Gespräch mit Phill Niblock

Das Gespräch fand am 20. November 2005 im RWE Pavillion der Essener Philharmonie statt

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

I heard you were a passionate car driver. Is that true?

Oh. Yeah. I really like to drive. Especially in Europe. It is more boring in the States.

Why is that?

The interstates are really too slow and too straight. Not so interesting. And you have to go a long way to get to a mountain road. A long way. Out of New York anyway.

Is driving a car an aesthetic experience? Similar to listening to music even maybe?

Sure. I used to ride a motorcycle for about ten years. And there was one experience where I was riding up a long hill behind a truck with a two-stroke bike, so that the exhaust was fairly loud and the two got in a harmonic relationship and it was really far out.

Besides the listening, the idea of a landscape slowly evolving and going by seems something that I can experience in your pieces. Is that a very wrong observation?

Especially if it is a mountain landscape. It is very nice to drive in the Czech or the Slovakian Republics, because it is winding roads. Up and downhill, but not huge mountains. Very nice.

But your pieces are not shaped after the Czech landscape.

No, I really never thought about that at all. I like machinery. Maybe there is some relationship there. I work basically with machines in music. Now with the computer which is less machine-like than tape recorders were, for instance. But there is that sense of dealing with a machine interface, which is interesting between cars and the way I make music.

Henri Pousseur once told me, he wanted the studio to be like a car where he can take a seat and then start driving, with many things having been internalized as he goes along.

Very nice. Especially in those days. When studios were very much like that. And what is a little bit interesting is that people had to go to a studio to make that kind of music, because they couldn't have that kind of music. But now anybody can have a PowerBook, a Macintosh and ProTools or Max/MSP or something like that.

But you started on your own and didn't go to the big studios.

I didn't go to the big studios. I had a very interesting however not long after I started working. I had my first tape recorder in 1953. Which was the first consumer tape recorder. Again, you didn't have to go to a big studio to have a tape recorder. So I wasn't making music then but I was really getting the experience of that equipment so that that was the medium of choice in a way, and something I got used to in a very early time. And I was a hi-fi fan, so that was part of it, too. I listened to a lot of music. Sometimes loud.

Did you learn an instrument?

I didn't. I played piano for like six weeks when I was a kid. My father fired the piano teacher because I didn't practise enough. He was quite hard-headed.

So maybe the machines are your key to the music? That you maybe hadn't become a composer if these machines hadn't been around?

I think it is very likely that that is true. I would not have made traditional music by playing an instrument.

And when you started making the first tape pieces, the architecture of the pieces, the harmonic structure, was that something conceptual? Where did you come up with the idea?

I don't exactly know. I mean there were people working with tuning systems. Which was an idea. But mine was rather more basically producing harmonics through the use of microtones. And I don't know exactly where that came from. But that is very much the only thing I have ever done or really wanted to do. So I set out with that idea and simply expanded it until it's more complex than it was originally. But that's it.

And what is so fascinating about it?

I'm interested in bodies of sound and texture. And so this was a way to produce more ornate textures in sound. And I wasn't interested in the intellectual idea of harmonic changes or melody or rhythm. So I was interested in sound and a mass of sound. And that was simply a way of getting to it.

And this lack of interest for other parameters, such as rhythm or working in an evolutionary way with motives as for example Beethoven did, that has staid with you up until today.

Yup. Basically I am making the same music that I made in 1968 when I started.

But it sounds different.

It sounds different. I mean I have learned something. And I do change the structures so the things do change. And this is a particularly prolific period. I have never had a period when I made so many pieces as in the last three years. I have made thirteen new pieces since the beginning of 2003. So it is four and a half hours of music. So it is a big batch. And they worry a lot. There is pieces for three orchestras, for two orchestras with rather more elaborate harmonic changes happening. And most of the rest are solo instrument pieces, but quite thick textured. I am working basically with 32 tracks now in ProTools. So they can be really fat. And it is very clean. It is great to work in ProTools because it is a clean medium. And I am recording directly into the computer. So I am using the interface device for ProTools on the computer and recording directly on a hard drive. And then I build a piece from that material. So I recording generally a single instrument, one note at a time. And then taking that material, which become building blocks for the piece.

I wouldn't have thought of the term "clean", but I guess it makes sense.

It doesn't come on well if it is not a really crisp recording and digital recording is quite good. I mean there is a lot of analog recording that is supergood. But this is quite good. And it stays clean even through several generations, which is nice. Because frequently I record and then I edit those tones and if I make changes in volume to make them a little more equal, and I take out the breathing spaces and so I rerecord those tones digitally, and then I have another set of source material that I actually work with in building the piece.

When you write for orchestra, is that like making a tape piece with instruments instead of tracks?

Pretty much. Yeah.

So there is the same idea behind an orchestra piece and a 32-track solo?

They are written so the microtones are spelled out in the score. So there might be a tone A but there will be some arrows that shows how far it should be away from the original A, either sharp or flat. And then a description of how many cents sharp or flat they should play. And some musicians don't do it very well, symphonic musicians, but on the other hand it has worked out well.

There is a difference between symphony orchestras and contemporary music ensembles.

Some of the pieces were written for the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in Ostrava, in the Czech republic. Because there is a festival that is run by Petr Kotik who is a New York composer, but who is Czech and left the country in '68. He moved to the US and continued his career. And it has been a great opportunity because there were students who would come for the seminar parts and then you get pieces played, and it is a good exchange. It is a ten day exchange of people being together intensively. And so I have made pieces for that orchestra, but that is a very conservative orchestra and it is always a struggle doing something that isn't just playing standard notes.

This was also done at MaerzMusik.

Yes. There was a lot of trouble, because my pieces should be relatively flat in dynamics. It is very hard to get an orchestra like that to play flat. So instead of having a little swirl every so often it goes huuii (singt), like that.

When I try to imagine the score for a piece like Disseminate I would think that there is no need for a score because one could just write down the concept of the piece for each musician ...

... nobody has accepted this as a possibility, especially dealing with this kind of musicians. And the score has been sort of interesting. By itself it has a sense of what is happening. It is quite simple but still, you see what these arrows are.

So is it important which instrument is doing the glissando a bit faster or slower?

They shouldn't be doing a glissando anyway. That is the whole thing. Every minute they change pitch. But they should play the same pitch for the whole minute.

They are playing in unison?


So deviation in pitch are accidents?

No there is usually 15 or 16 parts. And sometimes they play different notes, but they pretty much always play an interval either on or away from the pitch which is written. So there are many different pitches being played but they are all microtones, theoretically.

When you start working on a piece like this do you have a strong aural image in your head? Or is it more about the mathematical proportions you are interested in?

More the latter.

So it is more of a mathematical concept that you write out. Do you change your concept, if it proves not to work out?

Generally not. It always works out. There are a few pieces which I made differnt versions of for one reason or another. Sometimes because there was a demand for a shorter piece or I made it longer. There was a piece for piano for Reinhold Friedl, and there are actually four versions. One, which was a test I made, which lasts eleven minutes, another version which was the more or less finished version which I expected to use for the recording for a CD which is 25 minutes. I made another version for that which was 27 minutes. But the piece which got on the CD was 70 minutes. So there are different versions using the same material but each with a quite different structure.

Does the musician influence the outcome of a piece? Somebody like Reinhold Friedl or Jim O'Rourke?

They produce a different sound. But because the material I work with is so elemental, recording one note at a time, sometimes an instrumentalist will produce a particular timbre on the instrument, but for the most part, no, not so much. I haven't thought about that question. For instance, there is a piece for guitar, there are two pieces for guitar, one is for Seth Josel, and we recorded two different guitars but playing them acoustically with an ebow, so the ebow makes the string vibrate, but usually you use the ebow with am amplified guitar, an electric guitar, and we recorded just acoustically and it produces an entirely different sound. So one would have to say that that, and that was Seth's idea, and that definitely influenced that piece. It sounds totally different from the other electric guitar piece.

I haven't heard it.

Soon coming on CD. There are three CDs coming on Touch. With nine of the thirteen pieces I have written since 2003.

Your background is in photography. Would you say that your thinking is more spacial that it is time oriented?

Well, one could make an argument for that, saying that it doesn't use meter, so that there is ... What I am actually interested in is getting rid of the concept of time. So if everything were ideal the typical audience wouldn't know if they had been listening to a 15 minute piece or a 30 minute piece. But I think the duration of the piece has a lot to do with what happens, even though there is no development and there is no meter present, which leads you to think you are half way through.

There is a process, often with a beginning or and end. It not standing still but there is something dramatic even.

Probably I would say more structural time than dramatic time. Yes, the idea is to make not every piece sound the same. So there is always a structure, an internal structure, which develop so much in the sense of typical classical music development. But does change subtely and internally.

Would you say that there is a tradition that you belong to?

Well you can say on the one hand that all of the music, which is basically drone music, both the same new music that was around when I started making music, but also all of the Indian music and stuff, was there. It's part of a tradition. It is not a tradition which I actually studied or tried to imitate or come from or to look at structurally and to come from. I think I was very influenced by the minimal visual art scene in the sixties. When I began to really look at art. And I had begun to make photographs in 1960, and soon began to realize that what I was doing was being an artist. And began to look much more at what was happening at the art scene. So I went to a lot of galleries in the sixties, at the time when a lot of those people were working like LeWitt and of course there was a work already around like Barnett Newman or Rothko obviously. I mean if had been more aware of Rothko he would have been a really major influence. But I don't think that I was that aware of Rothko apart of his being part of that scene at the time. Maybe I was more aware than I thought. Because there was something about the dark quality, the denseness of Rothko which is quite different from the spareness of Newman.

Do you consider your music to be dark?

Generally it is fairly dark. Sometimes not. I mean that is also part of making it different so that the pieces actually do have some differences in sound. I don't think the piece for Seth Josel is particularly dark, and then there is the piece for Jim O'Rourke and the hurdy-gurdy has a rich flavour to it.

You mentioned earlier that the concept is quite important. What do these concepts look like? Are they just math? What do you put down on paper?

Generally I don't put anything down on paper. (lacht) Any more. In the very early days of the multitrack pieces, which are the core of the early work from the seventies I actually recorded material and then I would edit the material in almost the same way by taking out the breathing spaces, so that when a note would trail off the next iteration would attack. And then I would record a number of repetitions of each note, maybe ten. And I would time that thing, so I would have an A 440 that was 2 minutes and 1 seconds. for instance. And then that would become a block of information to put in. Then I would make a score for, say, eight tracks because I was working with eight tracks, I had an eight track recorder. And then I would begin to put the piece together. So I would have a complete score, based on the material and the timing of the material that I had before I heard anything. So I would dub the stuff of on the eight track tape and the piece was finished. And I almost never went back and revised it. I didn't hear anything while I was doing it. I don't work that way now. I treat the ProTools score as the same thing. Instead of finishing the thing I make a few minutes and I might listen to it and go on. So I do it all this way. But I see it as almost exactly the same thing. I make the score. I don't have to listen to it. I can just go on. And so the structure of the piece does change over time because I am looking at it and thinking about what to juxtapose from the material I have. I just finished a piece. The last piece for bass flute and voice. And I only had five samples and two octaves, the bass flute playing one note and then one sample voice by itself, making one note. And then two samples of the bass flute and voice at the same time from the same player.

Who was the player?

Natalia Pschenitschnikowa.

I would like to finish with something more on the biographical side. You are travelling a lot now. But you haven't always been and were maybe more focused on New York in the beginning?

I wasn't traveling as much in the seventies. When I got really busy. I made the first performance piece which used film, so the first piece of music actually in '68, late '68. But then I became very active in the seventies and made a lot of pieces until like '82 or something like that. I then I didn't so much for quite some time. But then I kept making these films during that time. So from '73 until '91. I began to teach in '71. I got married and had a child and so I had to get a job. So I was a college professor. At the end of '97 I retired. And during the nineties I was tending to travel five month a year, anytime I wasn't in class, I was gone. And I would usually take a week off in the semester and leave on Thursday night or Wednesday night, depending on what the class schedule was and come back on Monday night. A week later. So I got a lot of traveling done. Because in a semester, it would be now that time when most of the concerts happen, over the course of the year. It was a problem because I couldn't do as many concerts as I would liked to have. So now I tend to come and stay for two or four or five month.

And you went to New York and basically you stayed there. Is that correct?

I moved to New York in 1958 and I never went away. Except for ...

... those month of traveling.