Phill Niblock is a very important contributor to the history of the Downtown New York music and art scene. After finishing college in the mid-west, and serving our country in the armed forces, he settled in New York City. His immediate goal was to find employment and enjoy the thriving jazz scene. He abandoned his desk job aspirations - with his Degree in Economics - and entered the creative world of Audio/Video. This led to him purchasing camera, and he began to explore the field of photography. Before long, he was photographing jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Paul Desmond, David Brubeck, as well as other subjects. In the mid 60's, Phill started producing films at the Judson Dance Theater with Elaine Summers. It was around this time that he started his first works in music. He recorded various instruments and experiment in micro-tones and tape loops, and the result was an exciting new music that has become his signature sound. He also continued with his photography as he traveled the world compiling hours of movie footage of humans doing various mundane jobs as well as specialized work. He would eventually merge his music with this video and perform sound installations, which stimulates the listener and viewers senses. Phill intermingled with many other musicians and artists in the downtown area and eventually started producing concerts in his loft. The concerts are still happening today, and he has produced nearly 1000 since starting them around 1973. He gives the performers freedom to be creative in many different aspects and he has showcased a wide variety of innovative artistic talent. Through trial and era, and advances in technology, Phill's music began to expand. With long tones of closely related pitches, Phill's style began to flourish with rich textures and wonderful overtones. Today Phill performs in many of the world's finest venues and maintains a rigorous touring schedule. He had also taught at The College of Staten Island, The City University of New York until retirement. I recently talked with Phill about his career.
R.V.B. - How are you today? How's everything today on the other side of the pond?
P.N. - It's ok. I'm on the usual side of the pond for me.
R.V.B. - Do you live over there now?
P.N. - No... I tour 8 months a year... regularly. I'm usually on the road. I'm in Ghent Belgium for a week. I've just been in Italy, France, and a few other places. I was in the southern part of Italy.
R,V,B, - What is involved in the production of this tour? How many people are involved?
P.N. - Just me. There are some concerts where there are live musicians playing, but it's usually a onetime thing where they play. I also travel part of the time with my partner Katherine Liberovskaya, who does video, and we sometimes perform together, with a set of her live video improvisation, and me playing sound collage pieces, then a set of my film and music.
R.V.B. - Where did you grow up?
P.N. - Indiana.
R.V.B. - What was it like in Indiana as a kid?
P.N. - Horrible... but I escaped. I played a lot of basketball and rode a bicycle, and read.
P.N. - No... I was horrible. I didn't have any association with art at the time. I went to Indiana University and I received a degree in Economics. I went in as a pre-med student but then I decided I couldn't stand being around sick people. I had taken a lot of business courses so I switched to Economics. Right after school, I went in the Army for 2 years - a voluntary draft - and then went immediately to New York.
R.V.B. - Why did you decide to go to New York?
P.N. - I'm a jazz fan.
R.V.B. - What was your plan? Did you start taking pictures with your camera right away?
P.N. - The camera came a couple of years later... in 1960. I went there in 58. I figured New York was a place where I could get a job. I had gone to Europe on leave in 58 and I was interested in what would become the European Union. I met some people at the UN and I was interested in getting a job somewhere in the area... or the Belgian airline. I didn't manage to do that. I goofed around and finally got into the audio/visual business.
R.V.B. - Did you stumble into that field?
P.N. - Yeah, I need enough money to pay the rent. I moved from one company to another... where I was actually employed as a salaried employee, and we decided we needed a camera to document stuff. I bought it from the company I was leaving. I took still photographs for around 5 years.
R.V.B. - Did you go to the famous jazz clubs like the Blue Note to take some of your pictures.
P.N. - Very early, I got connected to the Duke Ellington Orchestra and I went to a lot of recording sessions. So I was taking more pictures at the sessions than I was in clubs. I shot some stuff in clubs in Harlem. I was usually the only white guy in a 10 block area. I was an amateur photographer.
R.V.B. - How did you get into the recording studio to take pictures?
P.H. - I met a guy at a meeting of the Duke Ellington Jazz Society and he invited me to come to Long Island... where he lived... to a Duke Ellington concert - in a theater. That was the first shooting/outing. The following week it was Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. Then I began to go to sessions. I went to a lot of Ellington sessions. Ellington did not go to a rehearsal hall... they very rarely rehearsed, as such. They went directly to a recording studio, where everything was recorded. They recorded a lot of material. All of the material that was recorded from the early 60's until Ellington died, went into a file, and that material wasn't issued until 1992... 30 years later.
R.V.B. - Wow! That's something that it took that long. He was definitely an American treasure for sure. Do you remember what town on Long Island it was on your first session?
P.N. - Plainview. I traveled a lot around Long Island when I had a car in the early 60's. The audio/video job that I had was trying to have a sales route on Long Island and in Westchester.
R.V.B. - I see that you taught on Staten Island for quite a while. Did you live there or commute there?
P.N. - I never lived there. The ferry was 11 minutes from my loft on Center St. and Grand St. and it was 3 minutes to my office on the other side, on a bicycle. It was a 25 minute boat ride.
R.V.B. - Tell me about your loft. A lot of things went on in that loft. It had a lot of historic moments.
P.N. - It's still happening. I've been in the same loft for 47 years.
R.V.B. - How did you come across this loft?
P.N. - I walked down the street... looked up... and there was a sign on the fire escape.
R.V.B. - Were you aware of all the arts and things going on in other lofts in the area?
P.N. - Of course. I had an apartment on 33rd St. and 2nd Avenue. In 1959 it was costing $43.33 a month, but after I moved to the loft. I had a lot of visitors come by. I felt that artists should produce other artists. I started to do a series of concerts of other artists in 1973... about 5 years after I moved into the loft. I had a sound system which was very unusual. For years I was very interested in jazz and also hi-fi systems. The series of concerts that started in 73 are still continuing today. I've done about 1,000 concerts in my loft.
R.V.B. - Besides Ellington, were there any other jazz guys that you enjoyed listening to?
P.N. - Yeah sure. In particular I liked Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and that crowd. A lot of people where already dead at the time... including Lester Young who died in 59.
R.V.B. - The 60's was a very experimental time period. There were a lot of things going on. You had the folk revival in full swing... you had The Beatles... you had avant garde music thriving. When you got involved with music, why did your chose the avant garde side?
P.N. - I think the term avant garde doesn't have much meaning. I choose the "Downtown New York experimental music scene". I started doing films with Elaine Summers. She was a choreographer and film maker... in 1965. She was very involved with the Judson Dance Theater - with the Judson Memorial Church. I began to be very associated with those people. I primarily shot a lot of scenes with dancers. I hung around that scene for a while. That scene also included a lot of experimental music. I was seeing and hearing a lot of experimental music. I also didn't really like the idea of collaborating, so in 68, I was making my own inter-media piece at the Judson Church. That's when I started doing music.
R.V.B. - That went hand in hand with your stereo equipment and Hi-fidelity equipment?
P.N. - I'm still dealing with the same thing. I'm dealing with sound reproduction. My pieces are basically made to be played back through a sound system.
(a loud noise happened and I asked him if he was next to an airport)
P.N. - My door is open and my house in Ghent is on the harbor of a canal - which goes to the Atlantic ocean and the North Sea in 40 kilometers. It's a fairly big shipping canal. There are factories, and Toyota and Honda import lots nearby. It feeds into a lock which goes into the city canals of Ghent. There is a street with a fair amount of traffic over a bridge. It's a turn bridge... so it turns to let boats go through. There is also a tram stop directly in front of the house. So that sound you hear is a tram stopping. It's on a curved street and our house is actually curved.
R.V.B. - You have easy access to mass transit?
P.N. - I can be in London in about 3 hours by walking out of my front door to the tram.
R.V.B. - When you started your first compositions, I noticed the style of your music has a layering of tones... did you use acoustic instruments at first to create these works?
P.N. - I'm totally not a musician but the first composition was me playing the organ at Judson Memorial Church. That was the first piece that occurred. I was getting the microtones that I was interested in because the stops of the organ are not in tune to each other. If I pulled out some stops, those notes would compete against each other... by being simply out of tune. That was my micro-tonality at the time.
R.V.B. - You do use a lot of layers that produce overtones. Throughout your career of creating this music, was there a natural progression of the instruments that you added to your compositions.
P.N. - It wasn't the idea of the instruments being a natural progression - it was the technology. I began to work with audio tape recorders by dubbing things back and forth. Then I moved to multi-track recorders. The pieces were very analog in the first years. By about 1985, I was starting to do things with computers. By 98, I was doing stuff myself with Pro Tools. I began using a larger number of tracks. The very early 2000's had 24 tacks and by 2010 there were 32 tracks. There was certainly a learning experience but in the analog era, I made complete scores for the piece that I was going to make. I went to a studio and recorded material with artists... the instrumentalists... using pieces for a single instrument. We would record maybe 20 different tones and most of those were microtonally tuned. In the beginning, I would give the musicians a tuning note by headphones. In those days the tone was produced by a sine wave generator and tuned by a frequency counter, then I began to feed the calibrated sine tone into an oscilloscope. There are microphones in the oscilloscope, and the microphone from musicians. If the notes are in tune, the pattern would be stable. If they are flat it will rotate in one direction and if they are sharp it will rotate in the other direction. The musicians are constantly aware whether they are in tune by looking at the oscilloscope but they don't hear anything. It's also possible to be in tune and an octave off. This happened once with Peter Kotic... who was playing a note which was one octave higher than the note that he should have been playing. Nobody heard it because it was totally in tune. It wasn't until I started making the piece that I discovered one tone was an octave up.
R.V.B. - So you used a visual aspect of composing an audible sound?
P.N. - I just used it as a way of tuning. especially if they are playing microtones. 220 is a typical A. So I might want to record 224HZ. I can simply tune that tone into the calibrated sine wave going to the oscilloscope. Then he/she can see what they're playing. Instead of playing 220, he's playing 224. So I recorded all of this material and I listened to it... and because it's on analog tape... I'm editing tape with a razor blade. I take out the pause between one playing of the note and the next playing of the note. I may leave the trail offs and a 1/4 second of silence. just before you hear the breath... then coming back in just before the note starts again. Then, I have these series of notes that are maybe 2 minutes in length. let's say I have 220 HZ. That becomes a module of sound that I am going to use in the piece. After I edit it, I listen to all of that stuff. Then I go back and make a score on a piece of paper, with lines, and I write down the note that I want to use in track 1. I write down the time of that note on the line above and then I write another note at the end of the note which is the cumulative times. So there's 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the first note... the 2nd note might be 2 minutes and 36 seconds. I'll have an 8 channel completed score, I dub the analog, mono tape tracks to the multi-track 8 channel recorder l and that's the process of making the piece. I don't hear any of the material that I've recorded until the piece is actually completed on the 8 channel tape. I play back the piece... completely done... without having heard anything. I did make many, many pieces that way... maybe 25.
R.V.B. - When you create music today, do you still use the same basic approach? Where you may not know what it sounds like until the end?
P.N. - It's a little different because I can listen to virtual tracks. It's essentially the same thing because I'm simply drawing the clip or the region that's in the file into the track. Similar to writing it down in the analog score. Then I can do 24 tracks. I can do the first 3 minutes of sound on 24 tracks and it's very easy to listen to. I know what's happening all of the time. On the original analog pieces, it was very seldom that I went back and revised a piece. It did happen a few times, if I thought I could make a better ending or it could be longer.
R.V.B. - I'm sure Pro Tools was a welcome editing tool for you. It made things a lot easier.
P.N. - It also sounded very good. It's better than analog tape of course. There was less noise. I could do many, many, more tracks. Most of my recent pieces are 32 tracks, in the last 10 years. So they are very, very thick, in comparison to the 8 track analog pieces.
R.V.B. - You use your films in your performances simultaneously with the music. When you made the films of people doing mundane tasks, you did a lot of traveling. How did you go about asking these people to film them working? Were the people comfortable with that?
P.N. - I traveled with a person who theoretically spoke the language. If I were in China, I would be traveling with someone who spoke central Chinese - who might speak one dialect. There are something like 400 different dialects in China. If the people understood central Chinese that was great. If they didn't, it was still a foreign language to them. When I walked up and saw something happening, I simply took my camera out and set it up... which took a few minutes... and started to shoot. During that time, they saw me working. Sometimes there were many people and sometimes only a few people. Very seldom was there just one person. It was really not possible to ask these people if I could film them. It looked like I was working, and it somehow disarmed them enough that they seldom looked at me inquiringly. Everything went well... I did it for 20 years. I was just reading the International New York Times... which I haven't seen for a month and a half. The only access that I have to news is reading the International New York Times when I'm going through an airport. I don't watch anything on TV or any English newscast on the computer... I don't know what's happening. I was reading this article about a man whose wife had drowned in the tsunami of 2011. It was in the area where I had filmed in Japan in 1989. The whole area had been wiped out by the tsunami and the people that I had filmed are now probably gone.
R.V.B. - Do you still shoot films?
P.N. - In the last three years I have been shooting a lot of new, rather short video pieces which don't have any particular subject matter. Before the people working, I was shooting stuff that was in these inter-media pieces - that I was doing in New York. There was 4 separate pieces from 1968 to 73. In those were the first music pieces. I think my music really began to be interesting in 1974. These intermedia pieces used three 16mm films. Each screen is 12' wide, so there is 36 feet of image area. I had done these pieces many times at different installations. I'm probably going to do most of these pieces at The Tate Modern in March of 2017. But the music will be very recent pieces, not the ones during that period (1868 - 73). I've got a lot of the material together and I am going to meet with the curator in a couple of weeks in London.
R.V.B. -When you complete a composition... how do you go about naming it?
P.N. - Sometimes it's difficult. Usually it has to do with some sort of a pun. Sometimes I use anagrams. There was a piece from a few years ago called "FeedCorn Ear". It was a piece for the cellist Arne Deforce. "FeedCorn Ear" is an anagram of Arne Deforce. On another piece for Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim... the anagram is "Unipolar Dance". A recent piece I did for a bassoon player (Dafne Vicent-Sandoval), the best anagram I could find was "Praised Fan".
P.N. - If you go to the website Experimentalintermedia.org, there's one file that shows the people who performed from 1973 through 2007 - and then all of the years since then there are separate files. These are complete files with the description of the pieces. That series is also called "Concerts by Composers". It's never a concert by an ensemble playing a number of different composers, it's always one composer or sometimes a collaboration of two. I produced something like 1,000 concerts since 1973 in my loft.
R.V.B. - John Cage visited your loft a few times?
P.N. - Sure... he was a great mentor for me, so that was fantastic.
R.V.B. - Did he give you any advice on any of your pieces?
P.N. - No... not at all. If I called John and asked him to write a letter to a venue or grantor that I was applying to, he would do it. I never saw any of those letters so I don't know what he said. I had a Guggenheim in 1978, which I'm almost sure was directly from his letter.
R.V.B. - Of the downtown composers, were there any of them that particularly sparked your interest. Did you enjoy any of their compositions?
P.N. - I don't really like to answer that kind of question. I'm too much of a socialist. It means choosing people to be greater than others. There's so many different composers, and some of the music I simply didn't like - or I found great value in. The principle thing was that it was great to give people an opportunity to play what they wanted to play. Once I've chosen a person, there was no restriction on what they had chose to play. I try to make it so that it's as most free as can be. If they propose a program to me, and then wanted to do another program as the date approached, it was generally ok. A lot of different institutions won't let you do that. You have to do exactly what you say you're going to do.
R.V.B. - When you did put on an event like this, did you advertise it? Approximately how many people would come to these events?
P.N. - It varied incredibly by who the artist was. I did advertise initially with a postcard and a mailing list that was a few hundred people. It eventually became between 1 and 2 thousand people. This was of course long before the internet. In those early days, if somehow we used all of the cards... they disappeared and they weren't in a stack in my loft... we didn't know who had played. We had lapses in our list of composers because we had simply lost our cards. Then by the end of the 70's, that was not certainly true. The 1st computer that I used was an Apple II in 1983. So I had a pretty clear record of who played.
R.V.B. - I gather there was no code violations to worry about, like they would have today with everyone getting their cut... with cabaret licenses and such?
P.N. - We didn't have a license but the fire department... in a space like mine which is not codified in any way and probably doesn't have all the proper exits and things like that... they usually limit to 75 people in the audience. A few years ago my landlord... who would like to get me out because I'm paying an unusually low rent to him... sued me. One of the things he brought up was this law from the fire department that I can't have more than 75 people at a time in the space. Now we're actually limited to 75 people in the loft, including the performers. We would normally get anywhere from one person per concert to 50-75-100. There was a series of times where I produced a concert of my own work from 1976 until now, which occurred on December 21st every year for the winter solstice... the shortest day - the longest night... and originally it was 8 hours long. It became 6 hours about 20 years ago. That concert would get somewhere between 2 to 300 people wondering in. There were never that many in the loft at one time, but in the course of the evening, the place would be really packed. That was actually the concert that the landlord chose to sue me on... because it was much too many people. Now we have to do that concert at Roulette (Another producing space in New York). So for the last 4 years, we've had it there. Jim Staley, who started to do concerts in 78 in his loft... I started in 73... was he was the young man on the block. Now he has this big space in Brooklyn which is really great. It's a very fine space with a fine sound system.
R.V.B. - You'll be doing the solstice concert again this year?
P.N. - Yes.
P.N. - Experimental Intermedia was started by Elaine Summers, whom I began to film with in 1965. In 1968, she was aware that this government funding was coming... where one needed a non-profit organization to apply for the funds. So she made the foundation. It was originally called "Elaine Summers Experimental Intermedia Foundation". She chose a number of artists to be members and they could apply for funding through the foundation. Phil Corner was one of those... Tricia Brown, Marilyn Woods, Carman Moore, and I. When I began to produce the concerts in 73, I wanted to get some funding so I could pay people for the concerts... if possible. We began to apply to the New York State Council on the Arts or the NEA, for funding for that, through the foundation. I became the second member that was using the foundation for funding. Elaine Summers was great. She decided to leave New York in 85/86 and move to Florida. She sold her loft at 537 Broadway. Then by the late 1990's she decided to move back to New York. She actually stayed in my loft at the time when I was beginning to tour 8 months a year. So she was actually living in my loft at 24 Center St. for a number of years. Then she bought a place on 28th St. Eventually she moved to the Emily Harvey Foundation loft - when Emily Harvey died. She died a year or so ago.
R.V.B. - How do you find people for your concerts?
P.N. - I showcase people who I meet in the course of life. I'm doing typically 50 events a year in the world somewhere. Most of them are in Europe but some of them are in the States. I meet a lot of people in these productions. If a person is interested to come to New York to do a concert, they come to me, and I say ok. Other people I choose very directly. In the upcoming concert, there's a composer who was teaching in Brooklyn but he had to move back to Israel. So he's coming from Tel Aviv, and he's performing in relation to another composer who is coming from Boston, that I perform with a lot myself. It's Amnon Wolman and Neil Leonard.
R.V.B. - Is there any particular venue that you look for that helps in the production of your concerts? What is the best environment for your concert?
P.N. - For me, it's churches. I just did a concert in a cathedral in Sarlat, in the Dordogne - in France. It was supposed to be shared with Charlemagne Palestine... who I think is coming to a party here in Gent Belgium. He lives in Brussels. He got sick with an arthritic problem so he couldn't play. He had an operation and couldn't come and someone that I know in Vienna came to play his section of the concert... in the cathedral, on organ. (Thomas Lehn) I have a piece for organ which he played live along with the recording. It was produced by Thomas Maury, who is making a documentary on me, and it is his home town. We had a really great sound system and it was a very nice concert. I do things in fairly large churches once or twice a year. Otherwise big black box spaces are very good. It depends a great deal on the sound system because the work is extremely sound orientated. In New York, I have a sound system that has 8 large speaker systems with 15" woofers with horn tweeters, and mid-range... and 2 - 18" sub woofers in the space. The space is surrounded by these big speakers. My music has to be played quite loud to make a really great sound. It's very much a surround sound. I think the system in my loft still one of the best sounding systems I've ever used. Things haven't changed that much over the years, in terms of speakers. One of the speaker systems that I have in the space, I made in 1953. This sound tech guy that I have for 15 years said that it still sounds the best!
R.V.B. - What are you proud of about your accomplishments in your career?
P.N. - It's impossible to answer that question. I've made a lot of music... I've made a lot of film. The last three years have been a high point of my career. I've made more pieces in the last 3 years than I've ever made in my life in a similar period. In one year I made 14 new pieces... from my birthdays - October 2nd 2013 to October 2nd 2014. I was also making new video pieces. So there is 100 minutes of new video from 2013.
P.N. - Normally I make pieces with musicians who are interested in playing my music. There are 2 kinds of pieces, the pieces with single instruments - where I record someone and use that material to complete the piece - and there are pieces for orchestra and ensembles which are fully scored. The orchestra - or the ensemble - gets the score and they simply play to the score. Those pieces are normally about 30 parts, for instance. The parts are not for particular instruments, but are about the tuning differences of the piece. Normally, it's an acoustic orchestra. One piece was played in Ostrava in the Czech Republic with 110 musicians playing at the same time. They play acoustically live. If it's a smaller group of people, there would have to be pre-recorded parts so that it could be built up to 30 parts. Then they would play live in the space with those pre-recorded parts.
R.V.B. - Your current plans are to continue touring approximately 8 months per year and create more pieces in between?
P.N. - Yes. I'm in Ghent right now. I'll do my tour in Italy, and then I come back alone... so I'm here for 2 weeks. I have at least 3 pieces of music to try to complete. I also have a lot of video to edit so I'll be here working for a while. Then I go back to New York for 2 weeks.
R.V.B. - I thank you very much for taking this time with me.
P.N. - No problem, thanks for calling.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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