Composer, multimedia musician
American minimalist composer Phill Niblock is one of the most important, albeit often overlooked, multimedia artists of his generation. He has inspired musicians ranging from John Cage to Jim O’Rourke. His live shows may incorporate film, slides, video, and photography alongside his music. His compositions are known for numerous tones playing simultaneously for long intervals, resulting in a very dense sound. Although Niblock released very few of such pieces on recordings, most argue that his music remains almost inseparable from the other atmospherics, including the visual elements and the performance space itself. “The lack of recordings is a byproduct of something else, however,” stated Brian Duguid for the online magazine ESTWeb. “Phill Niblock’s music really has to be experienced live.”
Niblock was born on October 2, 1933, in Anderson, Indiana. He attended college at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1956. After serving in the Army, he moved to New York City in 1958 and took up photography two years later. With no prior experience in the arts—aside from collecting jazz and classical albums—Niblock nonetheless quickly became an established photographer. He was especially known for his shots of jazz musicians.
In addition to photography, Niblock simultaneously developed an interest in filmmaking, producing a number of experimental films beginning in the early 1960s. One of his better known early works was titled Magic Sun, a piece about mixed-media free-jazz artist Sun Ra. Filmed in a couple of sessions at the legendary bandleader’s apartment, it was mostly unedited and shot using a light bulb and a close-up lens into a reflector filled with crumpled aluminum foil.
At this point in Niblock’s growth as an artist, he was influenced by the creative force that would become known as minimalism. The movement, which was reflected in visual art as well as music, called for the reduction of artistic materials to their essentials and a regularity of formal design while rejecting other modernist tendencies. Some of the most famous minimalist artists include abstract expressionist painters Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, sculptors Donald Judd and Robert Morris, and composers John Cage, David Tudor, and Terry Riley.
For Niblock, minimalist composer Morton Feldman, in particular, provided great inspiration, as did frequenting art galleries that featured the work of minimalist artists. Niblock told Rahma Khazam in an interview for the Wire, “I usually list my chief influence as hearing in a concert a piece of Morton Feldman’s from around 1962, this very short period where he was doing essentially long-tone pieces. Here was this stuff with no melody, no rhythm and what seemed to me a rather opaque harmonic structure and in some sense it gave
Born on October 2, 1933, in Anderson, IN. Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, University of Indiana, 1956.
Produced experimental films beginning in the early 1960s; began multimedia endeavors, mid-1960s; joined the Experimental Intermedia Foundation (EIF), 1968; began to gain wider attention for his own compositions, mid-1970s; instructor, College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, 1971; director of EIF, 1985-; opened an artist-in-residence house and gallery in Gent, Belgium, 1993.
Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1978; Meet the Composer Award, 1991.
me permission to make music. That whole minimalist visual arts scene that was happening at the time influenced the work and how spare it was.”
Niblock’s multimedia endeavors began in the mid-1960s, when he produced photographs and films and music for intermedia events. These so-called “happenings,” brought together different forms of art like dance, music, film, painting, and sculpture. In 1968 Niblock joined the Experimental Intermedia Foundation (EIF) and later, after producing for the organization, became the director, a position he has held since 1985. Upon taking this leadership position in the 1980s, Niblock’s shows visited numerous museums and art spaces across North America and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin, and Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels.
Through his initial involvement with EIF, he held events at his Center Street loft space for music that more than likely otherwise could not have been performed in public at the time. Some early composers represented included David Behrman, Joel Chadabe, Rhys Chatham, and Charlemagne Palestine, while later performances included the works of Nicolas Collins, Shelley Hirsch, Petr Kotik, Christian Marclay, Pauline Oliveros, and others. He also traveled on several occasions to underdeveloped countries to film the lives of the native people. This footage was regularly shown as an accompaniment to performances of his music.
In 1974 with the completion of the piece 3 to 7-196, Niblock began to gain wider attention for his own compositions, consistently garnering favorable reviews for his work. For the remainder of the decade and during the 1980s, Niblock mainly composed pieces for recorded instrumentalists playing pitches that resulted in various beats and tones. He would then edit and loop the recordings, making sounds that had no distinct start or finish, and layered them over one another. For live concerts of his music, players moved throughout the space and interacted with the prerecorded material.
In the 1990s, Niblock shifted to digital sampling, creating as many as 500 layers of frequencies in a single piece. Although he had always avoided recording material, he started releasing his music on compact disc. “I didn’t like putting the music out where I couldn’t control the performance parameters,” he explained to Kazam about his reluctance. However, all of Niblock’s recordings received critical praise and more importantly introduced his music to a whole new audience.
The first, 1991’s Four Full Flutes, contains four pieces of multiple tracks of flutes. Music By Phill Niblock, issued in 1993, features the works Five More String Quartets and Early Winter. The double-CD from 1995 entitled A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock includes works such as Ten Auras, A Trombone Piece, and Unmentionable Piece for Trombone and Sousaphone. Touch Works: For Hurdy Gurdy and Voice, Niblock’s 2000 release, included the vocal works Hurdy Hurry and A Y U. G2, 44+/x2 followed in 2002.
Since 1971 Niblock has taught music at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York and in 1993 opened an artist-in-residence house and gallery in Gent, Belgium. He has received numerous awards and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Artists Public Service Program, the Foundation for the Contemporary Performance Aris, and the City University of New York Research Foundation. Niblock additionally won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and a Meet the Composer Award in 1991.
3 to 7-196 (cello), 1974.
cello &Bassoon, 1975.
261.63 + and - (chamber ensemble), 1976.
First Performance (English horn), 1976.
A Trombone Piece, 1978.
Earpiece (bassoon), 1978.
Tymps in E (percussion), 1978.
A Third Trombone, 1979.
Twelve Tones (bass), 1979.
Voice and Violin, 1979.
Every Tune (clarinet), 1980.
Second 2 Octoves & a Fifth (oboe), 1980.
PK AND SLS (two flutes), 1981.
P K (flute), 1981.
S L S (flute), 1981.
B Poore (tuba), 1982.
E for Gibson (cello), 1982.
Held Tones (flute), 1982.
Not Untitled, Knot Untied(chamber ensemble), 1984.
Unmentionable Piece for Trombone and Sousaphone,1984.
Summing I, II, III, and IV (cello), 1985.
Fall and Winterbloom (bass flute), 1987.
According to Guy, versions I, II and III (also known as Aversion I, II, and III; accordion), 1987-88.
Weld Tuned (computer-controlled synthesizers), 1990.
Wintergreen (computer-controlled synthesizers), 1990.
Didjeridoos (didjeridu), 1992.
MTPNC(computer-controlled synthesizers), 1992.
Early Winter (flute, bass flute [prerecorded], 38 sampled and synthesized voices [computer-controlled], and string quartet), 1991-93.
Five More String Quartets, 1991-93.
Ten Auras and Ten Auras Live (tenor saxophone), 1992.
A Y U, 1999.
Hurdy Hurry, 1999.
Four Full Flutes, Experimental, 1991.
Music by Phill Niblock, Experimental, 1993.
A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock, XI, 1995.
Touch Works: For Hurdy Gurdy and Voice, Touch, 2000.
G2, 44+/x2, Moikai, 2002.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.
Village Voice, November 9, 1999.
Wire, March 2001.
Artspace, http://www.artspace.org.nz (February 21, 2003).
Experimental Intermedia, http://www.experimentalintermedia.org (February 21, 2003).
Monotremata Records, http://www.monotremata.com (February 24, 2003).
Newsense Intermedium, http://www.newsense-intermedium.com (February 24, 2003).
Touch, http://www.touchmusic.org.uk (February 21, 2003).
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