Adventurous composer, musician, filmmaker, and conceptual artist Phil Niblock remained active right through his later life – an embodiment of the potential a life can hold, irrespective of age. With his death at age 90, remembrances are pouring in. And we have an unusual record of events leading up to nearly present day.
Picture by Bradford Bailey taken at the final show at Cafe OTO on the 6th of May 2023, in a trio with Rie Nakajima and Thurston Moore:
Photo by JJ Murphy.
Niblock was once a photographer for Duke Ellington and a producer for Sun Ra – who was inspired to venture into music after listening to his motorcycle engine vibrating along with a diesel truck in the Carolina mountains. “The beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies put me in such a trance that I nearly rode off the side of the mountain,” he recalled later. He helped define what we now know as the experimental music scene, particularly in New York but in a wide-open, free-spirited frame that has been adopted and reimagined worldwide. That included his work on Experimental Intermedia and the label XI, on platforms and curation as well as output.
As he told Tone Glow (recalled by Far Out in their obituary): “I’m interested in sound – a particular order in it. It all came from a very short moment of about five minutes of thinking about music and how I could make it and what I could make, and what I couldn’t make.”
Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner has written an especially moving tribute:
Farewell to the grand American composer Phill Niblock, the master of drone music, (1933-2024), a man who seemed to be constantly on the move in all the years I knew him. His long career in the arts has crossed the lines between experimental music, film, photography and performance.
Since 1985, he served as director of Experimental Intermedia, a foundation for avant-garde music based in New York, with a vast history of performances. It honestly seemed as if nothing would ever stop Phill. I met him New York, in Boston, in London, Germany and France. He was always on the move, it’s just astonishing.
I remember attending early performances of his, which were largely played back from a computer, only to suddenly feel the movement of air behind me, and discovered that it was a live flute player moving around the space, the audience largely unaware of their presence.
Niblock’s performances were almost always accompanied by his films – painstaking studies of manual labour. I remember bumping into him at Bethnal Green Tube Station in London some years ago, he on the up escalator, me on the down, across from one another. We waved! I ran back up to greet him and we ended up talking for about 45 mins in the noise of the station, as trains constantly arrived and departed.
I have so many friends who played with him, performed his works, released his music or, like me, were friends with him for many years. He was indeed be missed.
His monolithic microtonal drones were designed to be played at volume, so tonight blast out his music in celebration of this truly inspiring individual.
Some of the beautiful obituaries that have come in in the past 24 hours – the headline on the first one from ARTnews is perfect:
“Sound can change your perception,” he once told the Wall Street Journal. “You start off hearing one thing, but when you begin to give up listening to one certain aspect of it or trying to intellectualize it, it opens up and you begin to float.”ARTnews
The Ever Present : Remembering Phill Niblock [The Quietus]
From his 85th, this is a great piece, too:
Amidst all the wonderful sounds, don’t miss his film work – here, Arthur Russell provides the music and Niblock’s films flow by like streams:
Some personal remembrances:
And here’s six hours of him, via Roulette:
From 2019, see the documentary by Thomas Maury, Niblock’s Sound Spectrums – Within Invisible Rivers.
PS – the Sun Ra reference:
THE MAGIC SUN (1966-68)
Composer, photographer, and filmmaker Phill Niblock’s classic experimental underground film The Magic Sun features a sensational soundtrack by the legendary jazz musician Sun Ra and the members of his Solar Arkestra. Niblock used a very high contrast black-and-white film technique to shoot ultra-tight close-ups on the moving hands and mouths of the musicians.