When New York composer and sound artist Phill Niblock presents one of his drone-based tape pieces, he plays it back loud–gut-thumping, heart-stopping, tooth-rattling, flood-the-room-to-the-rafters loud. Such serious volume is required not just to fill the performance space but to tease out the ringing harmonics that are Niblock’s stock-in-trade. He’ll layer several tracks of the same instrument–in the 60s and 70s, for example, much of his work used the rich timbres of the cello–and allow the superimposed waveforms to shimmer and shake against one another. Over time, latent overtones and minute aural details–a barely perceptible wobble in pitch, or the burr of a bow on a string–begin to sift out of the drone, like flakes of gold in a prospector’s pan. For one recent piece, “Hurdy Hurry” (which appears on the recent Touch Records release Touch Works), he stacked two dozen samples of Jim O’Rourke playing hurdy-gurdy, creating a humongous wall of buzzing, vibrating noise. This might seem off-putting, but unlike other artists who traffic in earthshaking, monolithic sounds, such as Borbetomagus or Merzbow, Niblock has a droll, self-effacing presence, completely devoid of aggression, menace, or machismo. His work almost always has a playful element; because of the idiosyncratic way a given performance space shapes his sounds, for instance, he encourages listeners to wander around and discover all the different nodes and antinodes in the room. For this Chicago date, Niblock–fresh from an April residency at CCMIX, the Paris studio founded by Iannis Xenakis–will present five works. “Hurdy Hurry” will be unaccompanied, with Niblock adjusting the playback, and a piece for baritone voice, “A Y U (As Yet Untitled),” also on Touch Works, will be augmented live by New York new-music vocalist Thomas Buckner, who recorded the original tracks. The remaining pieces will be accompanied by local musicians: “S L S” will feature flutist Niki Mitchell; “Summing II,” cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm; and “Ten Auras,” saxophonist Michael Colligan. The venue should add to the usual acoustic intensity of a Niblock performance–in the hall of the Renaissance Society, the hang time for even a moderately loud sound is around seven seconds. Saturday, May 19, 8 PM, Renaissance Society, Cobb Hall, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis; 312-666-4412 or 773-702-8670.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.