The Ever Present : Remembering Phill Niblock

The American film maker and composer, Phill Niblock has died aged 90. Here composer and artist Lawrence English pays tribute

Phill Niblock, NYC, 2022, by Lawrence English

Phill Niblock once wrote of his recordings, "You should play the music very loud. If the neighbours don’t complain, it’s probably not loud enough." It’s this statement of intent that has come to capture a great part of his way in sound, and music. It is offered, I am sure, with that gentle wry smile that would often occupy Phill’s face and is testament to the glorious possibility of his music. A music forged by his maverick desire to consume the body and the mind through sound, and celebrate the body as an ear.

For Phill, amplitude was not some callous show of force or blunt object used upon an audience, rather he used the physiological capacities of sound and the body to exemplify a music that was active, absolute, and wholly consuming. He knew the combination of microtonal variation, volume, the room and the audience present in it, opened a portal of possibility that was a vast, and likely limitless, plain of possibility. The music lived and breathed between the variability of these conditions and Phill lived there with it.

Listening to his music in a room full of people, there was always a collective sensation that held the space. It’s as if everyone took a breath at the start of the piece and then exhaled collectively at the end of the work. Phill Niblock’s music held time. It invited you inside and then gradually revealed a sensing of sound in time that was truly unique and categorically singular. It is never the same twice and no matter how many times you might encounter the work, how it existed within and around you was true to just that moment of encounter. The relationships he imagined, composed, and allowed us to dwell in are supreme in their individuality. I read a note today from David Watson who spoke of the sizzle in the air that haunts a space after Phill completed one of his performances, a comment I think says so much about the energy Phill output though his work.

As a filmmaker too, Phill Niblock maintained an utterly unique sense of patience and presence with his works. His studies, of bodies working, of perspective and of colour spoke to a methodology of time that aligned so very deeply with all facets of his practice. Revisiting his The Movement Of People Working series over the past couple of years, his willingness to allow the image to find and make its own temporality is striking and speaks to his unwavering commitment to the exploration of time, motion and in many respects sensory subjectivity of any given viewer/listener.

What I think I admired most about Phill though was the way he’d surprise you. Just when you thought you knew the totally of Phill Niblock, he’d disclose some thread of his life you’d not managed to connect to previously. His years as a photographer was one such aspect, and his collection of images from the high times of New York’s mid-20th century jazz scene is something that will become only more recognised in the decades that follow. Similarly on a musical front, I had the pleasure to listen to him, Rie Nakajima and Thurston Moore improvise together at Café Oto in 2023. Phill worked exclusively with field recordings, a performance that caught me entirely off guard. He had a knack for that.

This morning, it felt as though my entire social media feed was photos of Phill Niblock, and often photos of other dear friends with him. The thing about Phill was that he was a connector. He loved the idea of community, he loved people, and he loved conversation. The examples of this passion for connectivity are scattered across his lengthy time amongst us. The most prominent example is perhaps the NPO artist support group Experimental Intermedia which he directed from 1985. XI, his loft performance space and later label, has been an ongoing node on the network of experimental art and performances spaces for decades. Occasionally, historic posters and line ups of some of the events he produced will surface. These gatherings, the artists whose work has carried forward so many ideas and inspired so much, are all there. They were sharing that space and that time, in that place. It’s a marvellous thing to see and even more so to imagine.

From a personal perspective on Phill’s capacity to connect, my memory goes to a day in Berlin during 2004’s Transmediale, where Phill and I had met (I think in person for the first time). We spent the day wandering about, looking at work and stopping for drinks. At this point I was still coming to grips with how big the world of art and sound was, frankly I still am, but Phill generously offered all manner of connective tissue between works, between people and between places. What truly struck me that day, and on subsequent times together with him, was Phill’s incredible ability to make comfortable introductions between people. I feel like on that one day in Berlin I met a great many folks whom I would have the pleasure to know and work with over the coming decades. Phill just liked to see people making and growing and being filled up by the world.

Even through the challenge of pandemic and his reduced capacity to travel, his desire for interconnection maintained. Over the past decade I have had the pleasure to work with Phill on numerous projects and through each one I have taken note not just of his passion, but also his porousness. He welcomed people into his world with a way that speaks so deeply to his character.

The legacy Phill Niblock leaves behind is as epic and charged as the sounds with which he has worked throughout his life as a composer. There’s a wealth, and depth, to the work that speaks to his absolute dedication of practice over the decades. I’d like to think I speak for a great many of us when I say thank you to Phill for his generosity of spirit, his fearlessness, his work ethic and his special way of being in the world. You’re deeply missed, already.

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