Architectural space, intermedia, and the artistry of kinesis.
At eighty-one, Phill Niblock, minimalist composer, filmmaker, and a fixture of the New York avant-garde art scene since the 1960s, is one of the rare artists of his generation still active as a notable presence in the world of new music. If he is not touring or performing, he is making films, composing, recording new releases, or hosting performances at Experimental Intermedia, a foundation and performance space located in his Chinatown loft. Known primarily as a composer, Niblock prefers to be called an intermedia artist as he also makes films, which he frequently screens during performances of his music. Throughout his career, he has practiced photography, taking pictures of jazz musicians in the early 1960s and photographing New York from the late 1970s to early 1980s. At any point, he can search his computer and print out a multi-page single-spaced list of events, including awards, recent tours, new releases, and compositions. (He wrote fouteen new pieces from October 2, 2013 to October 2, 2014 alone!) The slow and deliberate manner with which Niblock moves and speaks belies his titanic productivity. Niblock describes his music as being “without rhythm or melody.” He records instrumental drones on multiple tracks—at times as many as thirty-two—and plays them simultaneously. The resulting sound is dense, uneven, and continuous. Drones do not develop in gradual progression in terms of their form, but instead have a cumulative effect that grows on the listener with every passing second. Slight variations in tone result in continuous oscillations of sound, which, at loud volumes, can be felt as a physical surge that carries the listener along in a wave of constant movement.
Soon after Niblock came to New York in 1958, he began frequenting jazz and new music concerts. As a result of his meeting Elaine Summers—the founder of Experimental Intermedia—in 1965, he joined a group of dancers at Judson Church as a technology specialist. Between 1968 and 1972, he staged four “environments,” a series of installations that included film and slide projections as well as dance interludes.
Niblock’s most monumental film production, The Movement of People Working, has taken over twenty years to complete, from 1973 to 1992. It is a series of more than twenty-five hours of 16mm films and videos made around the world, in such countries as Mexico, China, Hungary, Brazil, Indonesia, and others. In each film, the artist shows people doing manual labor: fishing, repairing boats, stacking hay, carrying heavy loads, and performing a wide variety of physically demanding chores required for survival in basic, pre-industrial conditions. The films are silent, and the workers show no awareness of the camera and the recording process. When projected, the films are accompanied by music that Niblock composes independently from the footage. According to the artist, there is no correlation between the filmed sequences and the music: they are made separately and combined arbitrarily. The connection is made by the continuous impact of the drone, which penetrates the listener’s body and correlates with the ceaseless physical movement of laboring bodies on screen.
[ Read More ]