Phill Niblock again (In the Presence of Greatness? part 3)

Monday 1 June 2009

Last weekend I went for the second time to see a Phill Niblock performance. The main reason this time was to have a clear hearing of his work performed live, without the chattering of the punters.

People who know anything about Niblock know that he 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 some more musically-oriented people when going to see a performance, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. A large projection screen was centre stage at Cafe Oto for the launch of Niblock’s new CD, Touch Strings, showing work in East Asia related to the fishing industry, before switching to agricultural and building labour.

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 musicians sat to one side, in semi-darkness: Susan Stenger and Guy De Bievre on electric guitars for the first piece, Stosspeng, and Arne Deforce on cello for Poure. The final piece, One Large Rose, was for multitracked string ensemble and performed without live musicians. Stosspeng was an hour long and a bit different to other Niblock pieces I’ve heard. The two live guitars seemed to float above a mass of lower-piched drones, and showed a greater variety of timbres and textures instead of receding into the background. The scale of the piece allowed the audience’s attention to drift from the video to the music and back again, and although it’s a common experience to lose the sense of time in this type of music and just become caught in the moment, I found myself losing focus on the video as well, even though there was nothing abstract about it. In the latter half of the piece I realised I’d been watching the screen but couldn’t remember what I had just seen.