Tag: Kurt Gottschalk

Phill Niblock’s Solstice Tradition by Kurt Gottschalk

Phill Niblock
Phill Niblock at his laptop during 6 Hours of Music and Film at Roulette, 2018

There was a time when Phill Niblock’s six-hour winter solstice concerts were a key part of the Downtown winter holidays, every bit as much as Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night boombox parades from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Park or the annual New Year’s Eve sets with James Blood Ulmer at the old Knitting Factory. From 6pm until midnight every December 21, Niblock could be found at Experimental Intermedia, his home and performance space on Centre Street, playing extended, drone-based music alongside his films of people around the world doing manual labor.

Those days are gone. Niblock still hosts a run of performances and screenings at the loft—which will mark its 50th year of operation in 2018— every May and December. But conflicts with the building owner have forced him to scale back and keep a close count on attendance. His solstice concerts—where people would meet up to listen, socialize in the stairwell, pop over to Chinatown for dinner and return to submerge again into the penetrating volumes of the music—proved too popular to continue at the loft . When Roulette opened its new theatre on Atlantic Avenue in 2011, the annual ritual was on the bill and a new tradition was born.

Niblock presented his first solstice concert in 1976 and has been doing it ever since, some years augmented with a summer solstice concert as well. The original inspiration, however, seems at this point lost to history.

“Actually, I don’t really know [how it started],” he said in August, speaking via Skype from his second home in Ghent, where he was preparing for concerts in Poland and Czechia. “I don’t have any memory of that whatsoever. It used to be eight hours long, and I don’t know what the fuck I did in eight hours because there wasn’t that much material then.”

Whatever the origin, the solstice concerts in a sense epitomize much of Niblock’s work. Extended tones, extreme volume and long, filmed scenes of people working are hallmarks of his artistic output. Asked what he thought people should take away from the concerts, he said with a laugh, “It’s not my problem, it’s their problem.” But he has plenty to say about the work itself.

“The volume is actually about two things,” he explained. “One is that it announces that the music is not a soundtrack for the film but is a dominant feature. The other thing, and probably the more important part, is that the music is all about this microtonal interference in the sound cloud that appears and that occurs much more at a very high volume. Sometimes the cloud of overtones that occurs is there only when it’s fairly loud and if you turn the music down, it becomes the sound of instruments rather than the sound of microtonal interferences.”

While making music might be what he’s best known for today, Niblock’s first work was in photography and filmmaking. When he arrived in New York City in 1958, he found a place in the jazz world, photographing Duke Ellington sessions and filming the Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra, among others. Before long, he had had taken to filming dance and, later, creating installation projects with dancers interspersed among multiple screens projecting his films. (Some of those early multi-media events were revived in March, 2017, at the Tate Modern in London.) At that point, he said, he began to see parallels between the motions of dance and the motions of manual labor.

“I was working with a dance theater from ’65 to ’70 and I began doing this project called the ‘Environment Series’ in ’68,” he said. “There were three screens of video plus some slide pieces on a fourth screen with music and live players. I found it very difficult to do these pieces because there were five people and multiple screens and we simply couldn’t do it. I began to do a series of films that I could do with a single screen or possibly two or three when it was possible in ’73. I decided to do this series of pieces looking at the movement of people doing very ordinary work. I was looking at the movement of people working in the fields or fishing or whatever they were doing rather than live dance.”

Those early films are a major part of Niblock’s solstice concerts, but this year’s concert will give him a chance to present more recent work as well.

“There’s a lot of new video in the last few years, 100 minutes of finished videos, which is completely different than the people working, no people whatsoever,” he said. “We’re doing installations where there are three screens and a fourth set of pieces that are shot on video and look better on a video monitor than they do on a large screen.”

Niblock has a long history with Roulette, dating well before his moving the solstice concerts across the East River. As far back as 1982, he was performing at Roulette’s original loft on West Broadway (not so far from his own space), presenting a program called “Once More For the Road” featuring his films from Shanghai and Lesotho with Roulette co-founder and artistic director Jim Staley on “mobile trombone.”

That history made moving to Roulette an easy invitation to accept. While Niblock originally planned to find a new location for the solstice concerts every year, he said he is glad to have found a permanent home.

“I was thinking maybe we’d switch to different places but Roulette is really a great space for us,” he said. “I’m extremely happy to work with them.”

His image on the screen then jostled as he adjusted the camera on his laptop.

“Let me pull this down a bit,” he said, “so you can see the hand on my heart.” The gesture was followed by a laugh that might be as evocative of the experimental composer and filmmaker, at least to those who were at those early concerts on Centre Street, as the loud and prolonged tones of his music.

CONTRIBUTOR: Kurt Gottschalk

Kurt Gottschalk writes about contemporary composition and improvisation for DownBeat, The New York City Jazz Record, The Wire, Time Out New York, and other publications and has produced and hosted the Miniature Minotaurs radio program on WFMU for the last ten years.

A print version of this article appeared in Roulette’s zine ISSUE 004, Fall 2017

Glenn Branca

Writer Kurt Gottschalk sits down with legendary experimental guitarist Glenn Branca to discuss his premiere The Light (For David), a new work written for David Bowie, premiering at Roulette on October 8, 2016.


KG: Your relationship with the electric guitar is well-known, from the twin guitars of Theoretical Girls in the late 70s to works for 100-guitar orchestras. For your appearance at Roulette, you’ve composed for four electric guitars along with bass and drums. How do you determine the shape of an ensemble for a given project?

GB: I had decided that if I was going to continue The Ascension project I would use the same instrumentation in all of them, although the tunings are different. In recent decades my symphonies for guitar ensemble are usually eight or nine guitars, bass and drums. Anything bigger is too expensive to tour. There are also the two symphonies for 100 guitars but they are always one-offs. I get the guitarists from whatever city we’re playing in. So far it’s worked out incredibly well but takes a lot of time online with the musicians since the scores are always in different tunings and in staff notation.

KG: Do you have a way of notating the particular sonic properties of the electric guitar, such as feedback and overtone, or are those decisions communicated verbally or left to the individual players?

GB: I don’t notate the sonic properties of the guitar. The pieces are written the same as I would write for any instrumentation. The sonic quality of the guitar speaks for itself, although I like to use an overdriven sound with no effects of any kind. This is the kind of sound I’ve used since the late 70s when I was doing rock bands. In the 80s, when I was working with a harmonic series tuning system, it was often a mistaken conception that I was working with overtones. The overtones are there, of course, but I was interested in the nature of sound produced by the harmonic series itself, or what is in fact the series of natural numbers.

KG: The Light (for David), which will receive its premiere at Roulette, is dedicated to David Bowie. When did you first start listening to Bowie’s music. What has it meant to you over the years?

GB: I first heard Bowie in the late 60s when Space Oddity would be played on FM stations. I thought it was great but I didn’t know who it was at the time. Later, in the early 70s when I was working in a record store, I came across Hunky Dory and was totally knocked out. I started looking for anything by him that I could find. I found The Man Who Sold the World in a bargain bin. Worst production ever. They’ve fixed the mix and the master at this point, after [Kurt] Cobain covered the title song.

Then Ziggy, of course, and I was hooked. There were a few avant-garde bands that had some pop success, but nothing like Bowie. He was our hero. Intelligent, talented and with the desire to create a really new, different rock. It was important at that time for us (the avant-gardists) to have someone who spoke our language actually be heard on the radio. And of course he was beautiful and clever and compelling.

KG: Did you ever have a chance to meet or work with him?

GB: Yes, Tony Oursler was doing an installation for a German world’s fair in, I think, 2001. I was invited to write the music and Tony wrote the text which Bowie read and was played back on multiple channels. Tony had worked with Bowie a lot, doing video for him I believe. During the work on this gig, I got to hang out with David twice. One surprise was that we were both book collectors. He was really excited about a book he had just bought for $50,000. This was literally a few days after his company had gone public and he had made $50 million in one day. It was hard for him to think about anything else. He was over the moon. Just proved to me that rock stars don’t make anywhere near as much money as people thought. Of course, they don’t make anything now unless they’re tits-out superstars.

I had a very strange “relationship” with David over the years that started in the early 80s when his office called my record label, Neutral, for the purpose of getting a copy of every record in the catalog. For almost 20 years I would get a call about every couple years from someone who was trying to get us together for some purpose: collaborate, play on the same bill, always something. One time I heard he had played the entirety of my Symphony No. 6 for the audience before he come out to do a show in Europe. Another time I heard from one of the engineers on the Tin Machine sessions that he had brought in about six or seven of my records and told the engineer “Make it sound like this.” Stuff like that was always happening.

He died too soon, he was only a year older than me. I was shocked, just like everybody else. And with the release of his brilliant Black Star, I couldn’t stop listening to it. I hadn’t realized how much he had meant to me throughout most of my life and that album broke my heart.

I still can’t believe he’s just gone. It affected me even more than Lennon. I think that somehow knowing that he was here, in my case literally right down the street, was like having a muse. I don’t know what else to say. It hurts.

KG: Bowie worked with a remarkable succession of guitarists, from Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar to Earl Slick, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels not to mention recordings with Robert Fripp and David Torn. Is there something about Bowie’s use of guitar that speaks to you in particular?

GB: That’s a tough one to answer since most of that playing was part of a very distant past. I loved Mick Ronson at the time. There were few players getting that kind of sound. I was never into metal and found guys like Glen Buxton, Joe Perry and Johnny Thunders to be more what I wanted to hear. Ronson was one of the first, along with Mark Bolan. I think every single one of the guys you mentioned did a great job with Bowie’s music. And Reeves Gabrels could do anything. I think that’s why Bowie got him. His work on Outside was amazing. And of course there was Fripp, never a favorite, but what he did on Heroes was moving. It made the song.

These were guys that I loved to listen to, among many others. But as a composer my approach had almost nothing to do with any of them or anyone else for that matter. I wanted to do serious experimental rock and that sound, that approach, wasn’t gonna work. I liked to fool around with it very early on but the music was the priority. When Theoretical Girls and the Static started pushing the parameters, the audience just got bigger and bigger. After a very short time it became clear that this was going to be my work.

It’s never really been about the guitars. They just happened to be what was convenient. And as things have turned out they still are, although there’s far more I’d like to do. I’d really like to create an entire orchestra with mostly instruments that I create myself. But such things are far beyond my means.

KG: What’s coming up next for you?

GB: Death? I wouldn’t mind having Symphony No. 16, my second 100 guitar piece, heard in NYC, and maybe even properly recorded.