Saturday Drones Club, Part 1: Phill Niblock

Wednesday 24 January 2007

I swear that scoring free drinks at Sketch was only an afterthought when I went to the opening of Phill Niblock’s The Movement of People Working. The main reason was hearing and watching live performances of his music.
As far as anyone is concerned, Niblock does two things. First, he writes music which requires a solo musician to hold one note for as long as possible, over and over again, and then overdub that with more of the same, over and over again. A loud, dense drone, rich with shifting overtones, is produced.
Secondly, and this comes as a surprise to music-oriented people when going to see a performance of his music, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. At Sketch we were surrounded by people repairing boats, harvesting seaweed, dismembering carcases, making noodles, ploughing earth, flaying hides, winnowing grain, scavenging garbage.
The films are open to political, social and economic interpretations, but these considerations are subsumed within the prosaic documentation of people performing practiced, necessary actions, devoid of aesthetic artifice. If the juxtaposition of sound and image comment on each other, it is through the musician’s playing, stripped of expressive subjectivity, performing a disciplined series of tasks. The necessity of the work shown on film, however, is missing from the music. Largely, it appears that both appear together because they’re the two things Niblock does. The incompatibly impersonal approaches to the two media make film and music oddly neutral accompaniments to each other.
The square, high-ceilinged gallery at Sketch showed three videos projected high on each wall, showing randomly-selected sections from the hours of film Niblock has shot over two decades, above a pit of fashionable bohemian types busily networking and quaffing free pinot grigio. (“I’ve seen your website,” was the first piece of overheard conversation upon entering the room.) There was a palpable irony in the disconnect between the scenes in the lower and upper halves of the room; yet amongst the milling crowd – the muddled conversations, the drinking, the social climbing, the little group of small children, one wearing a strikingly painted helmet, who ran around and occasionally butted into the small bar, sending glasses flying – there were people at work: a couple of flustered drinks waiters trying to clear tables and keep the glasses intact, and in one corner a flautist and a guitarist alternately playing Niblock’s music, which filled up all available aural space in and around the crowd noise. They were doing their job, mostly ignored, and hopefully getting properly paid for it.
Later that day I went to a performance at Goldsmiths College of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, a large work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for seventy minutes. Like the Niblock gig, it was free! But no booze. The write-up will have to wait until part 2, tomorrow.