Music composer and multimedia artist at Dartmouth

Special to the Union Leader
February 26. 2014 11:49PM
BEHIND THE SCENES: An influential figure in New York's Minimalist firmament for four decades, experimental music composer Phill Niblock creates massive recorded soundscapes by layering dozens of overdubs and overtones. This sonic landscape weaves in live performance by Boston-based saxophonoist Neil Leonard and guest guitarists along with film by Niblock of people working in some of the most extreme environments on the planet. 

For almost 50 years, music composer and multimedia artist Phill Niblock has brought his unique sonic expression and innovation to the international experimental music scene.

Niblock tonight will showcase his ambient recorded soundscapes — with sound simultaneously combined with projected video images — at Dartmouth College's Rollins Chapel in Hanover. Joining him will be Boston-based guest musicians Neil Leonard, Seth Josel and Ulrich Kreiger, among others.

Evolving Interests

Niblock began his artistic journey when he moved from his native Indiana to New York in 1958 and worked as a photographer and filmmaker. A devotee of jazz, Niblock was attending a meeting of the Duke Ellington Jazz Society when a recording studio engineer introduced him to Ellington's biographer, Stanley Dance.

"It was a fluke," says Niblock. "Stanley let me know when the recording sessions were happening and I went. So from 1961 to 1964, I was Ellington's official photographer."

Niblock branched out into composing music in 1968, while at the same time becoming a member artist of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. The organization was founded by Elaine Summers, a choreographer and film maker looking to provide organizational support for artists working with a variety of artistic forms simultaneously, i.e. "intermedia."

When Summers left New York, Niblock took over as director of the foundation, and in 1972, he began holding concerts in his SoHo loft, not only to showcase his own work but the work of others who were part of New York's experimental music scene.

Niblock creates his music by layering dozens of unchanging tones, otherwise known as "drones" that are only microtones apart in pitch and that interact and create overtones and "beating" sound waves. The end result is designed to draw the audience into an almost hypnotic sense.

"The process is a process," says Niblock, "like taking elements of sound and putting them together in the way I know will work for me. It has to do with the turn of my mind and the technology at hand. The thoughts go to my fingers."

For his upcoming show, Niblock will utilize film and video pieces he's shot over the last two decades during his travel around the world.

"As with all the lectures, there will be many pieces of music along with many films/video pieces. A main piece of work, filmed over 20 years, is the series 'The Movement of People Working,' shot in many countries of the world (and) looking at people working in the fields, fishing, etc. I will play music made from 1968 to the week before the event."

'Intermedia' Ideas

Saxophone player Neil Leonard, one of the show's guest musicians, met Niblock more than 20 years ago when he played at one of the Experimental Intermedia concerts, and has worked with him on and off over the years.

"Phill's music created a new way for us to listen," he said. "Hearing his concerts is like witnessing the building of a large sonic sculpture that activates architectural space. During the Dartmouth concert, I'll move through the hall playing saxophone amidst the audience and multiple film projections to connect musical, visual and spatial material."

Over the years, Niblock has worked with artists from a variety of musical genres. In the '90s he met Sonic Youth's Jim O'Rourke, with whom he has collaborated on a few occasions since.

"I've made pieces for some of the best virtuoso players in the world," Niblock said. "I am traveling about eight months a year, mostly in Europe, so I see and hear many musicians, and sometimes make pieces using their sounds. I met Jim in Chicago in the '90s and he played a piece of mine in Japan in a concert last September. He also included a guitar piece of mine on one of his CDs some years ago."

Whether he's hosting concerts, composing in his SoHo loft or spending time in Europe at his home in Ghent, Belgium, Niblick, at 80, has no intention of slowing down. In addition to working on a book of his photography from the Ellington years, he is finishing up a number of new pieces.

"I will finish more pieces in the year — (projects stemming from October 2013 to October 2014) — than I have ever made in one year," he said. "That's the goal for my 80th year."


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