For nearly a half-century, Phill Niblock has been exploring the combined effects of merging audio art with film. In his compositions and live performances, sustained tonalities, shimmering frequencies and languid drones wash over the listener, as video footage provides equally inventive imagery. His upcoming appearance at Sun-Ray Cinema features Niblock playing original works with accompanying live video projection by Katherine Liberovskaya, as well as a set of Niblock playing along with a screening of his own films.
Phill Niblock was born in 1933 in Anderson, Indiana. After studying economics in college, he moved to New York City in the late ’50s and focused on photography and filmmaking, capturing images of jazz musicians. In the mid-’60s, there was a vibrant musical enclave in Manhattan that was creating long pieces based on drones. La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Terry Riley used voices and instruments to create experimental works based on the use of overtones, harmonics and microtones — frequencies and intervals that dance across the fundamentals of sound. The effect was hypnotic, conjuring glimmers of Indian ragas and otherworldly soundscapes. “The drone actually comes from the idea of using microtones — you only really hear it when it’s long tones,” says Niblock. “In the ’60s, we were making drone music in New York but it was nothing new. Drones go back to the Middle Ages.”
In 1968, with no formal training, Niblock began creating his own compositions. Niblock’s music had similarities to the improv-rich drone school, yet was more contingent on a methodical exploration of these sonic building blocks. “I essentially make music that has long tones and a lot of microtonal intervals, so there is a lot of harmonic activity going on during the piece. Yet it can also seem like nothing is happening because it is a continuous sound.”
The 2009 piece Stosspeng features samples of electric guitar and bass morphed into an hour-long uninterrupted soundscape that ebbs and flows with softly rippling clusters of tonalities. “The duration of each tune is dependent on the instrument in each piece. There are always many, many tones occurring,” says Niblock.