Phill Niblock

at 6Odum, March 25

By Monica Kendrick

Happiness is a warm drone. And when I say happiness, I’m not talking about just the left-brain pleasure in an intellectual problem well solved or the historical satisfaction in seeing a much heard about but rarely heard artist make his Chicago debut after nearly 40 years. No, I’m talking about the kind of lubed-mind, through-the-spine happiness that great rock ‘n’ roll induces when it’s on, wild electricity and kundalini eruptions and all.

Minimalist composer, electronic musician, and sound artist Phill Niblock is obsessed with the relationships between pitches–their chemistry, you might say, the way two pitches close to each other start to generate a heartbeat that wasn’t there before they met. But he’s not a strict mathematician like some of his contemporaries, to whom the equation is half the battle: Niblock is more than willing to “cheat,” to fudge, to bend a pitch to suit an apparent whim that turns out to fit a greater scheme. We all know that pitch relationships matter–they’re why some notes sound “good” together and some don’t–but free from the distractions of melody and beat, the simple gathering of tones can emphasize the rhythm inherent in their very being. Of course, for this to really work as it oughta, it has to be loud–Niblock has said his preferred range is between 105 and 110 decibels. Simply put, his lattices of tones don’t yield up their inner mysteries unless they’re vibrating the floor, the walls, and your soft, absorptive human flesh.

The Indiana native’s works aren’t heard that often outside New York, where he has maintained the Experimental Intermedia Foundation since 1973, and Europe, where arts funding flows more freely than on this side of the pond. It took Lampo, a grant-fueled not-for-profit organization, to finally get something set up properly in Chicago–and I do mean properly. Niblock’s work is not really something that could be pulled off in a bar; it’s not alcohol music, nor is it designed to tolerate the murmurs of friendly acquaintances or a lot of comings and goings–it’s best when you settle in for the duration.

What Niblock’s performance at 6Odum looked like from the outside was a hundred or so people sitting on a hard tile floor in a dark room for two hours, listening to an oppressively loud noise. But the outside is not the place to be. The drone needs time and space to work its magic, and the magic happens on the wide-open screen of perception, not on a spotlit stage. The power it gradually reveals is the reason this kind of seemingly uneventful music has, like its conceptual opposite free jazz, recently been drawing fans from the rock ‘n’ roll realm–folks seeking a wider range of sophisticated sonic effects and greater appreciative challenges, but also always seeking greater sheer physical energy. Niblock himself was supposedly first inspired by the trance-inducing interaction of two motorcycle engines vibrating at different speeds.

Active in music and film since the early 60s, Niblock branched out into multimedia installations and performances in the middle of that decade. He joined the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in 1968, took over as curator of its multimedia performance series in 1973, became its director in 1985, and opened a Belgian branch in 1993. His own performances normally use both music and film, and his experiments can be puckish: when he decided to try to make a film in which the sound track would absolutely dominate the visuals, he paired a series of nondescript landscape images with a recording of a woman being interviewed about her sexual experiences with–and preference for–animals. They’re less performances, really, than site-specific installations that, in the service of his aesthetic of total immersion, rely heavily on prerecorded sound. At 6Odum this added to my consciousness of lack of movement: watching him tweak pitches on his computer in near-darkness eventually turned my attention to other things, like the room and the bodies in it and the film projections and, most important, the sound itself. That some of the prerecorded stuff is up to 25 years old is less of a stumbling block than you might think: Niblock has released recordings so rarely that the pieces aren’t weighted by familiarity.

Still, when in the first few minutes of the 6Odum performance the CD-R of “Hurdy Hurry”–a relatively new piece for hurdy-gurdy that starts out with 18 tracks and, after nine vibrating, tense minutes, suddenly opens up into 24 tracks of resonating tones bringing out the best in each other–skipped to a halt, it was almost physically painful. Fortunately, the problem (faulty CD player) was fixed. The piece is only 16 or so minutes long, but time gets irrelevant fairly early on, when the overtones start pulsing and the high, reedy bagpipelike upper register kicks in.

The stability of a prerecorded base also helps Niblock create a good environment for emphasizing the relationship of changing factors to constants. The base for Niblock’s next piece, “A Trombone Piece,” was a dramatic change. The original recording was made in the late 70s; it was remastered in 1994 and issued on CD in 1995 by Blast First, on the two-disc set A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock, one of his few readily available releases. It was accompanied live by trombonist Jeb Bishop, who at first planted himself near the end of the room, next to a movie screen full of people repetitively fishing, harvesting, and cooking. The deep smoothness of the trombone highlighted the loudness of the piece, which was never painful: the equal distribution of sound from the six massive speakers placed around the room made it seem to conform wonderfully to the contours of the human ear. That sensitive little membrane likes to be vibrated good and hard sometimes–it just has to be done right, with a slow tasty texture that doesn’t occur in nature very often.

Bishop then moved slowly around the space, highlighting the architectural aspect of Niblock’s work: he enjoys the tendency of the sound to change according to one’s position, the ability of the listener to play herself the music of her choice within the parameters of what’s presented by rolling her head or getting up and wandering. Of course in the dark crowded confines of 6Odum, the high probability of stepping on someone put a bit of a damper on the latter, but Bishop’s mobility provided a nice simulation.

The third piece, “Guitar Too, for Four,” accompanied by raptly meticulous tabletop guitarist Kevin Drumm, developed a clear undulating lurch and roll and a searing heaviness that lulled me to a waking sleep–the body like lead, the spirit champing at the bit, waiting for the meat to settle down so it could go on an astral frolic. Periodically noticing the film again, the continuing rhythmic movements of farm workers and fishermen, I saw it not as the kind of art one stares at but as the kind one glances at for an epiphany of juxtaposition. At the end the piece lightened, sequences of short tones fluttering within the master drone like Morse code underwater.

The cello piece “3 to 7 – 196,” originally recorded in 1974 with David Gibson on cello and here accompanied by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, was the prickliest of the lot, its beehive sounds perhaps a pun on “drone.” Wiry spidery tones seemed to emanate from behind the back of the room. The human ear strives to pinpoint sound in terms of location, and here it was being thoroughly flummoxed. My sudden alertness was fueled in part by a good thrilling dose of fight or flight; I was getting my primal danger sense tickled. Lonberg-Holm looked briefly like he was doing something painful–perhaps he was.

The evening’s closer was a work in progress for bass clarinet and tuba, played as an unaccompanied recording. Niblock turned off the few remaining lights, left the chair, table, and laptop he’d tended all night, and abandoned us to our fate. This piece was driven by rolls of low subwoofer blats, not at all a zone inducer but rather an exercise in constant startlement.

Lifting my head slowly and looking at the people around me who’d been trying to sack out on the ungenerous floor, I got to thinking about how music that calls attention to the sonic qualities of space always also calls attention to the social facts of that space: tuning out the people around you isn’t always the best way to listen. Even though Niblock works partly from recordings that have existed for years, these pieces will never sound exactly the same anywhere else as they did in that rectangular cinder-block room, with those performers playing along and those particular people shuffling and dozing and absorbing with their particular configuration of bodies, just as the farmers and fishermen in the film never made exactly the same motions twice. Niblock has expressed greater interest in releasing recordings of his work in recent years–he prefers the CD format to vinyl. Aside from the Blast First discs and two on the Experimental Intermedia house label, a CD issued with N D magazine is already out and another on Forced Exposure is imminent. But 74 minutes will never be enough to really dive–and isn’t the castrational shortening of the modern attention span the trend that most urgently needs bucking? What better way than a deep longstretch full-body contemplation of infinity in a grain of sand, eternity in two hours?

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