Phil Niblock's is a music of intense meditation, of shuddering stillness, of infinite economy. His music, too, is massive and engulfing. Video artist and Niblock collaborator, Carlos Casas, the first two parts of whose film Avalanche were being paired for this concert with the composer's Stosspeng, has a wonderful quote about Niblock's drones: 'Phil Niblock's music...levitates you in order to sedate your senses for an enhanced comprehension of yourself and where you are standing'.
The music uses an extreme economy of pitch materials arched into a total audio sculpture of apparent simultaneity, but actual cascade, to create a sort of infinity-effect. Beatings and phasings caused by the coincidence of near-unison tones, a few cycles out, are weighted with care according to the resonating frequencies of the room, and with respect to some magick, mysterious formal design, to leave the listener bereft of time. This is music that empties time out of any representable content, and confuses the thing-directedness of consciousness. You do, indeed, reflect on both yourself and where you are standing; what you and the physical dimensions and acoustical parameters of the room bring to Niblock's music are vital for its appreciation, even more so than is usually the case.
In the live setting Phill Niblock's music does not call for interpreters in the traditional sense but instead for collaborators. Arne Deforce, on this phenomenon: 'From the first hearing it is clear that the musician is no longer at play/in play as a traditional interpreter of music. His task (is) reduced to picking up pitches of the recording and to interpenetrating the overall sonic texture with his instrument. It is never to imitate but to take part in the act of creating different layers of beats, different layers of colour and harmonic variations, making audible subtle variances of texture within the multidimensional space of the final composed drone'.
Niblock's music calls for individuals profoundly sensitive to the shape and flavour of the MIDI tracks that have been painstakingly edited by Niblock and which constitute the ground of his pieces. It is with these tracks that the performers interact in concert. The visual art or rhetorical metaphor of figure and ground is in fact an apposite way to understand the way that Niblock's music works in performance; the final Pro Tools edit of the MIDI tracks recorded according to the microtonal, sustained programme laid out by the composer, in many cases by the self-same musicians that will perform the piece live, constitutes a ground (albeit a topologically uncanny ground) upon which the performers add figure and filigree.
There are many ways a performer might do this, but as indicated by Susan Stenger the most fitting would seem to be to aim at a sort of replication and intensification of the original goals of the piece. With Stosspeng, the guitar duo would according to this measure maintain the stereo separation and strict separation of pitches (where the left channel has E veering to F, and the right F sharp to F) enshrined in the piece itself (though the language of 'works' and 'pieces' somewhat breaks down at this point), thus respecting its distinctive character, and allowing the performers to approach an intensification by the path of least resistance.
All of these factors - the contingency of the relationship between 'piece' and performance, the highly subjective (hyper-subjective or quasi-subjective might be better terms here) way that the music, that drone music in general, works its psychoacoustic, meditative magic, the further layer of contingency introduced by the juxtaposition of music and film here (a contingency that is only slightly leavened by Casas informing us that he used Stosspeng to 'drive' his mood and feelings towards the Pamir Mountains of Avalanche) - all of these factors mean that assessing this concert is something of a foolís errand. Beyond some factual details, all I can offer are impressions of the void.
The concert was split in two. The first hour was given to a playback of the hour-long 'Overture' section of Avalanche, with the accompaniment of the Nelly Boyd Ensemble guitars playing Stosspeng, playing, specifically, sustained e-bowed harmonics precisely shifted in volume and pitch according to the outlays of the MIDI playback.
In the second half the focus shifted to the sounds of the 60 minute 'Introduction' to Avalanche. Not for nothing was Casas featured recently in the Sound in Other Media section of The Wire magazine. Casas' film of tool-making, praying, flour-making, and eating in a remote village in the Pamir Mountains positively teemed with rich sound accidents and everyday sonic configurations, only profiled and made more apparent by their being framed this way. Casas bravely allowed the focus of the camera to rest on a mill, or a grinder, hypnotising the gaze and confusing the signal; were these sounds coming from the delicate improvised scrapings of cymbals or patterning of guitar of the Nelly Boyd Ensemble, or from the video screen?
The real magic of the first half of the concert, beyond the thuddering humility-machine that was Stosspeng, which arched from passages of pure intervals and calm to scraping high toned fever to enwombing sub-bass clouds to beatings of the most enchanting patterns, and back and through again, was the way that the 'Overture' and the music mirrored each other. They did this not in a direct, moment-by-moment way, but rather as a meeting of artistic sympathies. The 'Overture' played out like some sort of magic medley of all those sudden cleavages you get in the films of Tarkovsky and Tarr, where narrative charge moves under the jurisdiction of the visual, and misty and beautiful frames of colour and shape sit apparently still, slowly shifting description. We saw a deep reality beyond the human, bewildering mountain peaks and configurations of clouds, petrified landscapes on a sublime plane, all shot with one of the most sensitive eyes Iíve encountered. The shimmering of the images matched that of Stosspeng's beat, combination, difference, and binaural tones, just as the film's apparent stasis but actual constant change visually mapped the workings of the music. This was one of the most compelling concerts I think I've ever seen.
Photo: A still from Avalanche, with a small settlement just visible in the foreground