The best way to experience Phill Niblock’s compositions–like painter Mark Rothko’s color fields–is to surrender to them. Give his music a cursory listen and all you’ll hear is a monolithic drone, but if you immerse yourself in it you’ll find it’s teeming with activity. Better-known minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich usually write programmatic works intended for classical musicians, with distinct melodies, familiar harmonies, and hypnotic rhythms. But Niblock’s music exists primarily on tape or hard disc: he begins the process of composition by having one or more musicians play along to sine-wave tones, and then edits and mixes this material into tight bundles of slowly bending pitches. When the resulting recording is played at sufficient volume–over 100 decibels–these pitches create clouds of high-frequency harmonics and throbbing pulsations, or “beats,” which are generated by the interference of two almost identical tones. Niblock intends his pieces to change depending on the acoustics of the performance space; they can even sound different if you move to a new spot in the room. Live performers sometimes accompany his music, often wandering around as they play; the minute variations between their drones and the recorded material create such a riot of overtones and sonic reflections that it can seem the sounds are coming from everywhere at once. The 66-year-old composer has been loath to give up control of his work’s presentation, so the bulk of his concerts have taken place in his own loft, in New York City’s Chinatown. He’s also issued only five recordings, though that’s about to change: a CD in the next N D magazine will include Ghosts and Others, a collage he made while learning how to use ProTools; Forced Exposure is about to release Music for Cello; and later this year Jim O’Rourke’s Moikai label will deliver Guitar Too, for Four, a piece for E-Bowed electric guitars. In his Chicago debut Niblock will present four of his works: Guitar Too and compositions for cello and trombone, accompanied respectively by Kevin Drumm, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Jeb Bishop, plus Hurdy Hurry, an unaccompanied hurdy-gurdy piece recorded last year by O’Rourke. Selections from Niblock’s film series “The Movement of People Working” will roll while the music plays. Saturday, 10 PM, 6Odum, 2116 W. Chicago; 773-227-3617. At 3 PM the same day 6Odum will screen six of Niblock’s 16-millimeter films from the 1960s, including The Magic Sun, a black-and-white short depicting Sun Ra and his Arkestra.


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