Arie Altena

Microtonal Intervals, Played for a Very Long Time

Interview with Phill Niblock

Arie Altena

Kontraste festival, Krems, 12 October 2013

In 2013 I interviewed composer Phill Niblock at the Kontraste festival in Krems (Austria). The intention was to publish the interview as part of the online Sonic Acts Research Series. It was never published. I sent the interview to Phill Niblock for comment, he replied that he was busy but would look at it. He never did, also not after gentle reminders. Maybe he did not like the interview, which is entirely possible and I can understand. Or maybe it slipped his mind. I decided to include it here with the provision that the text is unfinished, there’s been no proper final editing, and, most importantly, that it’s not been accorded by Phill Niblock.

Arie Altena: Much of your music sounds electronic, but actually uses sounds from acoustic instruments. How does that work?

Phill Niblock: I now make pieces that consist almost completely of the sounds of real instruments. On my recent double CD Touch Five (Touch, 2013) there is a piece for cello (performed by Arne Deforce) and a piece for electric harp (performed by Rhodri Davies). The electric harp piece sounds like electronic music, because the tones we used were made by bowing with an e-bow. There is also a scored piece for guitar quartet, Two Lips, played by three different quartets. They actually sound quite a bit differently, though they are playing from the same score. They are all playing with e-bows, so it sounds rather electronic. One quartet is Zwerm from Belgium and the Netherlands, the other one is Dither from New York, and there’s an ad hoc quartet, called Coh Da, which is Robert Poss of the Band of Susans, David First, Susan Stenger, and Seth Josel. The score for Two Lips was a commission from Champ d’Action in Antwerp. I proposed to do it again to Zwerm, and we recorded it in my favorite European engineers house, in Aaigem. It is located midway between Ghent and Brussels, in the Belgian countryside, where sound engineer Johan Vandermaelen has to go out and feed the chickens before we could start. Then we recorded it in New York in Robert Poss’s studio, which is another favorite place to record. Right after that I recorded material for a piece for two violins and two viola’s in stereo. Part of the time the four string instruments are just doing different glissandi up or down from the original tones. I finished that recording on October first, and they played it five days later in New York. The compositions are all based on microtones. When I started making pieces in 1968, the idea was to have microtonal intervals played for a long time…

AA: So you hear the beating of two or three notes against each other?

PN: Yes, and also the high harmonics really change. It is always interesting to hear what happens. I never know exactly what is going to happen, so every piece is a little bit of a surprise. But it is not much of a surprise at the same time, as my pieces are all the same in a way. In the early days when I was using tape I would tune the musicians to very precise pitches and record those, and then I did not do anything. The tape with the recorded sound would just run on. Now I use Protools, and I am more apt to record a tone, and then I make different ratios of microtones, with very small differences. I add those to the original tones. I started making music because I was interested in microtonal intervals.

AA: I can imagine that at the time there was only a handful of people that was interested in the extreme form of minimalism that you pursued…

PN: Other people were working with microtones too, but they were mostly working with a specific tuning system, like just intonation. Actually I found that a little too sweet. I decided deliberately not to use any tuning system, but to make random choices. In some pieces the intervals are wider, in some much narrower.

AA: Have the intervals you use become narrower over the years?

PN: It has varied, I made four channel pieces in the 1970s where there was one instrument and four speakers in the space, and some of the intervals in those pieces were were very very tight, just 1 Hz. Other pieces from the same period were much looser. When I make microtones from a standard pitch, I sometimes make very narrow intervals, and sometimes I use regular intervals. Sometimes I just use one interval of the same note for a whole piece, and sometimes I use several.

AA: How do you decide which notes to use? Does that come from practice, from playing, testing, or are they methodical choices, based on theory?

PN: It’s relatively complex. I frequently decide things before I record, but then at other times, I will record material using standard pitches, and sometimes I have recorded with people where we did not use a tuner – and they were off. When I have a set of materials, I create the piece in multitrack. That is another operation. The form of the piece comes more for the second part, where I am working with the material in 32 tracks. My recent piece for two violins and two violas is harmonically very varied. We recorded tones of the four unfretted instruments, and then we ‘fretted’ them to one or two octaves above, and that became the basis for the composition. I have a number of tones and I tend to go from one tone to two tones together, to adding a third one, then mixing them and so on. But for the most part you do not really hear that. You hear a sort of drone and all the little variations that are happening inside it. Sometimes tones really stand out, and sometimes they don’t. In the violin piece some of the higher octaves really stand out. One problem is that my hearing is so bad that by now I cannot hear the microtonal stuff myself. What also changes is the acoustics of the space. Every space and every sound system is different, even every playback is different. The beginning of the playback has an effect on what is happening with the sound. You can have a mixer that is just a little bit off, so it does not give you as much high, and that has an effect on what is happening in the space. Speaker systems have really amazing differences.

AA: Is that something you play with when you perform a piece?

PN: Yes. I have to play with it. I made a piece for piano played with a nylon string (tied to the strings, and then pulled, not bowed). It is one of several pieces I have written for a piano played in that way. I did it with the pianist Magda Mayas in Berlin, and we also made a video. The video is captured with cameras on her hand. We superimposed two camera images, so you see all these swooping hands in the video. There are six videos, and six stereo soundtracks are combined in a mix. Each of the takes is of different lengths, so during the playing of the piece as an installation the mix is constantly changing. We did it first at MaerzMusic a few years ago, and there were six Meyer speakers, the biggest Meyer speakers, on the ceiling, plus six subwoofers. The piece has an incredible amount of bass, so it is rumbling bass and then there is the high stuff happening in the space. That was really good. But it worked in other spaces and settings, with other speakers too.

AA: You started as a visual artist…

PN: I started doing photography in 1960, purely because I got a camera. In 1965 I started to shoot video. I was some sort of an intern with the choreographer and filmmaker Elaine Summers. For years I was working around the Judson Dance theater. In 1973 I started doing a series of images of people working. That was partly because I was doing multiple image projections with live dancers. But I couldn’t get gigs with all the dancers. I needed music to go with the visual work I was making. I had done some collaborations with musicians and I did not like the collaboration, because I knew pretty precise in what area I wanted to work in. By 1973 I was pretty much doing what I am doing now, except that in those days I was carrying around 16mm film, which was dead-heavy. 

AA: In contrast to what some might expect, the images you show are rather documentary, and not abstract at all.

PN: I am interested in extremely real images. I show documentary images of people working, of people doing very ordinary prosaic work. I show for instance film I shot from 1973 to 1991 in Portugal, especially in a town called Peniche, close to Lisbon. The fishing industry there is totally gone. There is no fish left, so there is no economy any more. I did not set out to document that transformation. I was not interested in that idea. It’s just what you see now. When you look at stuff from 1973 or 1975 you think, wow, a lot has changed. Recently I went back to Hungary to the village where I shot film in 1985. It was weird because the area there is economically devastated. There used to be collective farms, and after the Berlin Wall fell, these large industrial farms were turned into small farms. There was not enough land for each farm, and the economy collapsed.

AA: Though you do a lot of film, you are mainly known as a musician and composer…

PN: One reason why I was never known as a filmmaker is that my stuff was very different from most independent film and experimental film. Besides, in the 1970s I began to work much more in the music area, and started to move away from film. I did not even try to show my videos in film places. The film people never payed any attention to what I was doing, at the same time I was getting reviews from music people. Yet I was showing the films at the same time. I prefer to have two or three images going at the same time, and that’s it. I stretch that out. Many times in concert you see people watching the images and not paying attention to the music, then the music becomes a drone in the background. Other people close their eyes and listen to the music.

AA: Are both okay for you?

PN: Sure, it’s the individual perception of what is happening that counts. 

Phill Niblock: Homepage


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