Perfect Sound Forever


Play loud, please!
by Micheal Freerix
(December 2011)

Phill Niblock is like an antidote to John Cage, because in his music there is no silence. His pieces fill time and space completely. When you are at a concert of music by Phill Niblock, you are in a room full of music. Nothing else can be heard. When the piece stops, the silence seems to be unbearable.

Niblock is also a passionate biker and traveler who is a maverick of the contemporary music scene as well. He started out as a filmmaker in the early sixties, and after focusing on the relationship between the moving image and recorded sound, he ended up in the music scene. He gave up his motorcycle some time ago, but at age 78, he still travels the world, living in Europe for eight months a year.

Born in 1933, Niblock is a composer who makes thick, loud drones of music, filled with microtones of instrumental timbres which generate many overtones in a performance space. Music didn't really interest Niblock while growing up... "I was never really interested in being a musician. I took piano lessons for about six weeks and my father didn't think I practiced enough, so he fired the piano teacher. I think that's true. I wasn't interested in practicing." 1

He started to collect records instead and bought a tape recorder in 1953. "I am really very interested in sound," he recalled. 1 After leaving school, he joined the army. That's where he "learned to travel" 2 and travelling is one of his main interests to this day. After leaving the army in 1958 he went to live in New York, studying economics. "I was a jazz fan, and I thought if I was going to settle somewhere why not just come to New York." 1 Motivated by his extensive record collection, he built his own speaker system, because he wanted very good stereo sound. "So the idea of the music, of using these microtonal intervals to produce difference tones, was actually what I was interested in doing in the first place. Making sound was a large part of that. I was interested in this very big, fat sound, and at fairly large volumes." 1

He got himself a job, working in a small company dealing with photographic supplies. There he got his first camera. At around 1960, he started to photograph jazz musicians, because he often went to concerts. Asked about the influence of jazz on his music, he says: "I was interested in jazz music, listening to it, but the influence on my music is zero, I guess." 2

He would go to galleries and see a lot of art. His hangout was the Judson Dance Theatre, an informal group of dancers who performed at the Judson Memorial Church in New York. It had evolved out of a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician who had studied with John Cage. The artists involved with Judson Dance Theater were avant garde experimentalists who rejected the confines of Modern dance practice and theory. Today, they are considered the founders of post-modern dance. Niblock met dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown, dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer Meredith Monk, multi-media artist Carolee Schneemann and composer Malcolm Goldstein there. Phillip Glass and Steve Reich where part of this scene too. Their experimental work ethic had a big impact on Niblock. "But there was Max Polikoff, who was a violinist and a curator," 1 who produced a series of modern music at the 92nd Street Y. "He did a Feldman piece on one series it was the time of 'durations,' so 1961. And they did one of those pieces for ensemble. It was an incredible revelation, that you could have a piece without rhythm and melody, and these long tones. It really was in a way a permission to do music in a similar kind of way. I could work with that idea. Then I was very interested in the microtonal stuff." 1

The company he worked at had a small 16 mm Bolex Camera, so "in 1965 I started to work with film, worked with a lot of dancers doing film." 2 The founder of the Judson Dance Theatre, choreographer and filmmaker Elaine Summers, encouraged him to film and taught him a great deal about movements. Considering this background, it comes as a surprise that his early films work with narrative structures. "In reality, the work is really stripped of most of the stuff that makes a film. And so filmmakers look at it and say, shit, what can you do with that? The idea was to strip out most of what film is about. To delimit the structure. I think it's easier to say that the music is minimal, rather than the films. It's a little harder to explain how the films are minimal." 1 Later on, with his films about The Sun Ra Orchestra (The Magic Sun) or the percussionist Max Neuhaus (Max), he started to delve into themes about music. "I had a lot of different films in progress at the same time during the last half of the sixties. I began actually working on a piece with Sun Ra in 1966 and it was completed in 1968 and it was first really shown at Carnegie Hall at a Sun Ra concert in 1969."

His films have a variety of topics, from artists to everyday life to music. They show a curiosity for experimenting with narration, structure, editing or the image itself. Seen one after another, they almost have nothing in common. And they don't look like works of a filmmaker, who's struggling on his way towards composition except that they are experimental compositions in form itself. And they are most effective when they deal with music as in The Magic Sun or Max.

Jonas Mekas was a leading figure of the New York avant garde filmmaking in the sixties, but Mekas didn't show an interest in the work of Niblock. Mekas did one show with the films of Niblock and there was very little response: "The films I was making didn't please the experimental film community which was the main community around, so I never became known as a filmmaker until recently." 2 Although working on several films at the same time and getting grants for them, Niblock felt isolated among the experimental film crowd: "One problem with the film 'thing' was that most of the experimental filmmakers wanted to make abstract stuff. But I came from photography. So I was always interested in real images and found abstract stuff boring. That influenced what I filmed too. So it just happened that I didn't hang out with them, I hung out more time with music people and I became known in that world, and never really participated in the experimental scene in film other than tangentially." 1

In 1968, he wrote his first music piece, using his tape-recorder. "Doing things on tape was a very natural way to work for me. The first pieces were dubbed back and forth, so I would build up stuff by several generations of overdubbing. My attitude is pretty even. I think that all comes about from the timbre of the instrument. Sometimes because of the form. I do try to change the internal form of what's happening for each piece. A lot of times that happens just because of the tones that are recorded; the tones I decide to record." 1

Usually he works very close with the musicians he chooses for a studio date: "A typical thing would be, if I'm recording somebody new, we sit down and talk about what sort of resonance points there are on their instrument, what sounds particularly rich. And then they actually play a bunch of tones and we choose something that sounds really good. So it's sort of worked out in the process." 1

Niblock records a bunch of instrumental tones in the studio. If something goes wrong with it, like if a recorded sample has an error, he simply throws it away. That happens a lot. He assembles one tone after another and works them into one piece by multitracking. But sometimes the process isn't that easy. "Hurdy Hurry," a piece for Hurdy Gurdy, played by the guitar-player Jim O'Rourke, is one of these examples: "Jim O'Rourke had not used his hurdy-gurdy for a long time and somebody had borrowed it, and it appeared to have a chunk in the wheel so every time it rotated it would go 'clunk, clunk.' And so I didn't think I would be able to finish a piece out of the stuff and was ready to scrap it. I had two days to go before a concert. So I started really listening to the recordings, and I found one tone that was really good. And so I made some pitch bends above and below and one or two octaves down, and I just made nine minutes of only that tone in all of his permutations. Then finally at the ninth minute I bring in all the other tones, so it becomes a completely different chord. Then at fifteen minutes it stops. A short piece for me!" 1

Early listeners described his pieces, played through a six-speaker, non-directional sound system, as an 'attack.' Still today, his music can have the same effect: people leave while it is playing or are totally helpless when the piece is over. But Niblock was never into noise, he always worked with sound on sound instead. Composer Gordon Mumma called his early work "massive sound without a hint of musical gesture." 3

In the early '70's, Niblock used to combine music, film and dance, making "multimedia, multi-image-shows with music, then music took over." 2

After his first pieces, which were done at home on his tape recorder that he bought in 1953, he "worked in Boston in a friend's studio" in the early seventies. "It was the first commercial 16-track-ampex, which was based on the quad-video-tape-machine. I would usually have access to the studio on weekends when there was nothing booked. And I would go up on Friday night, from New York, and simply work and sleep on the floor in the studio until Monday morning. All of my pieces from that time are basically constructed as recordings in various stages and constructed on multi-track-tape. I construct a score on paper, before I begin building the tape. They're actually finished without hearing anything. I mean, I finish the entire score, then I just go back and lay it all in." 1

Since his forays into film did not lead to success, he stopped doing multi-media-shows and concentrated on composing. Although there were a lot of composers living in New York in the early seventies, there were few spaces where this music could be performed. One of these places was the Kitchen.

The Kitchen was founded by video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka in Greenwich Village in 1971, taking its name from the original location, the kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center. Although first intended as a location for the exhibition of video art, the Kitchen soon expanded to include other forms of art: plastic, performance and music. In the fall of 1973, Phill Niblock was invited for a performance of his music at the Kitchen on the 21st of December. The night before, Herman Nitsch had performed his 'Orgien Mysterien Theater' there, and buckets of blood had been spilled all over the floor. It was impossible to clean the blood off the floor. It smelled horrible. Phill Niblock deemed it would be impossible to perform his music there, so on the spot he decided to relocate the audience to his studio.

His studio was a space big enough to live and work in, but for a performance space, it was (and still is) quite small. Only 75 people could be seated in the big room, Niblock hardly ever used, because he usually works at his kitchen table. But in the big room he had installed his "funky but actually quite serviceable sound system." 1 It had never occurred to him before to use his studio as performance space.

The evening turned out to be a success. Niblock decided to open his studio for performances on a regular basis, drawing upon his circle of friends and associates. For the first series of events, he "asked seven people if they would do a concert. Charlemagne Palestine was one, Joel Chadabe, Rhys Chatham, David Behrman, and others." 1 With invitation-postcards as the only advertisement, these gatherings of composers and audience became very important for the New York scene of contemporary composers, who didn't have a place informal enough for their music. These events became quite familiar evenings, with people staying long, drinking wine and having a ball.

Each performance was run by one artist and only he decided, what would be played on that evening. There were no time limits, so when Morton Feldman was invited, he decided that his second string concert should be played. It is about six hours long. The performance started at 5:30 and stopped at 2:00 in the night. Afterwards, the audience would stay and talk and drink till the morning light.

Although there were a lot of composers living in New York in the early seventies, their works were hardly ever performed. "I realised that composers always have difficulty finding a place where they can play their music, particularly if they needed to reproduce sound by speakers." 1

In the beginning, the music he presented was in one way or another minimalistic, but over the years that has changed. Niblock started to invite composers or performers he liked or found interesting, so the list ranges from names like James Tenney, Alvin Curran, Kevin Volans, Tom Johnson to composers from a different generation like Arthur Russel, Henry Flynt, Arnold Dreyblatt or Elliott Sharp.

In the mid-seventies Niblock music became known outside of New York and he was invited to perform elsewhere: "My first European Gig was in Berlin in 1974." 2

He still lives in the same studio he moved into in 1968 and it is occasionally open for concerts. Currently, the landlord is trying to evict him because of the concerts in his studio. Since 1978, these performances have been taped. Recently, they have been transferred to digital media so that New World Records, an non-profit-label, can distribute them on the Internet.

Ironically, Niblock didn't favor releasing his work on record: "I did not want to make records. There were two LP's from the early eighties, but before that, I did not want to have recordings because I felt the music had to be heard live, when you can play it with a decent sound system in a large space and loud, because it's then that the overtone patterns start to happen." 2

Niblock is a man of the digital age. Since CD's have become the mainstream media, he likes to release his compositions, in the early nineties first on Paul Smith's Blast First Records, and currently on the British label Touch. There are twelve CD's of his music releases, some of which are multiple CD sets.

While travelling the world, Niblock never stopped filming with his 16mm Bolex camera. He likes to film outside because of the light, and is interested in manual labour because it is almost extinct in First World countries "After 1973 I began to film people working doing just every day living mostly in third-world-countries, where the actions they did where rather repetitive and they where quite natural. I was looking for the most natural kind of movement. I kept on for 18 years doing this." 2 He uses these filmed sequences as accompaniment for his pieces, usually as multiple projections, so that the actions on the screen and the music overlap. "The films and the music are totally unrelated, I usually show two or three films at the same time with music." 2

And since the late nineties, he's "been making pieces for orchestra which are fully scored and played by musicians in orchestras reading the score and playing." 2 So today it might even be possible to go to a concert-hall where a symphony orchestra is playing a piece by Niblock at an incredible loud volume.

An avid motorcyclist, Niblock gave up riding his motorcycle some years ago for health reasons. But he never stopped traveling. Right now, he's always on tour, presenting his works all over the world, likely at 100 db. For Niblock, it's microtones that do the work.


1) Quote from an interview with Niblock on Paris Transatlantic.

2) Quotes from a radio-interview with the author.

3) quote from the article 'Who's Who in Filmmaking: Phill Niblock,' Sight Lines Magazine, Winter, 1974

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