Composer Phill Niblock's upcoming performance at Dartmouth College, presented by the Hopkins Center for the Arts, will almost certainly press the "reset" button on many an eardrum. The New York composer's minimalist music pulsates and drones, enveloping listeners in lush waves of pure sound that are not only heard but felt — not least because Niblock believes that his artistic ideas are best realized by playing his work at high volume.
A fixture of the New York City experimental art and music scenes since the 1960s, Niblock is visiting Dartmouth for a weeklong residency. During his stay, he'll speak in several classes and meet with students and faculty. Invited to the college by Carlos Casas, himself a visiting professor of film and media studies, Niblock will conclude his residency with a performance in the school's Rollins Chapel on Thursday, February 27.
You could be forgiven for any preconceptions that avant-garde music takes itself a bit seriously, but Niblock's work is both brainy and playful. As his soundscapes' "microtones" shimmy from speaker to speaker and ear to ear, one gets the sense of sound waves frolicking about, using one's auditory cortex as a playground. While this can be challenging, listeners who are able to turn off their minds, relax and float downstream stand a good chance of experiencing genuine musical transcendence at a Niblock concert.
"I'm interested in using microtones — notes that are very similar in pitch to other notes," says Niblock by phone from his home in Manhattan. "I tend to put them, as much as I can, in opposite channels, so they meet in the [concert] space, not in the speaker." The result is a brain-pan-rattling, up-from-the-depths drone that allows the composer to explore the complexities of barely different sounds in juxtaposition. In this way, Niblock's music is akin to that of "drone metal" bands such as Sunn O))), whose guitarist-composer Stephen O'Malley is, in fact, a friend of his.
"My music ... is very much a foreground music, not a background music," Niblock says. "You're really confronted with the music in the space. You can't dissolve out of it very easily."
The composer's works are not solely sonic. He is also a well-regarded filmmaker who has, for nearly 50 years, been shooting scenes for what is essentially a single cinematic work, The Movement of People Working. Niblock, now 80, has long been fascinated by how people move their bodies while performing the routine tasks of their labor. His films focus keenly on the dexterous movements of farmers, fishermen and linemen, often shot so as to emphasize their grace and efficiency.
Niblock takes the unusual approach of eschewing the careful synchronization of images and sounds. The music is not "accompaniment" to the filmed images; rather, audio and visual tracks complement each other via Niblock's minimalist approach to both media. Just as his films avoid narration and careful montage, his compositions forgo some of the most fundamental components of music: melody, harmony, rhythm and even musical structure itself.
"Everything I do," Niblock says, "is about stripping out a lot of the normal structure of the medium, whatever it is."
The composer's soundscapes employ no traditional instrumentation or arrangements. Niblock is a musical magpie, favoring no instrument over any other, and frequently inserting found sounds and electronically generated tones, with which he's experimented for years. For his indefatigable musical exploration, Niblock was recently selected by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts to receive the 2014 John Cage Award. It's apropos, as Niblock plainly admires Cage, mentioning him more than once in conversation.
Niblock's work has been celebrated all over the world, most recently in a massive, career-spanning retrospective in 2013 in Lausanne. The current year has also seen him working at an extraordinary clip: Between October 2013 and October 2014, he'll debut no fewer than 10 new musical pieces — the most he's ever completed in a single year.
At the Dartmouth show, four of Niblock's musical works, composed between 1995 and 2013, will be performed in conjunction with screenings of his moving images of Chinese workers, filmed in 1986 and '87. The concert's musical component combines prerecorded sounds with live performances by saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard and the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute guitar quintet.
Casas has come to Dartmouth in part to coteach, with music professor Ted Levin, a course called Sonic Landscapes, which combines concepts from visual arts, music, ethnography and ethnomusicology. Niblock's artistic approach harmonizes with the mission of the course. "Phill is a unique artist who has worked with visuals and sound, and has created images that related to the exploration of locations around the world," Casas says.
He believes the concert venue, a chapel on campus, is ideal for Niblock's performance because of its ritual qualities. "I would not say it is a religious experience, and Phill always hates when I speak about that," says Casas in a phone conversation, "but for me it [the music] contains a lot of spiritual or near-spiritual research."
Indeed, Niblock is a down-to-earth fellow, just as happy to talk about his coffee habit and what he's currently listening to (Eric Dolphy and Sergei Prokofiev's piano sonatas) as he is about his droning microtones. Still, as local sonic adventurers now have the chance to discover for themselves, Niblock's music is hard to describe without evoking some kind of out-of-body experience.
You're really confronted with the music in the space. You can't dissolve out of it very easily.
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