the New York art and performance scene. Nearly a thousand concerts have been produced there since its creation.

The concept of "intermedia" art" –distinguished by its proponents from the more commercial "multimedia"—is fundamental in Phill Niblock’s oeuvre. His protracted continuous shots of artisans working were never intended as films "per se," but as part of an ensemble of elements comprising an intermedia performance. "They are extremely real images. But they never have the structure of documentary films. […] Documentary people always hate […] my films. And experimental people hate the films because they are so totally photographic."

Niblock’s relative lack of success as a filmmaker prompted him to hone in on his music. Unlike most of the other composers of his generation, he accepts the label of "minimalist" because he feels it adequately describes the paring down of content and form so central to his work. "The core of what I do is to strip out various aspects of the structure of the medium that I’m working in. So with the music, for instance, there’s no rhythm, there’s not melody and there’s no typical harmonic progression. And the work is very much about non-development, in the musical sense. The same thing is true of the films. Most of the vocabulary of the film is simply not there. Not narrative, no montage. I think there’s two shots that are out of chronological order in the entire 40 hours of film." In the mid 1970s, Village Voice critic Tom Johnson summed up this process with a memorable: "No melody, no harmony, no rhythm. No bullshit."

The music of Phill Niblock is far removed from the repetitive, psychedelia-tinged minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It is closer to the radical minimalism of La Monte Young, which hinges upon duration. The majority of his pieces consist in an ensemble of drones—buzzing held notes which expand out infinitely, evolving almost imperceptibly and emitting a host of sparkling harmonics. For the composer, "the idea is to make this sort floating environment" for the spectator to get lost in, gradually losing contact with reality, and, especially, with time. "If somebody, after an hour’s performance, thinks it was only ten minutes long, that’s perfect. And that happens. People don’t have any sense of how long the thing was."

Niblock’s composition process is very manual, very artisanal—a perfect metaphor for the images that appear in his films. Recordings—once analogue, today digital—serve as his base material. Every one of his pieces consists of an ensemble of drones produced by instruments—always analogue!—that are particularly rich in timbre: electric guitar (Guitar Too, for Four), hurdy-gurdy (Hurdy Hurry), nasal voices (A Y U). The composer combines these recordings, gently modifies their frequencies and allows them to interact. Phill Niblock is passionate about microtonal intervals and the surprising acoustical phenomena that take place when they are allowed to intermingle. At the heart of his music lies a certain indeterminacy—one which distinguishes it from the work of La Monte Young. Often, Phil Niblock allows himself to be surprised by his pieces: "I can predict, but I can’t exactly predict. So that some pieces will be somewhat different than I expect them to be."

Phill Niblock’s pieces are incredibly plastic. If one asks him whether he conceives his pieces in relation to the spaces where they will eventually be performed, he turns the question on its head: "It’s more the other way around, that the music changes incredibly, drastically, depending on the space it’s played in. And, obviously, the sound system. Typically, spaces which are really fantastic would be, like a cathedral, or a large church, which is very open, where there’s a lot of reflection off of surfaces." A spatial dimension accentuated by the composer’s desire to "get people to wander around," to experience the plasticity of the sound material for themselves—a kind of dare, Phill Niblock admits. "Nobody wants to wander around. They get the idea that they should sit there very quietly."

The music of Phill Niblock can appear inaccessible, too intellectual, too elitist. In reality, it is extremely sensual—carnal, almost—accessible to all who are willing to dive in, close their eyes and allow themselves to be carried off by the vibrations. The composer insists that his music (which, in live performance, usually combines recordings and live musicians) be played EXTREMELY loud, so that it fills the room, envelops the spectator and maximizes its harmonic potentialities. Far from assuming a passive role during a Niblock performance, the spectator takes the reigns by carving out his or her own unique path through this extreme acoustic environment. "I’m interested in making a sound world and a visual world which is very much open to different interpretation and different perception. So, if an audience comes and everyone has a different perception of what happened to them, then it’s perfect for me." The very simplicity of the drones, their very "minimalism," opens up a vista for the imagination to roam in, a liberty without equivalent. With no melody, no harmony, no rhythm to guide it, consciousness becomes free in its associations.

The work of Phill Niblock is an experience to live through. Only a professional speaker system and live musicians can do it justice. Next Thursday, April 3rd at the Nantes Musée de Beaux-Arts, you will get a chance. Don’t miss it.

Words: Sophie Pecaud and Emilie Friedlander, 2008.

Performance co-sponsored by Cable# and Apo 33.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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