Phill Niblock

born 1933 in Anderson, Indiana; lives in New York and Ghent

Biography

1956 Economics degree (BA) at Indiana University

1956–1958 Laboratory technician in the US Army

1958 Relocation to New York, where he took on diverse jobs

1968 First music composition

Since the 1960s Niblock has organized concerts and intermedia performances in his New York loft

Since 1985 director of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, a foundation for avant-garde music based in New York and with a branch in Ghent, Belgium

In 2014 Niblock received the John Cage Award

Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Phill Niblock began his artistic career as photographer and filmmaker. From an early age he was inspired by music and moved to New York in 1958 where between 1961 and 1964 he photographed jazz musicians in clubs and portrait studios, including Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Billy Strayhorn. His photography made it onto some jazz album covers. In the mid-1960s his photography took on a conceptual approach. He began systematically to investigate the social transformation of New York through the continual changes in architecture and city infrastructure. Among other things he documented the Streetcorners in the South Bronx (1979), at that time an abandoned and desolate area with many falling-down buildings. From the center of intersections he always photographed in all directions so, that the street signs could be seen. When presenting the work, he arranged the photographs in a grid. Also his façade photographs from Buildings along SoHo Broadway (1988) are a sequential, serial cartography of the city. The photographs were always taken at the same time of the day, never with direct sunlight, and Niblock always stood close to the building, aiming his camera up at it.

In 1965 Niblock began to make films and to work with dancers and choreographers from the innovative Judson Church Theater, which included Elaine Summers, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Tine Croll, Carolee Schneemann and Lucinda Childs. Besides documentary images, he made films that were projected during the dance performances.

Between 1966 and 1969 Niblock made the series Six Films, short experimental 16-mm films with sound, which portrayed artists and musicians, including the musician Max Neuhaus as well as the charismatic Sun Ra with his free jazz ensemble Arkestra, known for its eccentric costumes. The Magic Sun, the film about Sun Ra, became a classic of the experimental film underground. Niblock superimposed negatives of the musicians, which were often taken so close up that they couldn’t be recognized and became abstract forms. In 1969 Niblock projected the film behind Sun Ra’s ensemble during a concert, something he would later do with his own videos during his own concerts.

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Beginning in 1968 Niblock made multimedia Environments (1968–1971), in which film and slide shows were incorporated into live dance and music. The films, in most cases of nature, were projected onto up to 10 meter-wide screens. Between 1973 and 1991 Niblock created his most significant corpus of films to date, The Movement of People Working. In those 18 years he recorded an enormous volume of material in Peru, Canada, Hong Kong, South Africa, Lesotho, Portugal, Brazil, Hungary, China, Japan, Sumatra and Rumania, all of elementary human labor – such as in construction, in the field or while fishing, in most cases physically strenuous work with simple tools. These are predominately scenes of people in rural and often poor, non-industrial societies engaged in manual labor. Their repetitive movements are brought to the forefront while their faces are either intentionally left to the side of the frame, or at least are taken in a manner that preserves their anonymity. The long duration of the camera shots and the renouncement of any cuts or montages is meant to eliminate a sense of time, so that beginning and end are forgotten.

Since 1973 Niblock has been presenting such films during his concerts on large-format screens. He brings the repetitive movements of human labor into relation with his own drone music, which through its long, drawn-out tones likewise neutralizes any sense of time. Time is an essential material for Niblock’s work.

Author: Daniela Hahn

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Music

Music

Except for some piano lessons, Niblock never received any musical education, however music was always present in his parent’s house in Indiana. His grandfather played live music for silent films and his father was an amateur piano player. At the age of 14 he developed his passion for jazz and began at that time what would become a massive record collection.

From early age on Niblock was interested in new developments in technology. He built his first speaker system in 1953 and invested immediately in a tape recorder, as this new technology had just come onto the market. He transferred over records so that during his time as a laboratory technician in the US Army from 1956 and 1958 he could listen to old jazz records. After relocating to New York in 1958 he visited classic concerts as well as the legendary jazz clubs in which he would soon start taking photographs. The first time he heard Morton Feldman’s Durations (1960/1961) was a kind of awakening: »That was the first time I heard what could really be done with long tones. It was as if it gave me permission to make my own music, in a way.« Nonetheless he didn’t begin making music until 1968 – along with his multimedia works – whereby he saw himself expressly as composer and not as musician.

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From the very beginning he developed a method that he continues to pursue today and that found its first culmination in 1974 with the piece 3 to 7 – 196: A specific sequence of notes is played on a classical instrument, which is recorded. Several such tracks are then layered on top of one another. This produces an overlapping of long held tones, which often only differ by a few frequencies. Out of this emerges an interplay that is difficult to determine in advance. An overtone pattern is developed that the artist further elaborates when performing live. For this reason his music must be played very loudly for only at this level are the overtones audible. This process also results in distortions and auditory deformations, although it isn’t Niblock’s intent to work with dissonance nor is it the actual goal of his compositions.

These types of sound recordings are the foundation of Niblock’s concerts. He uses them to build sound clouds to which one to three musicians then play saxophone, guitar or percussion instruments live. Niblock gives no guidelines to the musicians and they may respond to his drones as they wish, deciding spontaneously during the performance what to play. Niblock has also organized concerts with only live musicians, whereby his orchestras may consist of up to 110 musicians.

How his music ultimately sounds is dependent upon the setting, as the sites of the concerts become resonating bodies and in that way form part of the specific acoustic identities of the performances. Niblock plays in concert halls, churches and museums, and yet he prefers churches on account of their very specific acoustics. During his concerts he projects his films from The Movement of People Working onto a large-format screens.

In contrast to artists like La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, who too, in the early 1960s, began to experiment with long tones and their overtones, and whose influence Niblock acknowledges, he doesn’t use math as the foundation of his music. Unlike Tony Conrad he doesn’t insist on just intonation. On the contrary his method is based on intuition and experimentation: »I know that it’s going to sound a certain way, but I never know exactly what’s going to happen.«

Since 1985 Niblock has directed the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, which supports avant-garde music, and which was founded in New York in 1968 by Elaine Summers and Niblock and now has a branch in Ghent. Besides numerous music events he has run the music label XI Records since 1998 as part of the foundation and which already has helped to release the work of countless musicians.

Author: Daniela Hahn

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In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Phill Niblock

Centre Pompidou Paris, 29. 11. 2014, with Phill Niblock (comp.), Kasper T. Toeplitz (electric bass, cello), Deborah Walker (cello) and films by Phill Niblock »The Movement of People Working«, 9:15 min

Film: Gilles Paté, Courtesy: Captures Production

Author:

Daniela Hahn