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Phill Niblock

"The sounds are easily recognised as voices, and they are beautifully blended to create an expanse of low-pitched vocal sound which seems to hover around the room just a few feet off the floor. And at a point near the ceiling, a good 30 feet from any loudspeaker, there is a little pocket of overtones. I moved around the room to make sure I wasn't just hearing things, but that little pocket of high sounds was always there in the same spot, as clear and vivid as if it had been coming directly out of a loudspeaker. It was a remarkable hallucination and a tribute to the profound mystery of acoustics - and perhaps also to the wine we had been drinking" - Tom Johnson, The Village Voice, 1972.

"At a recent concert, Phill played a tape piece of warm synthesizer-like sounds suggesting fast-moving arpeggios and distant thunder storms. I told him that the sounds were moving, what was the piece? I was embarrassed to find that it was one I had recently recorded" - Dave Soldier, sleeve notes to Music by Phill Niblock, 1993.

The popular perception of the American minimalist musical tradition recognises LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass as the big, and sometimes the only, guns. Maybe that upstart John Adams will get a mention. The huge success of Glass and Reich tends to obscure the fact that minimalism, from its origins with Young in the late 1950s, inspired and informed the work of hundreds of other composers and musicians; even pop musicians like Brian Eno are heavily in debt to the tradition. Most of the people whose music could in some way be described as "minimalist" dislike the label; like any similar label it has ended up as more of a marketing tool and assumes that the similarities between the musicians are more important than the differences.

Phill Niblock, although a well-known name in New York for over two decades, has had particularly little recognition in Britain, although a 1994 concert in London at the invitation of Blast First brought him some very welcome attention, and their new album may hopefully bring some more. The problem might seem to have been just a lack of available recordings, although that hasn't done LaMonte Young much harm. The lack of recordings is a byproduct of something else, however. Phill Niblock's music really has to be experienced live.

Born in Indiana in 1933, Niblock has become known not only for his music but for the experimental documentary films that usually also form part of any Niblock live performance. When he came to London in June 1994, the films shown were mostly of people working, in non-Western cultures, on simple agricultural or craftwork tasks. The shots are lengthy, and as straightforward as it's possible to get; no commentary, no editing, just pictures of people doing what they do.

His music has a lot in common with this approach, although compositionally it can be very complex. On Five More Strings Quartets the "score" consists of a list of 500 carefully chosen frequencies which are played in sequence as sine tones in the performers' headphones; they attempt to match these frequencies, and twenty simultaneous tones are obtained by multitracking the string quartet five times. The resulting sound-mass is tremendously dense, and in addition to the twenty basic tones, wave phenomena create many more unpredictable, constantly changing difference tones; the exact nature of these depends heavily on the volume the music is played at, and the acoustic properties of the performance space, which is why Dave Soldier had so much difficulty recognising the music he had himself performed.

What this has in common with Niblock's filmic approach is that although the music changes constantly, both at the microscopic level produced by interference between different microtones, and at the overall structural level embodied in the sequence of frequencies, it gives the impression of being a timeless continuum. The way the music changes is of secondary importance to its mere existence, since this is music which (Niblock always recommends high volume) has an incredible sense of presence. As with his films, change is very gradual, and the music becomes more of an environment than what music generally is, a narrative. Like other minimalist music, listening to Niblock's compositions requires a definite change in perceptual approach; you need to immerse yourself in it, experience it at a direct intuitive level, allow your attention to drift and follow subtle patterns in the overall density.

Make no mistake, though. This isn't "ambient" music; or, at least, "ambient" is a term that's now sufficiently debased that you wouldn't want to mudden this majestic, awe-inspiring music with it.

Niblock recordings remain hard to come by. Fortunately, along with Lois V Vierk and David Behrman, Niblock curates the Experimental Intermedia series of compact discs, intended specifically to make available work by contemporary composers whose work is original but who have so far been poorly served by recordings. (The Experimental Intermedia Foundation itself is a non-profit organization that has promoted hundreds of live performances). The label has released two CDs by Niblock.

Its first release was Four Full Flutes, a set of four works for flute, performed by Petr Kotik, Susan Stenger (better known for her role in the Band of Susans, but a composer in her own right) and Eberhard Blum. Two of the pieces, P K and S L S were specially composed to be played either individually or together; the album was originally envisaged as a two-LP set to allow listeners to experiment for themselves with the possibilities for combination, loudspeaker positioning etc. Even CD-owners are advised to tape one piece and set things up for simultaneous play. A third track on the CD, P K and S L S, is an example of one possible combination of the two pieces, while the fourth, Winterbloom Too explores an entirely different set of frequencies courtesy of Blum's bass flute.

The process of creation is absurdly obsessive; on P K, Petr Kotik tunes his flute to the desired frequencies by comparing wave patterns on an oscilloscope. Niblock then take recordings of continuous tones, and splices them to create longer continuous tones, editing out the attack and decay where Kotik took a breath. These tones are then compiled onto eight-track tape, so that there are eight separate tones playing at once, each changing to new frequencies throughout the length of each track. Some people may find the results similarly austere; after all, the volume never changes, and the sound texture itself is relatively plain. But if you're not hung up on its radical opposition to everything that conventional music holds dear, Four Full Flutes presents artworks with a difference, artworks that you can enter.

Music by Phill Niblock is a more desolate experience, in as much as the sound is much denser, and the harmonies not always quite so friendly. As well as Five More String Quartets, mentioned above, which could almost be accused of having a dramatic form (from its origins in often unrelated frequencies, it converges to only a few carefully related tones), this album contains the lengthy Early Winter. This has its origins in a piece called Fall and Winterbloom, which has its origins in turn in the similarly titled track from Four Full Flutes. It's fair to say that you wouldn't spot the ancestry just by listening to the music; Early Winter has far more in the way of "development", achieved without in any way lessening the intensity of the music, in fact, this is easily my favourite piece of either of these two albums. Not unlike being strapped to the underside of a jet turbine.

If you have difficulty tracking either of these down, you'll be glad to know that Blast First has just released A Young Person's Guide to Phill Niblock, a double CD containing recordings of six magnificent recent pieces (plus one live recording). These provide examples of different approaches to the Niblock sounds, although length, lack of variation, and enormous density still dominate everything. Didjeridoos, for multitracked dijeridus, is remarkable compared to, say, Four Full Flutes for its roughness of tone, with the raucous, rumbling dijeridu sound creating what is at times an astonishingly energetic texture. If you're one of those people who enjoy dark, ritualist, ambient music such as Lustmørd's Heresy then be warned - this is the real thing, many times more intense. Similarly, lovers of ambient music produced by layering synthesiser drones should hear Ten Auras (for tenor sax). It illustrates Dave Soldier's problem, since it sounds completely electronic, despite the entirely acoustic source material. It's warm, rich, and like all of Niblock's music, impressive in its sheer solidity. A Young Person's Guide contains other pieces, for flute and for trombone; it's tempting to suggest that as the most varied of these three albums, it's the one to try first. Unfortunately, my experience suggests that music this far removed from ordinary rhythm, melody, harmony or structure baffles and even bores far more people than it attracts. You might want to be cautious. As for me, I abandoned all caution the first time I heard Niblock's music, and haven't regretted it yet.

The Experimental Intermedia CDs can be mail-ordered from Metamkine in France, or from Deep Listening in the USA; contact Mute Records if you have difficulty finding the Blast First release.

© Brian Duguid 1996