One afternoon last week I happened to be walking along West 4th Street and noticed a strange low humming sound. Once I realized it was coming from Washington Square Methodist Church, it took only a moment to recognize it as Phill Niblock’s music. Apparently they were rehearsing for the weekend performance of ‘Ten 100-Inch Radii.’ The music seemed extremely inappropriate to the usual workaday sounds of West 4th Street, so I decided to stop for a minute, just to see if other passers-by would notice it. But of course, it takes much more than an eerie sound to arouse the curiosity of a New York pedestrian, and nobody paid any attention.
After a while, I noticed a casual acquaintance coming along. He is an undergraduate music major, and I thought it would be interesting to confront him.
‘What’s that sound?’ Surprised by my question, he stopped to listen. For a moment he was genuinely curious about the sound, but then he decided to shrug it off.
‘It must be airplanes.’ ‘I don’t think so. Listen. It changes a little now and then.’ He listened a little longer and changed his mind.
‘I guess it’s some kind of machines.’ Both of us were losing interest in this guessing game, so I told him the answer.
‘No. It’s music. They’re rehearsing for a...’ ‘Music!’ He was horrified, and before I even had a chance to tell him about the program, he had already decided he was busy on those nights. The conversation ended rather abruptly, and he continued on his way, putting the whole thing out of his mind, I’m sure. No confrontation, no problem.
Like many people who frequently attend concerts of new music, I find it difficult to see how anyone would ever question that it is music. But once in a while an incident like this reminds me how wide the gap is between some of the more radical new approaches to music and the expectations of the general public, or even of the average music major. Of course, no one seems particularly upset about this gap, but that is primarily because no one is confronted with it.
For the most part, the composers seem fairly content with the occasional exposure they might have at a gallery, a loft concert, a performance at the Kitchen, or a weekend at Washington Square Methodist Church. They would probably appreciate more exposure, but they are not masochistic enough to force themselves into situations where they know their work would be unappreciated. So it is fairly easy for the musical establishment and the general public to avoid contact with any of the more radical departures. Meanwhile, the critics continue to apply the term ‘avant-garde’ to composers like Boulez, Ligeti, or Babbitt, almost as if to reassure themselves and their readers, that nothing new has happened since then. No confrontation, no problem.
It seems to me that many important innovations are taking place in music right now, more than in any of the other arts, but I hesitate to advocate confrontation. On those rare occasions when something truly new is presented to a general audience, as when Steve Reich’s ‘Four Organs’ was included in a Boston Symphony Orchestra program at Carnegie Hall a while back, it does not seem to accomplish very much. The audience jeers, and the critics lose a lot of sleep trying to figure out how to prove objectively that the music is inept, without revealing stylistic biases. The music itself may also suffer, since the performers in a situation like this may not be familiar with the idiom, and in many cases, the physical structure of the hall itself seems to contradict the attitudes expressed in the music.
So perhaps it is better if things move slowly. But meanwhile, there is no point in kidding ourselves. The gap is quite large, and the new sounds are not going to go away, even though they may remain hidden from general view for some time yet.
At least a dozen composers, right in New York, write music at least as new, as distinctive, and as carefully made as Niblock’s is, and I don’t mean to point him out above others. In fact, I am beginning to wonder about Niblock’s versatility, since all of his music that I have heard uses the same basic procedure. He would be a more interesting composer if his work showed more flexibility, but that is not a serious reservation, since the one thing he does is strong enough to merit serious consideration, even if he never extends his vocabulary at all.
Niblock begins by recording sustained tones, sung by voices or played on traditional instruments. Then he clips off all the attacks, giving the sounds a strange dehumanized effect. Later, he splices all these tones together and mixes them, using as many as 14 tracks, and plays the mixture in loud stereo. The recorded quality of his tapes is impeccable, and the sound is extremely rich. At the same time, the music is icy cold, and its droning does remind one somewhat of airplanes or machines. The music is quite dissonant, but since it always remains on one dynamic level and avoids any kind of rhythmic gestures, it never seems aggressive or expressionistic. The irony is that, although it is made from conventional vocal and instrumental sounds, the end result seems colder, less human, and more machine-like than some music which actually is produced on machines.
Niblock often presents his music separately, but in ‘Ten 100 Inch Radii’ he uses it to accompany three simultaneous color films. The films are devoted to nature, especially water, flowers and insects, with many close-ups and some time-lapse sequences, all shot with a stationary camera.
About 40 minutes into the program, the music and films stop for a silent interlude of modern dance. Barbara Lloyd’s solo emphasizes fancy footwork, quirky gestures and a few vocal sounds. Nancy Topf’s solo is a series of vigorous rhythmic phrases, followed by a long sequence of minimal gestures lying on the floor. The dancing provides a welcome relief before the music and films resume, and divides the evening into the most extreme A-B-A form I can imagine.
The contrasts are quite sharp between the cold machine-like music, the attractive nature photography, and the silent dancing. In terms of theme or message they don’t belong together at all. But in structural terms, these blatantly contrasting elements offset each other quite effectively. And structure is really what it is all about. Despite my groping for descriptive images, Niblock’s version of multi-media, like his music, is basically an abstract art.