Philip Niblock - YPGPN


YPGPN (Young Person's Guide to Phill Niblock) is a re-release on the XI label of a CD-set curated by Paul Smith, which was a joint production of the Blast First label from London and the British adventurous music magazine The Wire in 1995. Two of the pieces in that collection had previously been issued on an India Navigation LP called Nothing to Look at, produced by Robert Cummins. The original YPGPN was released without liner notes. For this current release of the album it seemed a good idea to use the notes from "Nothing to Look at" and expand them with other texts about Phill's music.

Phill Niblock and his music have been with us now for quite some time. In 1972 he guided an audience that had come to the New York venue The Kitchen for a concert of his compositions, to his loft - because on the day before Phill's con­cert, Hermann Nitsch had covered the floor of The Kitchen with blood during a performance of his, which had strongly affected the atmosphere in the room. Now, some thirty years later, Niblock's work continues to draw new audiences.

What is extraordinary about this, is that the principles of his music have not changed much over the years; that with the long time span covered by each piece and the sparseness of the musical material and its elaboration, one could be forgiven to think that it is at odds with contemporary hasty tastes. In fact, just because of that, it has the power to draw attention to itself. The apparently immobile string of tones that is basic to his compositions, has a singular mes­merizing quality.

My first encounter with Phill's music was at Het Apollohuis, the venue for new art and music in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, which was sadly closed in 1997. Throughout its existence it frequently presented concerts of his music. One of these occasions was in April 1991, when James Fulkerson played A Trombone Piece. I recorded my impressions in a review, describing what I heard as "the conjuring up of a kind of shadow music by layering tones in very close proximi­ty, over each other. The interference occurring between these sound waves causes tones, chords and rhythms to emerge that are not actually played. The melodies and clusters shaped in this process change when the original tones shift, but are also dependent on one's position in the room. They hover in mid­air, seem to solidify for a brief moment before dissolving again - like wisps of fog, or ghosts."

"The work of the New York based composer, photographer and film maker Phill Niblock consists of tapes with such music, in concert complemented with live played tones. He boosts the ethereal effects by playing the tapes at high vol­ume, positioning the loudspeakers in such a way that the waves can bounce around freely, and by having a musician roam around the space."

Eindhovens Dagblad, April 1991

"Phill prefers not to call his pieces tape compositions, and yet tapes are a sub­stantial part of the music," James Fulkerson told me in an interview about Phill's music a few years later: "We start with recording tones that form together one great chord, a different layer on each track. In performance I add another layer. After each breath I decide which layer I will next add my voice to. If I hear het­erodyning occur around a certain pitch, I can reinforce that by playing a tone that rubs against it, or I can jump to an octave below it. Improvising in this way I merge with the environment created by the tape.

"Perceived as a whole it is one grand and radiant chord, so huge you can only feel it - like a fabric that envelops you. But when you zoom in on it, you'll dis­cover that the music consists of levels, such as rhythms in the heterodyning beats and fluctuations within pitches. When I start walking around I create levels locally. That is a very enjoyable experience. Depending on the acoustic space where they are played Phill's compositions will sound radically different. One could call what Phill makes minimal music, but it rather feels like maximal. You feel like a fly in an immense, awesome perspective."

Eindhovens Dagblad, October 1993

Niblock's films and videos play an important role in his presentations. His films portray human labor in its most elementary form. Construction work, harvesting, planting and fishing - physical exertion, with the help of basic tools. They are scenes of people in non-industrialized communities, doing manual labor involving continually repeated movements, while their faces are often kept outside the frame. Usually there is a connection with water - fishermen are shown repairing their boats and nets, they may be cleaning their catch. In "Sumatra" farmers are planting and harvesting rice in sawahs, in long unhurried sequences. "Japan" shows the energetic activity at a fish market, where people gut fish after cutting their heads, tails and fins off, with swift and deft move­ments.

He typically projects two of them simultaneously on opposite screens, without striving for a strict synchronization either between the projections, or between the images and the sound. The films and the music combine elements that seem contradictory, creating tension as a result. Impersonal motion patterns filmed in glowing colors move side by side with glorious sounds that are caused by an acoustic phenomenon. However, there are striking parallels between the image and sound as well, not because one was made as a companion to the other, but because of correspondences at a deeper level. Both display move­ments within a larger frame that changes at an exceedingly slow rate, evoking simultaneous sensations of movement and immobility. Both transcend the strict­ly personal, thereby acquiring extra import. In juxtaposition they can bring about a curiously alert trance-like condition, in which associations have free rein.

During these presentations you can decide to close your eyes and follow the music - one radiant chord, in which shifts occur continually on various levels; or you can follow the images and push the sound to the back of your mind. Both are prominently present, and yet they don't force themselves on you. They don't put a compelling claim on your concentration. In much the same way modesty shines through the images themselves: Niblock's camera does not affect the behavior of the people he films; their dignity is left intact.

Acoustic conditions are a determining factor in Phill's music. What listeners actually hear, depends to a large degree on the space where it is being played; on the exact spot where they are in that space (or the way they move around in it); on the quality of the sound system; the volume at which the music plays, the placement of the loudspeakers; and, as James Fulkerson explains, on the placement or movement of a musician in live presentations, and the notes the musician chooses to play. It is because of the role these elements play in the eventual and actual sound complex that Phill prefers live presentations of his music, in which he has some degree of control over the circumstances.

Releasing his music on CDs, he relinquishes that control, and hands it over to whoever obtains them, regardless of the playback conditions to which the music will be subjected. Ownership of the CDs, on the other hand, implies freedom (within limitations set by affordability) to experiment with various listening spaces, sound systems, and placement of listener and speakers. The music as it is generated by an average stereo set in a living room stereo is bound to be different from what you will experience coming from a car stereo (engine running). This in turn differs greatly from the music put in your ears by headphones ("Headphones are horrible," says Phill Niblock) - because there is no acoustic space in which the sound waves from the channels can interact. In a sense the number of Niblock pieces you possess is proportional to the number of listening circumstances you can realize.

Rene van Peer

From the original notes to "Nothing to Look at"

The pieces are instrumental works, made on tape, performed as tape only, or tape with live musicians. The scores are the composer's mix scores. In perform­ance the live musician plays with the tape, moving around the space, either matching tones on the tape or playing adjacent tones, creating shifting pools of beats and changed harmonics as he moves through the space and a duration of time.

The pieces are made in stages. First, the tones are selected. The musician is tuned during the recording session by calibrated sine waves and watches oscil­loscope patterns to tune. Numerous examples of each tone are recorded. These tapes are edited (breathing spaces removed) into blocks of repetitions of each tone and then timed. The timed blocks are assigned to tracks and time slots of the eight tracks. In the score, each horizontal line represents a separate track and a duration of time. Figures above the brackets represent minutes and seconds of elapsed time: within the brackets, above the line is the duration of the event; below the line, the frequency of the tone (the pitch in Hertz). After dubbing up the eight tracks, the top four lines (tracks) of the score are mixed down to one channel, and the bottom four to the second channel of the final stereo mix. The music is architectural - the intent is to fill the space. It is non-frontal music, non-proscenium, anti-stage, not about the ensemble sitting in front of the audience, not about a single sound source. At least four speaker systems are desirable, arrayed around the periphery of the room, saturating the total space, engaging the air.

The structure of the music comes from the reproduction of the tape (or CD). The live musician is not a soloist with tape background, but the converse.

From an interview with Arthur Stidfole, composer and musician, and Phill Niblock (circa 1985):

Arthur Stidfole: What's interesting to me about your music is that it's actually not Eastern. It has Western tensions, a different language conveyed. It's con­trary to the tradition, contrary to tonal tradition, non-tonal traditions, contrary to rhythmic concepts, formal concepts. The reason I brought up the non-Eastern statement was that most people who counteract the tradition take their cue from Eastern music and use it as a defense for their music.

A great deal of what I think about your music comes from having played it, hav­ing sort of been inside it, having the ability to move around the space more, being actually more mobile than anyone else in the room. My purpose is to add to the interplay of the beats between tones on the tape, since that's the primary focus to me. Through the mix of the tones and inconsistencies of pitch, there is a constantly shifting rate of pulse. The music is so dense that what can seem to be a buzz is actually a very complex set of technical sound patterns. And I don't know whether you are conscious of that whilst working on the scores or mixes.

Phill Nibiock: I never make a piece by listening to the combinations of tones, I never put a couple of sounds together to see what they sound like. I always make a score, the total score, before I begin dubbing tones together on tape, before I hear anything.

AS: What I actually see is a 3 x 5 inch card that has a series of frequencies (in Hertz).

PN: That's the first stage. I decide what tones, what frequencies to use. Then I record (with the musician), edit, and time. Then I do the score, showing what's going on each track. It's quite precise. At that point I am deciding which tone to juxtapose against others and I almost never go back and rearrange a score after I've finished it and it's mixed.

AS: Do you know why you do the scores the way you do?

PN: It's the easiest (clearest) way to codify the information, the juxtapositions.

AS: You are dealing with sounds of such complexity that it really would be impossible for almost anyone to tell from the score what it was that you were going to end up with in the end, in anything but the grossest terms.

PN: I have a very good idea of what it's going to sound like. But I'm not even sure how true that is. On the other hand I'm seldom surprised, at how the pieces sound, that is.

Excerpts from an article, "Phill Niblock, Composer's View", which appeared in the EMAS Newsletter, a publication of the Electroacoustic Music Association of Great Britain, July 1981.

For me, the film and music of Phill Niblock have always been remarkable for their clarity of intention, the quality of their realization and their performance, and their unrelenting insistence.

I like A Trombone Piece, but Phill's work for the contrabassoon and contrabass, once described as the sound of two Mack trucks mating, is on my list of pieces which I wished I had composed. The variety of sonic textures in Phill's sound world are such that one feels as though he/she is inhabiting a three dimensional sound sculpture - a sonic architecture. It comes at you from all sides.

A Trombone Piece is built upon a single pitch, A, played over three octaves, and yet as a theater technician in New Zealand said, "You know it seems like you are just playing the same note over and over again, but you're not. There are these rivers of sound which are quite high up - not the notes you are playing -which are fascinating." This is not a repetitive music, is not hypnotic music, because Phill is continually breaking up the sound field. It's impossible to become hypnotized by these rivers of sound.

A Trombone Piece is built upon an acoustic phenomenon known as "beats" or sum and difference tones. The combination of two notes produces two addition­al pitches that are the sum of the frequencies of both notes and the difference between them. The summation tone is often not perceivable because the origi­nal sounds are too loud but the difference tones can be felt as perceptible pulse or beats. Ordinarily difference tones are eliminated in the act of "tuning up." The deliberate production of these sum and difference tones is what creates the tac­tile quality in Phill's music.

A Trombone Piece is built upon three sets of "A" (pedal AA, low A, and "a" below middle C, plus three additional notes in each of these octaves), 12 pitch­es in all. In the lowest octave, each pitch is 2 cycles per second higher than the previous note; in the next octave, they are three cycles per second higher and in the highest octave, they are 4 cycles per second higher. This raw material is recorded, then edited, removing any inexact pitches and the breathing spaces, and then mixed together to produce the beats or "micro-rhythms" which are a feature of Phill's work.

The resulting tape can be used as a piece by itself, a tape piece, or in conjunc­tion with any number of trombonists. When they play with the tape, the trom­bonists are mobile within the performance space and play pitches which were used in constructing the tape - though these may appear in any orders the per­formers choose.

Having explained the mechanics of the piece, the act of listening is really involved with the sensual experience of the sound sculpture itself.

James Fulkerson

Many composers have been interested in the idea of making a piece of music by allowing one sustained sound or noise to drone on and on with little change. Perhaps the most sensuous and lush drones pieces, however, are those of Phill Niblock. Working with many layers of acoustically produced pitches, he records them with the highest technological standards, plays them back in rich multi-track textures, tunes them so that they beat wildly against one another in the air, and confounds a lot of people. No one has ever made music anything like this.

Tom Johnson, composer and former Village Voice music critic.

The major reason I have been reluctant to make a record before is because I have been reluctant to relinquish control of the performance of the music. Although the completed work exists as a recording, the performance is the playing of the recording under carefully controlled circumstances of speaker, amplifier and recorder selection and hall acoustics. Each performance space has its own acoustic patterns, making the music sound quite different. Each playback system has its own sound. The sound of each performance is unique, even though the tape is the same. It is difficult however, to present enough per­formances of the work to reach all of the people I would like to have experience the music. So I am releasing the music to a variety of performances, by this record.

The music changes according to the loudness of playback. The interaction of the upper harmonics changes especially, with much richer overtone patterns being produced at louder levels. PLEASE PLAY THIS RECORD LOUD

Phill Niblock



Barbara Held and George Lewis recorded the tuned tones on the same evening, in 1981. I had known them for some years, and had wanted to do pieces for them. Held lived in New York, and when Lewis came over to visit, we got together at Brooklyn College where Steve Cellum was working as a recording engineer. He recorded the tuned samples in the concert hall, while I fell asleep on top of a grand piano. The recording tape turned out to be defective. It had dropouts. The material for both pieces had lots of clunks, which were especially noticeable in the flute piece. So for the issue of the Blast First album Dan Evans Farkas took the original, recorded tones into Sonic Solutions. He cleaned up the clunks and remade (not restored, mind you) the multitrack tapes according to the original score.



Ulrich Krieger was on a residency in New York in the early '90s. We met and spoke about making a piece for didjeridu. The recording used here is actually that of its premiere concert performance, at a Microtonal Festival organized by Johnny Reinhard at New York University. We had made samples, but the proce­dure didn't quite work for the didjeridu - you can't achieve exact tunings with it. So the music was not exactly tuned, but there were enough differences in pitch, and at some places Krieger actually sings in the instrument. Richard Lainhart used my score to compile the multitrack. Later we decided to do a tenor sax piece. That was ready just before the Blast First CD was to be produced. In a studio in London Ulrich added live lines to the multitrack. There was time left on the CD so we decided to include both the tape only version and the tape plus live version.


Original tones recorded at the Music Department, State University of New York at Albany, under the supervision of Joel Chadabe; Richard Lainhart and Richard Kelly, recording engineers, using Neumann microphones. Eight channel dubbing at Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Mix from Teac 80-8 to Studer A80 with Stephen Cellum at Imago Sonorum.


Original tones recorded at India Navigation, New York City, Robert Cummins, engineer, using AKG 414 microphones. Eight channel dubbing at Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Mix from Teac 80-8 to Studer A80 with Stephen Cellum at Imago Sonorum, New York City.

These two trombone pieces were supported by the Composer Program at the National Endowment for the Arts and the Music Program of the New York State Council on the Arts.

Recording credits:

Original mastering by Shawn Joseph at Porky's, London

XI re-issue mastered by Allan Tucker, Foothill Digital, New York, NY

Recording of live portion of Ten Auras Live, at Mute Records, London, engineered by Paul Kendall

Music technology engineering for Didjeridoos and Don'ts and Ten Auras by Richard Lainhart, New York

Recording of material for Held Tones and Unmentionable Piece for Trombone and Sousaphone by Steve Cellum, at Brooklyn College Concert Hall, New York

Recording of material for A Trombone Piece and A Third Trombone by Richard Lainhart and Phil Edelstein at the State University of New York at Albany

Conversion to digital, editing, multitracking, and mixing in Sonic Solutions of the pieces Held Tones,

Unmentionable Piece for Trombone and Sousaphone, A Trombone Piece and A Third Trombone, by Dan Evans Farkas at Sound One, New York

Liner notes compiled, edited and/or written by Rene van Peer