At the tender age of 73, Phill Niblock maintains an impressive touring schedule, putting on shows with decibel levels befitting those less than half his age. Active as a composer, photographer and filmmaker since the 1950s, he is often referred to as “the forgotten minimalist” who, unlike most of his contemporaries (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, et al.), creates sound works that remain true to the idiom’s form.
Bearing minimalism’s trademarks of formalistic purity and theoretical rigor, his long-form studies use single-mic source tones from acoustic instruments like recorder, cello and e-bowed acoustic guitar. Originally working with tape, he now layers sound files via laptop into dense, singular drones at rock ‘n’ roll volumes which, over time, reveal microtonal variations hidden within.
Niblock, along with saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit (whose CV includes collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, Kevin Drumm and Keith Rowe—plus he’s an impressive circular breather to boot), encouraged the audience to wander freely in the sonorous acoustic space of Saint Andrew’s Wesley Church, so tones could waver with a turn of the head as four twenty-minute works played out like time-stretched exhalations, hovering between stasis and motion.
Those who wished to remain seated could watch projections from The Movement of People
Working, Niblock’s single-take films of menial labour around the world.
Initially puzzling, the visual and the auditory didn’t seem to sync up. Footage of people mending nets, loading crates and forging horseshoes seemed didactic, even arbitrary, when coupled with such impressively large sounds. Although it would have been more satisfying to listen without the visual distraction—in the same way that Francisco Lopez uses pitch-black rooms and blindfolds for his multi-channel anxiety attacks—the sheer mass of Niblock’s work ultimately served to maintain focus on the simple matters at hand. One was free to watch, close their eyes and lose time, alternate between earplugs and listening to it raw (two very different experiences) or move around freely to examine the interplay of sound and architecture while headlights on Nelson flashed through stained glass.
Nowadays, drone comes cheap, whether via complacent ambient bliss, quasi-mystical appropriation of Eastern idioms or in the sludgy (and AWESOME) theatrical nihilism of SunnO))). More akin in spirit to the fluorescent lights and piled bricks of visual minimalists Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, Niblock’s presentation was experiential rather than experimental, activated by the audience’s participation in the work. In other words, it rocked. Slowly.