Phill Niblock still concentrates on drone tones, packed only a few cycles away from one another, and amplified rather loudly, just as he did when I first began hearing his music some six years ago. One doesn’t notice the progress of his work that much from concert to concert and year to year. Now, however, thinking back, I am beginning to realize that, despite the severe stylistic restrictions Niblock has adhered to, his music has actually developed a good deal since I began listening to it. Gradually the instrumental sounds on his prerecorded tapes became more realistic, more sensual, and more controlled in pitch. Gradually he began using live performers in conjunction with the tapes, sometimes instructing them to wander around the space as they played their drone tones, so that the live sound and the prerecorded tracks mixed in your ear in varying proportions. Gradually he figured out how to induce audiences to wander around in the space and listen to the sound from different positions, which is the only way one can fully appreciate the variety contained within this type of minimalism. Gradually he applied his basic procedures to a number of different wind and stringed instruments, achieving slightly different results and slight increases in finesse as he went along. In his recent Kitchen concert he moved away from his usual wind and string sounds to write a piece for timpani and tape. As always, the music droned on a tight cluster of pitches, but the rumbling drums added a new, almost vicious, dimension. Percussionist Jan Williams played with intent control, as did cellist David Gibson and bassoonist Arthur Stidfole in other works. Two of Niblock’s fine nonnarrative films, mostly following hand movements, were shown in silence between the musical segments.
A few years ago I reported on the music Yoshi Wada was making with immense ‘pipe horns,’ consisting of a ton or two of plumbing that produced deep ethereal tones when played with brass mouthpieces. More recently I noted some music he made against an immense concave wall of sheet metal that vibrated when he sang into it. Now he is working with an immense tube, about five feet in diameter and 15 feet long, which produces cavernous overtones when someone sings inside. This spring the structure was installed at the Samaya Foundation space on Warren Street. Wada and Richard Hayman sat cross-legged at the center of the tube, singing improvised modal music. The first half of the evening involved the equivalent of our harmonic minor scale, and the second half was a kind of natural minor with no second and no sixth. Wada can chant bass tones with a remarkable half-gruff edge, and Hayman made some use of his extremely clear falsetto, but in general the singing was nothing special. This piece is not really about fine singing, however. The focus, as in all of Wada’s work, is on the thorny acoustical problems he confronts, the immense structures he builds, and the visual spectacles he creates.
Jim Burton has drifted rather far away from the music he became known for in New York a few years ago. There was always a lot of theater and comedy in his work, whether he was playing his ‘springed instrument,’ appearing as a cymbal tamer, amplifying bicycle wheels, writing a piece for toy frogs, or recycling old music-box parts. Now he lives in Buffalo, and his art seems to have shifted from somewhat humorous music to somewhat musical humor. His evening of ‘Hard Pore Corn,’ at the Kitchen, has little to do with sound, but instead offered an amusing Superman take-off, a hilarious professional lecture on quarks, a one-man-band routine, and other sketches, using several trunkfuls of prop creations, costumes, and prerecorded sound effects. Working with him in this concert was Jon Deak, who presented a new work of his own called ‘Invocation.’ Allegedly Deak’s string bass was built in Italy in 1734, and allegedly a man mysteriously disappeared in the same neighborhood in that same year, and allegedly he was very attached to some string bass, perhaps this very one. Deak performs a little ceremony to invoke the spirit, and eventually we begin to hear a small voice from somewhere inside the bass. It’s a goofy but delightful little fantasy.