Phill Niblock, a core member of New York’s experimental art and music scenes, has died at 90. His death was announced on Monday by Blank Forms, a curatorial platform focused on experimental performance and music.
Niblock made music from drones, microtones, and instruments such as cellos, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, and more. He remains best-known for the spare sounds he produced, but he also amassed a formidable oeuvre of photography, films, and videos.
Some attempts to classify his vast output have ranged widely, with some labeling him a structuralist, a Minimalist, or quite simply a musician. But Niblock, ever eager to defy categorization, preferred the terms “composer” and “intermedia artist,” and stated that he saw no conceptual through-lines across his work in various mediums.
Pressed to identify any possible overarching themes in his work, he once told Frieze, “The extension of time, and particularly with the films I’d much prefer to show two or three at a time, so you’re not looking at one film. It’s not a track of a film. It’s when you see three films and the different activity going on, it’s even more of a loss of a sense of time. The music is very much about that, about losing time, having no meter to it.”
Among his most well-known works is “The Movement of People Working,” a series of films shot between 1973 and 1992. In countries ranging from Lesotho to Brazil, Niblock filmed people laboring away, performing tasks such as fishing and repairing boats. Though the films are silent, Niblock and his collaborators often played music live at points during their exhibition. The work has been exhibited in art spaces such as the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan and silent green Kulturquartier in Berlin.
Born in 1933 in Anderson, Indiana, Niblock went on to study economics at Indiana University. Upon graduation, he spent two years in the US Army, then ended up in New York in 1958. He stated in interviews that he had no interest in becoming an artist at the time, but that because he went to so many concerts, he became absorbed in the city’s many art scenes. He became a photographer to the jazz musician Duke Ellington, and by the end of the ’60s, he had worked with dancers such as Lucinda Childs and Elaine Summers.
Summers founded Experimental Intermedia in SoHo in 1968, and Niblock would begin directing it in 1985. In a 2019 interview with Artforum, Niblock described Experimental Intermedia as being “fundamentally an emerging composers series.” The organization, which is housed in Niblock’s own Chinatown loft, has became a popular watering hole for avant-garde music; its events are still priced at $4.99.
Niblock regularly performed a winter solstice concert in the space until a dispute with his landlord forced him to stage it at Roulette in Brooklyn. The most recent one, staged this past December to mark Niblock’s 90th birthday in October, featured 24 hours’ worth of music and film staged across two separate days.
Though much of Niblock’s output could be firmly set within the world of music, it did also make appearances in art museums, featuring in an expansive 1979 Museum of Modern Art show of sound art, for example. In 2017, Niblock showed two of his environments—installation-style works that included dance, film, and live music—at Tate Modern in London.
Key to much of Niblock’s output was an interest in perception. He was fascinated by the length of takes in films, believing 10 seconds to be the point when one forgets that a shot will end, and in his music, he played with microtones, which sound almost the same as an original tone but, when played alongside the original, is heard entirely differently. He would go on to also use digital technologies, such as Pro Tools and Macintosh computers, in his musical performances.
“Sound can change your perception,” he once told the Wall Street Journal. “You start off hearing one thing, but when you begin to give up listening to one certain aspect of it or trying to intellectualize it, it opens up and you begin to float.”
The article “Phill Niblock, Artist and Composer Who Slowed Down Time, Dies at 90” by Alex Greenberger was published on 01/08/2024 by www.artnews.com