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Niblock for Thought

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Matt Wellins digests Phill Niblock's new Touch Food recording, released this month on Touch, and adds a brief interview with Niblock himself.

Niblock for Thought

I saw Phill Niblock perform in Pittsburgh about three years ago, around the time Touch Works: For Hurdy Gurdy and Voice was released. I had heard about the performance about a month in advance, and I had been bouncing off the walls. Maybe this is paradoxical for such patient and ruminative music. I even remember some conversations I had with my mother trying to share my excitement for the coming performance. “..and he works with microtones, which are like, well, you know, we only have 12 notes in an octave, in Western culture, and in reality, there are actually, like, thousands more.” I used to think of myself as a precocious teenager.

Without any detriment to the show itself, it couldn’t possibly have lived up to the religious epiphany I had been expecting. I was a bit surprised that Phill largely performed his music by playing his CDs through a laptop. Granted, the music was then sent through an 8-channel stereo system that made every article of clothing on my body vibrate for the three hours that he played. Part of me, though, hoped to see the music created live. I had already heard many of the pieces he was playing on commercially available releases. Nevertheless, there was a lot to see and I was pretty overwhelmed for what must’ve been a little over three hours. For several pieces, Niblock had help from several E-bowing guitarists, and a vocalist, and for the entire duration of the piece, I kept noticing myself looking at Phill himself, who sat with the rest of the audience. He would tilt his head, because, I assume, it changed the sound of the entire piece, due to the way sound resonated in the space. The real spectacle, however, was the video.

I knew that Niblock was responsible for a lot of video and film work, I just hadn’t been able to see any of it (I believe there is now a VHS available, which I’m sure is wonderful, but his work would make for a great DVD, if anybody out there is listening). Seeing the performance allowed me to view hour upon hour of Niblock’s work, consisting predominantly of people in other countries doing fieldwork and practical work. Weaving, plowing and preparing food, video that placed an incredible value on repetitive motion. The evening didn’t bring me to tears or laughter, or any discernable emotion other than confusion and curiosity. I felt lucid and concentrated for most of the concert, feeling as though I might or had missed something, but now that it’s long over and things are back to normal, the show seems much less stark and far more dreamlike.

Anyway, after thinking about the show for several months, I found Phill’s e-mail address on the Internet, and wrote him a letter, asking him about his video work and when his upcoming release of Guitars Too, For Four was going to be available. The video was strange in that the labor didn’t seem menial, it was gorgeous and the people seemed to enjoy doing it, and it seemed to capture whatever Niblock’s music is about so well. Yet, I was unsure about whether he had intended political commentary, whether or not he was suggesting a return to more fundamental aspects of life or showing that we are, in fact, rather similar. I also thought I might be missing the boat completely – after all, Niblock’s work has always come across to me as very unromantic, about nothing more than the instruments and the pitches he uses. Look at the liner notes to XI’s Music By Phill Niblock, intricate and scientific, describing exactly how he made the sounds and the exact frequency levels and ratios he used.

He responded to my e-mail a couple of months later telling me that he was glad I was asking those sorts of questions, those were the sorts of things he was hoping people would be thinking about. He didn’t give me the answer to his work – the answer was the work, yet another time my overbearing expectations from other music led me astray with Niblock’s inscrutable design. In response to when his new album would be available, he told me it had already been recorded, saying, “The music is easy, the notes are the hard part." He was talking about the liner notes, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t quoting that out of context to anyone who would listen.

On Niblock’s new release, Touch Food (Touch), however, some of my uncertainties are put at rest. With the exception of “Early Winter”, a good portion of Niblock’s works are specifically titled with reference to the instruments or pitches at play – Touch Food, as Niblock states in the liner notes, would’ve been the same, naming the first track ">Sea Jelly Yellow" as a play on “C Jam Blues." Using food-related puns for the rest of the pieces, Niblock goes out of his way in the liner notes to explain the puns, as if to say “Don’t interpret this the wrong way, none of this music is really about food, it’s still about instruments, pitches, and the performers playing them.” Yet, as this release shapes over the course of its two discs, I can’t help but wonder if I should fall for Niblock’s demeanor of calculated precision or once again question it.

I try to imagine that I am just listening to a dense string of overlapping baritone saxophones on the first track, but it’s impossible. There are so many harmonics – layers of things to hear, shifting density – it hardly sounds like an instrument or a concentrated selection of pitches. Niblock probably realizes this. His music is so heavily subjective – it changes when one moves their head; it changes depending on how hard one can listen; it changes with repeated listening; it changes depending on the room and the stereo. The punch line is that all he did was pick some notes that produce noted acoustic phenomenon. The listener, after all, adds the sense of timelessness, the strong emotions, the warmth or darkness.

Yet somehow Niblock’s images in the liner notes seem to be leading in a slightly different direction. The focus on food entwines his work more directly with our daily lives than the frequency charts did in other releases. It’s hard not to make the analogies between the joys of cooking for someone and Niblock composing for his musicians; slowly tailoring something piece by piece, each ingredient considered, for a pleasure that somehow extends past the sum of its parts.

His music has always been indebted to the slow, ordinary world, seeming to simultaneously praising and in recoiling, and here, alongside of one of the greatest common denominators, food, Niblock has found a new depth for his work. I’d even go so far as to say that the dense sizzle of rosined fingers bowing against a nylon piano string that comprises “Pan Fried 70” pretty accurately conveys its title. It might be the only work by Niblock that truly gives the sense that he’s aiming to represent something other than sound itself.

To say that this release is a completely new direction for Niblock might be an overstatement. Yet, Niblock’s sense of subtle change is as present in his development as a composer as it is in the music itself. I can’t help but wonder if this next chapter of his work, as he enters his seventieth year, will be just as much about living and considering the common ground of life as it has been about the practical considerations of music. Maybe Touch Food is Niblock’s first step towards integrating his discerning, artistic and careful eye to what was once so exactingly pure music. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the work here yet again, undermining a composer who for most of his career has been reluctant to showcase his music in a way that is anywhere near as emotionally powerful as his fans have perceived it (just look at Rafael Toral’s addition to the liner notes). Finally, though, Niblock seems to hesitantly embrace the feeling, the strength of his work that lays in its ordinary and honest humility.


I exchanged a couple of emails with Phill, trying to set-up an interview, and see if he’d be willing to overlook the above text, to make any changes. There are a couple of important points of note:

A Niblock DVD, 3 and a half hours of music and video, has just been released by the Extreme label, notorious for their 50-cd Merzbow boxset.

The track listing of Touch Food is disordered. The 2nd and 3rd track are actually the 3rd and 2nd track, respectively. If it's any indication of how disorienting Niblock’s music can be, the seasoned veterans at Touch could easily mistake a bassoon for a bass guitar in the opaque mass of “Yam Almost May”.

As for the live set, there was some music from a CD player, but for the guitar pieces, Niblock was able to manipulate the amplitude and pitch of the guitarists on the spot. As far as tilting his head, Phill claims he was sleeping.

This led to me call Phill at home, attempting to record our conversation with a microphone pressed up against a telephone, without much success. I asked why so much of his early work was relatively undocumented, especially in light of releases by Charlemagne Palestine, Henry Flynt, and Tony Conrad. Phill shed some light on a couple of issues regarding his working process, on why it wasn't plausible for him to be making the type of music he wanted alongside of the other composers. A good portion of the Minimalists from the late 60s and early 70s are came out of a specifically performative background, improvising and creating their music with basis in some theoretical groundwork. Niblock's multi-tracked, dense compositions are necessarily home-brewed, he deals very directly with the sounds, carefully, over a period where he has time to reflect. Granted, Phill merely said that he didn't have access to the multi-track technology, I assumed the parts about careful, reflection of the whole procedure. It does make the connection to cooking stronger, though. Niblock's releases aren't documents of anything, they're the work, in and of themselves, the actual material you're hearing has been seasoned and simmered, the full, concise, and intended experience at your disposal. It's no wonder Niblock had reservations about releasing his work to a public that might not necessarily have the adequate stereo equipment to listen to it with.

Being that a good part of the review of Touch Food attempted to pin a relationship to food to the music, I asked to see if he saw a direct correlation between food and his work, and Niblock, answered, true to form, "I don't think there's a direct correlation between anything". He added that there is, however, a shared sensuality. It seemed to make much more sense, then. It's not that Touch Food is necessarily about eating, communal living, or any variety of emotional states or political issues, it's simply work meant to engage the electricity in our nervous systems, it's almost a further distilled version of phenomenalism, the theory that all of our knowledge is simply based on the functioning of our senses. Talking to Phill cleared up most of my uncertainties in the review, all of the thought and ideas about the music were appropriate, to some degree, but the music is unrelated. It's only sound.

By Matt Wellins

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