Phill Niblock by Natasha Kurchanova

Architectural space, intermedia, and the artistry of kinesis.

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Phill Niblock. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.1 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.2

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.

Natasha Kurchanova I’d like to start at the very beginning of your path as an artist.

Phill Niblock I studied economics at Indiana University, then I was in the army for two years before I came to New York in August 1958. But I spent a month in Europe on leave—a vacation, really. I went to the Brussels Expo on that trip. The Brussels Expo was famous for the Philips Pavilion, which was officially built by the offices of Le Corbusier, but was essentially designed by Iannis Xenakis, who, apart from being an architect, was also a composer. His music was playing in the building. I heard it, but I don’t remember anything about it, of course. It would be interesting to see if there is a film about this space.

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The Philips Pavilion at Expo ‘58, Brussels. Photograph by Wouter Hagens.

NK Did you head to New York with the intention of being an artist? Were you a photographer at that time? Who were you?

PN I was not doing anything artistic. My third job in New York was working for a guy who was selling audio-visual equipment to businesses in and around New York. The first two were trying to sell encyclopedias and mutual funds. I had a job trying selling this equipment to schools, mostly in Long Island and Westchester. This did not work out very well, because the owner of the company was paying me a very small amount of money. Then, we had a request for a teaching machine, which was just getting on the market after 1957 and the launch of the first Sputnik, when Americans became afraid that they were losing out against the Russians. It was an instructional program; it offered a beginning of a reading series in combination with handwriting. The spirit of competition against the Russians led to a push in technological development, which was applied to various aspects of life, one of which was improvement of teaching methods. B.F. Skinner, an environmental psychologist, was behind the development of the teaching machine. I later worked with Skinner for about four years as an editor of his books series.

NK When did you start writing music?

PN Nothing I did when I first came to New York had to do with music. However, I was listening to music a lot—not only to jazz, but also to classical music. And I was going to a lot of concerts—both regular music concerts and also, as much as I could find, performances of experimental and contemporary music. There was a fair amount of new music being performed at the time, but I had no access to or knowledge of really weird avant-garde stuff. It wasn’t advertised. In the pre-Internet age, advertising was not easy. Notices generally came out as postcards or leaflets. This was exactly how we were sending them in the 1970s when we started doing concerts in my studio. We had mailing lists on sheets of paper and other paraphernalia of a bygone age, such as a mailing list copied on mailing labels, which were then attached to envelopes. So, it was more difficult to know about those things.

NK Where would you go to listen to music?

PN One place was the 92nd Street Y, to concerts organized by Max Poliakoff. That was good, because he invited a mix of academic and nonacademic people, though not the really weird nonacademic people as far as the downtown scene was concerned. When I started going to concerts there was an uptown music scene and a downtown music scene. So, downtown music was happening in lofts and alternative spaces, not at Julliard.

NK What kind of music was Poliakoff programming?

PN It was classical, but much more academic than the music you would hear at the New York Philharmonic. The performers were college professors who were teaching music. But then there would be very strange avant-garde stuff, like Morton Feldman’s piece Durations, which premiered at the 92nd Street Y. Poliakoff’s performances were done in 1961. Feldman’s concert was also in 1961. It gave me permission to experiment and go in new directions. This was a type of music that did not have melodic structure, rhythm, or typical harmonic progression. That was the music I was to become interested in. I began composing in 1968, seven years after Feldman premiered his piece.

NK I believe La Monte Young was performing around the same time. Did he play in any of those concerts at the Y?

PN No, he was in one concert only. I think he burned a violin at that concert. I don’t remember if it was his piece. It is possible it was his piece.

NK Let’s talk about dance. You worked with Elaine Summers, and, as I understand it, she had a great influence on you.

PN Elaine was a choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker. She was also a pioneer of intermedia. In 1964 she had just done a huge project at Judson Church with a lot of projections, musicians, and dancers. She was a fantastic artist. We started working together on films connected with the performances there. Experimental Intermedia showed some of them, including sections where Elaine and I are running down the street, back in March [2015]. There was a memorial for her on February 28, which I missed, because I was on a tour in Europe. I heard many people were in attendance.

NK How did you work together?

PN Elaine founded Experimental Intermedia at the end of 1968, when I moved to this studio in Chinatown. She knew that times were going to change and that it would be fruitful to have a non-profit organization. She founded it with six artists. Those artists could apply for grants. Some of them were dancers; Trisha Brown was one. Marion Wood was another—she was producing Experimental Intermedia events. Composer Phil Corner was also one of the artists in the group. Malcolm Goldstein was working with Elaine closely at the time, but for some reason he was not a member of Experimental Intermedia.

NK So, Experimental Intermedia welcomed artists, dancers, musicians …

PN People were usually doing several different things: music, film, photography…

NK Tell me more about your work in film.

PN There were two things I did with film when I worked with Elaine and different dancers at Judson. I made films that were used in performance or were performance, and the other thing was documenting the work of others. They never liked my documentary production, but when I filmed things for performance they liked it. I documented some work by Lucinda Childs, and she did not like it—not because my work was bad, but rather because she had not been doing any dance for a couple of years and thought she looked a little heavy. When I worked with Childs, I also, at times, filmed dancers performing nude. She asked for the print back, and I gave it to her but retained the negative. I don’t know if I will do anything with it. Maybe some day.

NK I am asking about everything but your music. I’ll save that for last.

PN You’re asking the right questions because I was interested in dance, film, and visual arts just as much as music when I first came to New York. As a photographer, I became very interested in the f/64 group and other people who were involved with very high-quality photographic visual work. I didn’t like Ansel Adams, but I liked what he stood for. I was also a Zone System photographer. I did enough photographic work to know what it was and to have a real concept of it. In some of my work I shot and developed film to deal specifically with the range of tonalities it offered. Edward Weston was most influential for me in photography because of the controlled way he was shooting and his tendency to make abstractions out of extremely real things. I always kept that idea of realistic photography in mind, even when I was shooting nature scenes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was looking at nature very photographically. This was at the same time when Stan Brakhage was working. He did abstraction in film extremely well, which other people did not. Experimental film then was very abstract, but I was interested in concrete visual imagery. So, The Movement of People Working was essentially an extension of my photographic project. It was a series of very photographic films, but I was interested in getting rid of the parameters of film, such as montage, or editing rhythms, or any aspects of cutting. The films from The Movement of People Working are almost completely in chronological order as they came out of the camera. I extended all the shots. They did not have any feeling of being edited. My theory was that if the shot was longer than ten seconds, then you would forget that it had an end point.

NK What inspired you to film movements of people at work?

PN It was pretty much ordained because when I was working with Elaine and other artists at Judson Church I began to make pieces that were multiple-image projections. So, the first big pieces were three 16mm films on very big screens. The screens were wide—thirty-six feet, and nine feet high. I could fit one twelve-foot-wide image on each. Sometimes, I would use slides. Also, apart from the films, there were sections of live dance. At the time, I worked with two dancers on most projects. One was an early Cunningham dancer. She quit working for Cunningham and switched to Judson. And there was a very young dancer who was beginning at Judson. But there were five people in the group. Three of us were in charge of technical equipment—projectors and setting up the show. I made a screen frame, so that you could have the screen up in about half an hour.

The first intermedia performances, which included music, film, and dance, came in December 1968. There were four altogether. The last one took place in 1972. I called them “environments.” I do not have any real record of the first performance—any film or anything. I do have material from the second performance, but it is lost somewhere. And I have a complete set of materials from the last two. So, I just transferred that to a digital format, and I made three roughly one-hour films from the last two performances from that period. And that material will be used in a new set of work, which will be presented at Tate Modern when they open a new building, which is planned for the end of 2016, or somewhere around that. It will be a dual project, with The Movement of People Working shown in one space and these three films from early performances in another. The music will be the same—one set of music for the whole thing.

NK So, the last environment was filmed in 1972, and the following year you started The Movement of People Working.

PN When I began I expected to work on it only for three or four years, similar to the environments project, but then it became a much longer process. In 2009 and 2010, I shot some video footage in Japan, and, though part of The Movement of People Working, it also became a project in its own right, entitled “Remo Osaka.” This footage is included in a DVD that is part of the book Working Title.

NK That book contains your interview with the architect Johannes Knesl.3 There, he talked about how your music is made for the body and the impact it has on the body. It all makes perfect sense in terms of your early work with the dancers. He also observes that your music is made for resonant spaces—confined architectural spaces. I was thinking that your initial experience with dancers and other artists at Judson Church was determinative of your entire practice.

PN True. The first concert was at Judson Church, then I moved out. I did not do another concert there.

NK But having a suitably resonant architectural space is very important for your music.

PN Yes, I like to perform in churches very much. Usually churches have bare-walls and unusual structures—an arched roof or something like that—so they sound very good. Also, they produce a lot of sound waves, such that you can move around the church and hear a different sound depending on where you stand.

NK You never call yourself a musician. You prefer “composer.”

PN Yes. I am not a musician—I do not play instruments.

NK Interesting. Maybe you could talk about microtones a little, which you employ in your work.

PN A microtone is a separate tone that is very close in pitch to the original tone. I was interested in that idea. In the beginning, I was using recorded music because I did not want the musicians to tune to each other—I wanted them to be simply out of tune. That’s where the microtones came from. Then, in 1974, I began to tune the musicians very specifically. I was never interested in working with a tuning system, unlike La Monte Young, who worked with just intonation and configured tuning systems.

NK What’s the difference between a microtone and an overtone?

PN A microtone measures in pitches—440 Hz is the A, for example, and is usually used for tuning. A pitch of 442 Hz is another microtone, two hertz’s away. If you hear them separately they would sound about the same, but if you hear them together they would start to react, especially if they are played by an instrument that has a very rich overtone pattern. Unlike a microtone, which originates from the musician, an overtone is produced by the instrument when it is vibrating: you are hearing a lot of different tones, but the pitch here does not change. The design of the instrument affects loudness or softness of the tones. The rich overtone structure is also the reason I keep working with instrumental sounds. In the 1980s, I thought of working with electronic sounds, but they always sounded much worse to me. I flirted with the idea but never worked with electronic sound. I did work with electronic instruments that emulated the sound of regular instruments, though. For example, Proteus had an instrument that would just play back the sound of any instrument. I could program that but not a real electronic sound, which I did not like at all. In the early and mid-1980s, the Yamaha DX7 was the principle digital synthesizer, which I did not use because I hated the sound.

NK The principles of your music have remained constant, but you’ve made use of technical innovations.

PN In the early days, we were recording on tape—it was an analog process. We were feeding a sound onto a tape and modifying it all with tape as well. So, a multitrack recording was simply a combination of several tapes with different sounds. In the very early days, I was doubling tapes—recording on a machine twice, then playing that tape into another to get two sounds together as one mono-sound. This would always end up with a lot of noise because of the nature of tape recording. After digital recording became possible, I began working with Pro Tools and other computer programs. This made some things very easy, but a lot of people complained that the richness of the sound was completely different with digital equipment. However, I think it sounds great, so I continue using it.

NK I was listening to the disks you gave me, and I really like the latest two, Touch Five and Touch Strings. They use a lot of recordings of particular instruments—cello, guitar, and harp, for example. Do you have a favorite instrument to work with?

PN Cello is probably my favorite. For the last three pieces, I worked with Arne Deforce, a really great cellist from Belgium, but in the 1970s I made the very first pieces with another great cellist, David Gibson. I am working with another cellist now, Deborah Walker from Paris, and we are touring together this year.

NK My favorite piece of all is “To Two Tea Roses.”

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PN I wanted to play that piece in a festival in the Czech Republic, at the Ostrava New Music Biennale in August of this year, but then I changed it to “Three Petals.” “To Two Tea Roses” is a two-orchestra piece. “Three Petals” is a three-orchestra piece. But the one on the recording had several musical groups, including a saxophone quartet. On Touch Five, there was one orchestra piece that was played by three different guitar quartets. It was a little strange; guitar quartets sound similar to electronic sources because of the use of Ebow, and the tenor range in not very high.

NK Yes, I remember that piece. I think it was called “Two Lips.”

PN Yes, it was “Two Lips.” But another piece on that CD, “FeedCorn Ear,” recorded with Arne Deforce, is really good. In the last few years, beginning with that piece, I have been using a really great Brauner microphone. It sounds incredible. Three pieces, which were recorded subsequently, were done with that microphone. One of them was “Vlada BC,” a piece for viola d’amore, and there were two other pieces recorded in Boston—one piece, “Bag,” was written for bagpipes and the other, “Ronet,” for tenor saxophone.

NK Apart from music, are you taking any videos or making films?

PN Yes, all of this is independent. I made one video in the middle of the summer, which I just put on Vimeo. Then, I made another film with music by Rhodri Davis. He was making an LP, it was of fairly short pieces, and he asked other people to make a video for it. So, he sent me his music, and I made a video that day, finishing it just a couple of days later. It’s also on Youtube. It is called “fulfillment of the event” from Wound Response.

NK Can you talk a little about the collaborative pieces you make with the video artist Katherine Liberovskaya? She does the video, you do the sound, and they are called “sound collages.”

PN These sound collages are completely separate from my music. Sound collage material is recorded in the field. It is multi-tracked, but it is definitely not music. We’ve done two separate things, actually. First, Katherine films video live and assembles a big collection of video material. Then she selects pieces from this material for presentation. I play sound collage pieces for the videos that she makes. Usually I mix them. There was one piece, “Inside Paiva,” where she was shooting with an underwater camera, and I was recording with an underwater microphone—it was just shown at NYU a while ago. There were other pieces where I worked for quite a long time with very small cameras that were on the hands of musicians: “N+M,” in which I recorded Magda Mayas playing piano, and “Nomis,” where I filmed Tony Buck on percussion. We also recorded a painter, Graham Cantieni, in the same way as well, with a camera attached to his hand so you can see the brush sweeping. The piece is called “Painting the Painting”—the painter and I came up with the idea. Katherine filmed him at work. We used a piece of my music, “Hurdy Hurry,” for that video. Then there were some other collaborative projects that were more her ideas than mine. There is one where Katherine is counting grains of rice. It’s a very long and beautiful piece. I like it a lot and use it for many different things. This piece is on Touch Strings and is called “One Large Rose.”

NK What have you been up to lately? You just came back from a European tour. Could you say a few words about it?

PN There was a big eight-hour concert in Berlin. It was called MaerzMusic—“March Music.” It is generally the best music festival in Berlin for new music. My performance was part of a particular thirty-hour event called “The Long Now.” It started at 6 PM on March 28, 2015, and my part was from midnight to 8 AM on March 29, but because of daylight savings time, it lasted only seven hours. Many people were asleep. There were several army cots in the space, so many people were sleeping through the concert.

NK After you returned from Berlin, you went on a shorter tour to Texas almost immediately?

PN It was a rather simple concert, part of the Antumbrae Intermedia Events series in Austin. It was held in a place called the Museum of Human Achievement, located in a weird old factory building. It was a sex toy factory before. It was actually a nice space.

For more on the work of Phill Niblock, visit his website.

1 Niblock’s photographic practice is discussed in “Phill Niblock,” an interview by Bob Gilmore with Guy de Bièvre, in Phill Niblock: Working Title (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2012), pp. 79-93; p. 83 and in Matheu Copeland, “Nothing to advertise, just a text on the art of Phill Niblock,” in ibid., pp. 105-107.

2 Matheu Copeland wrote extensively about Niblock’s “environments” in “Nothing to advertise, just a text on the art of Phill Niblock,” in Phill Niblock: Working Title, pp. 105-107. The four environments produced wereEnvironment (1968), Cross Country/Environment II (1970), 100 Mile Radius/Environment III (1971), and finally Ten Hundred Inch Radii/Environment IV (1971). They were shown at the Judson Church, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. 
3 “This music is the statement I set out to make. It is not to lead somewhere else. This is it. This is the thing. This is all you get, it is not a matter of developing into something else.” Interview with Johannes Knesl in Phill Niblock: Working Title, pp. 95-103.

Natasha Kurchanova is an art historian, critic, and curator who lives in New York.

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