Phill Niblock’s music seems more important to me every year. That’s partly because I’m gradually able to perceive it more clearly, partly because Niblock keeps finding new possibilities and fresh refinements, and partly because it is created with an attitude that is much less common than it used to be. The opportunism and caution and economic concerns of the ’70s have transformed many avant-garde composers into semi-classical composers and have brought a general decline in grassroots experimentation. But Niblock is still the stubborn, patient, idealistic individualist, and his music is as uncompromising as ever.
I’ve tried on several occasions to describe the Niblock sound, and I always end up instead with a description of how it is achieved. One can say that he works with loud sustained tones, that he piles them together in multi-track versions, that the tones are produced originally on conventional wind and stringed instruments, that they are purposely out of tune, and that the resulting frequencies beat wildly against one another. But the actual effect seems to defy verbalization. Niblock’s music has no precedents, invites no comparisons, and doesn’t even suggest any metaphors to me. It is simply itself and must be heard to be believed.
Most of Niblock’s pieces run about 20 minutes, generally focusing on a single instrumental sound, and when possible a live performer wanders around the audience playing live sustained tones against the prerecorded ones. On his December 21 concert, I was particularly drawn into one piece in which trombonist George Lewis played against trombone tones that had been recorded by Jim Fulkerson in 1977. The trombone frequencies, played in two different octaves, beat against one another with unusual intensity, and since Lewis is quite adept at circular breathing, there was never a let-up. But there was much more. In fact, the informal concert went from 9 p.m. until after 2 a.m. There were English horn tapes with Joe Celli playing live, bassoon tapes with Arthur Stidfole, clarinet tapes with Daniel Goode, bass flute tapes with Eberhard Blum, cello tapes, string bass tapes, and a few that combined different sonorities. There were also many reels of Niblock’s 16-mm films, which are perhaps as important as his music, although I am so unfamiliar with current experimental film activity that I hesitate to try to discuss them. Besides, the Niblock look is about as hard to describe as the Niblock sound.
Niblock’s work used to strike me as one fairly undifferentiated mass of clusters, but by the end of the five hours I was hearing quite a bit of difference between the trombone tapes and the cello tapes, between the four-track recordings and the eight-track ones, between the pieces that take place in one octave and those that use two. In one case, where several pitch areas were involved, I even began hearing the shifting pitches as very slow chord progressions.