Phill Niblock - Biography

Phill Niblock holds a unique place in the development of American minimalist music. While he’s around the same age as pioneers of the form like La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Tony Conrad, Niblock’s work in sound surfaced later, during the second wave of minimally inclined composers. Moving to New York City in 1958 to work as a photographer and filmmaker, Niblock gravitated toward music composition during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Crafting a sound inspired by the minimal pioneers as well as earlier work by Morton Feldman, his music is densely layered and rich with microtonal activity and rates as some of the most important and vital in its genre.

Born on October 2, 1933 in Anderson, Indiana, Niblock studied economics at Indian University. Upon graduating he quickly moved to New York to pursue his love of photography and film. In the city during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s he photographed and filmed the fertile jazz scene. The culmination of this activity resulted in a film from ‘66 called The Magic Sun, an abstracted series of images featuring the music of legendary jazz composer Sun Ra. Immediately after this Niblock made a series of films called The Movement of People Working that study everyday work in places like Peru, Hong Kong, Mexico, Hungary, China and Brazil. Captured in vibrant color, Niblock presents these images abstractly, with zero sociological artifice and asks us to simply look at the often-hypnotic motions of manual labor.

This same central idea frames the majority of Niblock’s musical output as well. His earliest compositions date 1968. This early work was created by overdubbing multiple tape recordings of various instruments holding long, sustained tones. The composer would layer these specifically tuned drones into an undulating cloud of harmonic activity presented for lengthy durations. The music appears static on the surface, with a small amount of glacially paced progression but no obvious melody or rhythm. While a cursory listen suggests stillness, Niblock’s music is fathoms deep with swirling, clashing harmonics and microtones that create pulsating beat patterns and slithering high frequency detail. Much like the hypnotic stillness of the repetition of manual labor giving way to noticing its varied rhythms and motions, Niblock’s monolithic audio work reveals a world teaming with sonic variation.

While his discography has been somewhat erratic, every record is a crucial piece of minimalist composition. His first releases didn’t surface until the early ‘80s. 1982’s Nothin To Look At Just A Record and ‘84’s Niblock For Celli / Celli Plays Niblock were both released on the legendary India Navigation label and feature massive drones sourced from trombone and oboe respectively. The next album wouldn’t come until 1990. Four Full Flutes is arguably one of his greatest, most nuanced pieces. Released on his own Experimental Intermedia label the record is a classic slab of trance inducing drone heaviness featuring thickly layered flutes. 1993 brought Music By Phill Niblock, featuring a piece based on the layering of string instruments like cello, viola and violin and a forty-plus minute piece featuring flute and electronically generated sounds.

In 1995 the Blast First label released A Young Person’s Guide To Phill Niblock. Long considered the cornerstone of his early discography, the record boasts some of his best work and serves as a perfect introduction to Niblock’s overall aesthetic. Seven long pieces spread over two CDs, the record features music for flute, saxophone, tuba, trombone and didgeridoo.

In 2000 Niblock began a relationship with the Touch label that continues today. Touch Works, For Hurdy Gurdy and Voice, his first album for the label, features three characteristically thick drones sourced from Jim O’Rourke’s hurdy gurdy and the vocals of Thomas Buckner. This period marks a shift in Niblock’s working process. Computer software has given us endless layering options and Niblock makes full use of this technology often stacking over forty tracks of audio into one piece. His work from here on boasts an even heavier textural density than before.

Working with some of the leading guitarists of the avant-garde in 2002, Niblock produced a career high mark with G2, 44+/x2. Released on O’Rourke’s Moikai label the album features layered recordings of guitar by Rafael Toral, Kevin Drumm, Alan Licht, Robert Poss, David First, Susan Stenger and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. The results are jet-engine minimalism as searing waves of glowing guitars pulsate for over an hour and a half. It’s simply beautiful music, a deconstructed rock and roll take on classic minimalist composition.

The remainder of the decade brought three more albums for Touch, two of them double disc sets and one a whopping three disc set. 2003’s Touch Food, 2006’s enormous Touch Three and ‘209’s Touch Strings find Niblock in unstoppable form. Focusing mostly on strings, guitar, saxophone piano and bass in different configurations, the composer uses the computer for deep layering and pitch shifting to create hyper-dense meshes of sound, resulting in minimalism of the highest order. Also, in 2004 Niblock released a recording of his take on orchestral writing on the Mode label titled Disseminate.

In addition to his music Niblock’s early film work has finally been released. Extreme released The Movement of People Working on DVD in 2003 and Die Schachtel released a collection of his earliest films, including the Sun Ra film, in ‘09 titled Six Films. He continues to perform throughout the world and curates the performance program at Experimental Intermedia in New York City.

While his name might not carry as much immediate recognition as La Monte Young or Steve Reich, Phill Niblock has been a key figure in the development of American minimalism. Certainly his music has taken the form into the 21st century like few of his peers, with the 2000s seeing the release of some of his most invigorating music.





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