Microtonal minimalist maximalism in this reissue of The Young Person's Guide to Phill...
Peter Marsh 2002
Those who attended Philip Glass's all day rehearsals back in the early 1970s were both flattened and exhilarated by the volume his ensemble generated as they pumped out relentless ostinati from electric organs, synthesisers and winds. Though Philmoved on to concert hall respectability long ago, there's always been a strain of minimalist composer who likes it LOUD - think Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham with their guitar orchestras or Tony Conrad's wall of amped up violin scrape; maximalist minimalists perhaps.
Phill Niblock is one such composer, though the term seems at odds with the sculptural immensity of the sound he's been creating since the early 70s. His music is mostly created on tape - long tones made by acoustic instruments are spliced together to remove attack and decay, leaving only pure notes.Trombones, saxophones and the like are stripped of their characters almost, to become mere tone generators. His interest is in the kind of beat frequencies, harmonics and overtones made by combining tones that differ from each other by only a few hertz, sketching out his ideas using sine waves and oscilloscopes.
If this all sounds rather dry, then that's because it probably is. But from such prosaic beginnings emerges a music of bewildering intensity. This is ambient music in the truest sense; played loud through a decent set of speakers (don't use your kitchen CD player with all the knobs missing), Niblock's held tones are less music than a sonic environment. As you move around the room, different harmonics emerge, tiny clusters of melody appear and disappear. What you hear depends on so many variables that the same piece yields different results every time, making any detailed analysis superflous, not to say futile (don't listen under headphones; it'll drive you insane).
Niblock's influences are more from the world of visual art than music; the darkly sensuous tones of Mark Rothko or the clean lines of Donald Judd's sculpture. In his hands, music ceases to become time based; it just is. Whether you decide that this is just psychoacoustics masquerading as art or a listening experience that has few rivals in its power is up to you. If that sounds like a reviewer's cop out then that's because it probably is; Niblock's music defies description. Give it a go, and TURN IT UP.....
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