Interview by Bob Gilmore, with Guy de Bièvre
London, 21st January 2007
London, January 2007, a cold, sunny Saturday morning. Tucked away on Conduit Street, one of those elegant but forgettable Westminster thoroughfares that links Regent Street and New Bond Street, is Sketch, an upmarket eatery and art space: two restaurants, two bars (helpfully named the West Bar and the East Bar, in case you get lost on the way back from the egg-shaped toilet cubicles) and, at the back, a large gallery space. I’ve come here for the opening of The Movement of People Working, an exhibition of films and music by Phill Niblock. At 12.30, the publicity informs us, there’ll be a “rare performance” of Niblock’s music live. I turn up a few minutes early and am told they won’t be starting for another half hour. I decide to go in and wait, and it’s a good job I do: there are several plush, cream-coloured couches, still mostly empty, so I plant myself on one and stay there for the next two and a half hours. Twelve large video screens display Niblock’s films, ravishing swathes of colour in which people in Mexico, Peru, Hong Kong and Hungary go about their everyday labours - weaving, cutting grass, sowing seeds, making stone walls, fishing, painting. In due course Niblock himself wanders by with a video camera, filming the gathering crowd of people. Two musicians, flautist/guitarist Susan Stenger and guitarist Robert Poss, enter unobtrusively and begin to play along with the immensely dense, complex drones coming from the speakers. The wine is flowing and the volume of conversation increases; even so, the music is in no danger of being drowned out.
In the revisionist history of new music that I'll write one day, Phill Niblock will have a prominent place. One of music's great late starters (he produced his first pieces at the age of thirty-four), he began on a high level and has been getting better and better ever since. Some of my favourite of his works have been done since he turned 70 in 2003. His music is minimal (in the best sense), microtonal, rich, and very loud. The pieces are drones on a single note, or two notes, or a chord, coloured by microtonal inflections. Within apparent stasis there is constant movement. I like Robert Ashley's comment that in Niblock's music "something happens in the way of change that is not fundamentally a change of pitch: it is a change of what the pitch sounds like". Niblock often modestly claims that he has little to say about his music; when I meet him the following day at his hotel, joined by the Belgian composer and guitarist Guy de Bièvre, that turns out, happily, not to be the case.-BG
The exhibition of your work that's on now at London's Sketch Gallery is in a large room with twelve screens of your films running concurrently. Is that the biggest of its kind you've ever had?
It's the first time there've been twelve. There's another show running now in the Alsace which has three images. The images are bigger but the room is smaller. The sound there is really good. I retransferred a lot of films last week in New York and I went back to the best tape sources that I had and made new DVDs. It gives you a chance to change the luminosity and the colour. So I cut a lot of colour and tried to make them look more or less consistent in terms of intensity.
How did you feel about the volume of sound at the opening yesterday?
It was fairly loud – it was peaking at 100 dB – but there was so much noise because everyone was talking. If it had been a concert it would have been a disaster. But it was an opening, so people expect to talk. If they'd talked through a concert I would have been angry. I'm even known to go up and say: Out! Because the problem is that in a concert, even though the music is very loud, the voices really carry – the sibilants in a voice. The more resonant the space, the better it works for the music – but also the more the talking carries.
What is your favourite environment for your music?
Cathedrals are really great, and churches. There was a festival a few years ago at Union Chapel, and I was supposed to do a day-long installation in the back room. And they must have done some horrible advertising, because nobody came. The organiser knew the pre-sales were so far down that he cancelled a lot of stuff – he cancelled my installation piece, so I ended up doing only one piece, a guitar piece. But he had ordered speakers for me. The stage had two banks of speakers, six of them stacked on each side. And for this one piece he erected another two stacks of six each in the back. It was so damn loud. And during the concert I felt this sort of rain. I felt my hair and it was crumbly. It was the plaster from the dome, filtering down through the air. It must have been over 120 dB probably.
Have you always been into loud sounds?
Two answers to that. One is
that the overtone stuff really works better at loud volume. Two is: I
started to listen to music and began collecting records around 1948. And
it was fairly soon after that that hi-fi came about, so that it was possible
to have really good sound – LPs and tapes and speaker systems. The
whole thing came more or less at once. The famous demos were Acoustic
Research – they'd do demos with a string quartet playing with the
speakers on the floor and the quartet would stop playing and the speakers
would continue. And those speakers didn't even sound very good! So I made
my first really big speaker system in 53. That's when I had my first tape
recorder. I had a cabinet maker make the system from designs. It was a
Klipsch design. I met Paul Klipsch in 52. I was a Klipsch dealer for a
short time, in 73. In fact I was on the way to Mexico to shoot a film
and I stopped on the way in Arkansas and saw Klipsch and sort of talked
him into letting me be a dealer.
I'm really very interested in sound. And so that made it possible suddenly to have sound from speakers that you could have around in the home. The great speaker systems that you have today simply didn't exist then, back around 1950.
How did you first get a taste for amplified sound and for working with very high volumes?
I started making the first music in 68. I think I very soon realised that different things happened with the overtone patterns when it was louder. And even then I had some speakers, made with rather cheap speaker components, so I had a system in my loft – I moved into this huge loft in 68, and then I sort of made speakers to make that loft work. And so I made these really cheap speakers, then eventually I replaced the drivers with better ones, but the cabinets are actually still the same.
And that's the same loft that you still have, all those years later?
Yeah. You should come visit.
I'd love to! Tell me a bit about how you first got in to making music. As I understand it you didn't study music when you were young, did you?
I was never really interested in being a musician. I took piano lessons for about six weeks and my father didn't think I practiced enough so he fired the piano teacher. I think it's true, I wasn't interested in practicing. I probably wasn't interested in the music I would have made on the piano. So the idea of the music, of using these microtonal intervals to produce difference tones, was actually what I was interested in doing in the first place. Making sound was a large part of that. I was interested in this very big, fat sound, and at fairly large volumes.
Is it possible to say where this interest came from? I mean, minimal music was just about in the air by the beginning of the 60s..
I'd say that I'm very influenced by the visual arts of that period, because I was around when some of the minimal stuff was first being shown. I'd go to galleries and I saw a lot of stuff. Those were very important elements. My films are essentially that too, although people don't see them as minimalist because they're so…
Well, they're figurative as well as active. In reality, the work is really stripped of most of the stuff that makes a film. And so filmmakers look at it and say, shit, what can you do with that? The idea was to strip out most of what film is about. To delimit the structure. I think it's easier to say that the music is minimal, rather than the films. It's a little harder to explain how the films are minimal.
What was it that led you to come to New York? Was it the music, or the art world, or the city itself, or what?
I came in 58. I'd just gotten out of the army. When I got out of school I went directly into the army. I was drafted, but I took a voluntary draft so I wouldn't have to wait around. I went straight in, in the summertime right after I graduated. So at the end of the second year when I got out I just started driving to New York. I was a jazz fan, and I thought if I was going to settle somewhere why not just come to New York. And it was actually very easy then. There was cheap rent. By the second year I had an apartment that was $43.33 a month. That was just the standard. Can't do that now.
Did you have musical friends at all in those early years in New York?
Probably mostly jazz people. I was interested in classical music, particularly the newer stuff, so I went to a lot of things. There was a number of series around, but they were more classical than they were experimental. But there was a series by Max Polikoff who was a violinist and a curator, who produced these things at the 92nd Street Y. There was quite an amazing variety of stuff. He did a Feldman piece on one series – it was the time of Durations, so 61. And they did one of those pieces for ensemble. It was an incredible revelation, that you could have a piece without rhythm and melody, and these long tones. It really was in a way a permission to do music in a similar kind of way. I could work with that idea. Then I was very interested in the microtonal stuff.
And did you at that stage have the urge to study composition? Given that lots of the other musicians on that avant-garde scene had studied composition in one way or another, or had come through some sort of academic training, did you never feel a sort of odd man out?
Never. I wasn't interested in being a musician or in being a conventional composer. I think probably I did feel isolated, and with the other people round I probably did feel relatively inferior. But by 74 things were really moving – the structure was there, I was making pieces that I liked very much.
With Experimental Intermedia Foundation you were actually becoming the centre of a lot of stuff yourself, and were gathering like-minded individuals around you.
That started in 73. I moved into the loft in 68. But the first concert that actually occurred there was one that I was supposed to do at The Kitchen. Hermann Nitsch was in town, and they had commandeered The Kitchen space and they spilled blood all over the soft Masonite floor so it was impossible to do a concert. They actually had to rip the floor open and redo it. It really stank. And so we decided to have the concert at my loft. I had this funky but actually quite serviceable sound system. I realised that composers always have difficulty finding a place where they can play their music, particularly if they needed to reproduce sound by speakers. And so I thought, maybe I should just open it up to that. So I asked seven people if they would do a concert. Charlemagne Palestine was one, Joel Chadabe, Rhys Chatham, David Behrman, and others. That was in November or December of 73. And by 74 I was doing a series. They were very informal. We would just send out a postcard. It gradually built up. So they were really loft performances. The Experimental Intermedia Foundation had been founded by Elaine Summers in 68, and so within a year or two I was starting to apply for funding through the Foundation, and the series came under that name.
You said you felt the music had taken off by about 1974, but you were still in the thick of making films then. Was there a time when you said to yourself: Now I'm a composer? Or didn't you feel any need to make a statement like that?
I don't remember. I think that I probably did think that I was a composer, and I saw the two things as separate, I was just doing both things. As it turned out, I got known as a composer, and the film thing just never had any real visibility. So by showing the films for years in performances, as performance material, that was exactly what I had designed them to be. So it's weird finally to have shows, like in this big gallery in London. The films have been shown in galleries before, but never quite on this scale. They've been in museums, non-profit galleries, things like that.
Were you hanging out with a lot of filmmakers during those years?
Less by the 70s. One problem with the film "thing" was that most of the experimental filmmakers wanted to make abstract stuff. But I came from photography – I started doing photography in 1960, so I'd had years of doing that, was well into making photography; and the influences there were really realistic. Edward Weston was really a big influence. I never liked Ansel Adams. So I was always interested in real images and found abstract stuff boring. That influenced what I filmed too. So it just happened that I didn't hang out with them, I hung out more with music people and I became known in that world, and never really participated in the experimental scene in film other than tangentially.
In the 30-odd years you've been making music the technology has changed quite a bit but it seems to me that the way you work, your compositional approach, has changed much less. Which is part of the fascination of it. Is that how you see it too? Do feel you're essentially working now in much the same way as in the seventies?
Well… Yes I do. The aspects that have changed are: because I was interested in tape, and had this tape recorder in 53, doing things on tape was a very natural way to work for me. The first pieces in 68 were on tape, but they were dubbed back and forth, so I would build up stuff by several generations of overdubbing. And then in the early seventies the first four-channel machines came out, so I had one of those. By the late 70s I had an eight-channel Teac, so it was easy to do. And also I had access to a studio with a 16-track Ampex in the early 70s in Boston, through a friend, Gerd Stern. His foundation was called Intermediate Systems and had bought a recording studio with one of the very first 16-track Ampexes. So I would go up when they had a free weekend, go up on Friday night, and would just stay there and work until late Sunday night and go back to New York. So it was very soon possible to do at least eight tracks. There are a lot of pieces from that period still around.
Have those pieces been released? Do I know them?
A lot of them have been released. The first batch was on a Blast First double CD, which is Paul Smith's label – Paul is the husband of Susan Stenger, and a major music curator and producer – and which we [XI Records] then reissued, so some of the eight-channel pieces are on that. There's a piece for trombone. Even the flute pieces [on Four Full Flutes] are eight-channel pieces. There's a lot of stuff also on the Extreme DVD – I had four hours to fill up, so actually I used up a lot of the archival stuff from the drawer that I probably never would have done on CD. There were three pieces for David Gibson, the cellist I worked with intensively from 1973 until 81, who recently again played these three pieces, and which were to come out on a CD from Forced Exposure – it was completely done and mastered, the artwork was done, but the label stopped, and they never did it. It'll come out on the next DVD. I made three CDs of pieces which were not published [for the Sketch Gallery show]. There are twelve CDs of my music that are published – eight releases, some of which are multiple CD sets.
When you were starting to work with tape recorders did you go through a musique concrète phase and experiment with recording, say, traffic sounds and birdsong, or was your interest always in recording instruments?
Yes and no. I did some things where I recorded organ pipes played with vacuum cleaners and I made recordings and would do some feedback around that. I may even survey that and find out what I can use of that stuff. But I didn't do very much sound collage material. More recently I have done several pieces. I have been doing things in the last three months where I actually DJ myself, these sound collage pieces. My partner does live video so we have given some performances. I did that DJ set with three live musicians in Lisbon last November.
I'd like to ask if I may about your working process. When you do a recording session with a specific musician, and record material, you presumably end up with a lot more than you're going to use, so..
Well, it's either trashed or it's put in the piece. Actually from the very beginning that was always the case. The first piece I did with Gibson where he was actually tuned was a piece called 3 to 7 - 196, in which the lowest fundamental tone was 196 Hz and there were other tones, 3 to 7 Hz above that, so there were these sort of random layers. We just went to the studio at the university in Albany and recorded the material. He was being tuned by audible sine waves with headphones. Very soon after that we began a process of feeding a calibrated sine tone into an oscilloscope and the microphone into the oscilloscope, so they would tune to a Lissajous pattern – the player never heard any kind of tuning pitches, but by looking at the pattern they could tell if they were flat or sharp. So historically that was all during the multitrack tape period. Then there was a long period from 82, 83, where I simply made very few pieces; that lasted until 92, so there's a real blank spot. I was waiting for electronic sounds to be interesting enough, and it never happened. So I started recording instruments again. FM synthesis really sounds like shit to me. I even made a score and had David Behrman realise a couple of pieces with his FM synthesis modules. It was horrible. Then I worked with a guy, Richard Lainhart, who when we started was a student in Albany, but who was a computer whiz. So he realised a bunch of pieces. I would make a score, and we would record the tones, and he would take the material and put it together. Then by 98 I started working myself in Protools. That was a real breakthrough, because then I could do sixteen tracks, twenty-four tracks and now thirty-two tracks. And when you look at the stuff since 2000, it's getting very much denser, especially the thirty-two track pieces. The music on the last Touch triple CD is thirty-two track material, so they're really quite thick.
You could almost say that technology has caught up with what you wanted to do, because if it had been possible to do these multitrack pieces more easily back then you'd probably have done so – that was where your musical ear was leading you.
It would have been a significantly different body of work, if it had come. I also stopped recording the specific pitches that I did before and generally record people tuning to whatever the standard pitch is and then I'd make pitch bends in Protools. So I'd manufacture a whole cluster around each note and use that.
I was staying with a friend last night who has a fantastic sound system and we listened to Hurdy Hurry, which is one of my favourite pieces of yours.
Me too. In fact I also listened to it last night. I like the piece very much. It was a piece I didn't think I could finish. I was doing a concert in 99 and had finished a piece [A Y U, aka "as yet untitled"] for the singer Thomas Buckner – we'd recorded the material in Robert Poss's studio in New York which is a great place to work. (Robert's really fantastic to work with – it's just in a bedroom, it's a converted apartment, so it doesn't have really big spacious sounds, but he has really good gear and microphones and has just a superb sense of what I'm doing because we've worked together so long. He's really one of the great engineers for me. There's another guy in Belgium whom I work with a lot also, Johan Vandermaelen, who's really fantastic too.) Jim O'Rourke [guitarist and hurdy-gurdy player] had not used his hurdy-gurdy for a long time and somebody had borrowed it, and it appeared to have a chunk in the wheel so every time it rotated it would go "clunk", "clunk". And so I didn't think I would be able to finish a piece out of the stuff and was ready to scrap it – it was on the programme for this concert. I'd finished the Buckner piece and I had two days to go before the concert. So I started really listening to the recordings, and I found one tone that was really good. And so I made some pitch bends above and below and one or two octaves down, and I just made nine minutes of only that tone in all of its permutations. Then finally at the ninth minute I bring in all the other tones, so it becomes a completely different chord. Then at fifteen minutes it stops. A short piece for me!
One of the things I love about that piece is that, dare I say it, it seems to have a logical progression through it, quite apart from the fantastic sound of the instrument sample. There seems to be something linear in that piece that is sometimes present in your other pieces and sometimes not. Is the overall form done intuitively as you work, or do you plan out the macroform of a piece before you start?
I try to make pieces that don't have development. The viola piece Valence is a perfect example. There are some changes in the structure in the first half, or first third, of that piece, and there's constant shifting of the mix of microtones, and so the overtone patterns keep changing. But the real form of the piece is that it's just a drone piece. And the hurdy-gurdy piece isn't quite like that. But I like [Hurdy Hurry] very much. It's a piece I start a concert with a lot, because it's short but you sort of get into it and it builds up and up, so you reach a certain level of complexity, and then you can do other pieces.
(GdB) I don't know if I think there's no development in Phill's pieces, because as a performer that's what you hang onto when you play it.
But would you call it development or change?
(GdB) Well, what is development? You mean development in the sense of elaboration or variation or change or that kind of thing? No, it's change. But I see change as development.
Mm hmm. Well, I think Bob brings up a really interesting piece, Hurdy Hurry – I used one tone for nine minutes in its various permutations and then everything else sort of comes in so that it's really a chord, and you can really tell; even the dynamics change…
(GdB) You mean that piece has a sort of formal development?
It's much closer I would say to classical formal development…
(GdB) Harmonic and even melodic development…
Well, if you look in contrast at the last half of Valence, there's constant change in the microtonal structure. But it's really straight ahead for the first fifteen or whatever minutes. There's actually some structural change in the first ten minutes, first eight minutes, but after that it's just shifting, albeit with variations and things like that.
(GdB) I was just thinking of the piece I've played most often, which is the guitar piece Guitar Too, for four (G2, 44) , and that for me has a very clear development that I play along to when I play it. Sethwork also, but it's a much more confusing development.
(BG) How would you describe the development in G2, 44?
(GdB) Well first, very basically, the piece starts with B and ends with A. How do you get from B to A? And how does the piece get from B to A? It's not very clear but there's a turning point in the middle somehow, a wide turning point; and so you could almost write out the structure of the piece chordally. And that for me is development: it's a progression of some kind. Not in the traditional sense, because the chords are so chromatic and so wide that you cannot pin-point them in traditional harmony. You probably could determine them according to Slonimsky's Thesaurus. It's a different experience for the player and the listener, because as a listener you listen to the entirety, but as a player you're inside the thing and you have to find your way. It's like a big river and you're rafting or something. And you know it's going to be quiet at the end, so you have to make it there. You can get really lost, at least I feel you can. You can play wrong notes. I don't know if anybody will hear them, because it's such a mass of sound, but when you play you know. That for me is a sign of development. Maybe it's not consciously conceived as development, but it's there whether you want it or not.
(BG) That's another thing I was wondering about. With Phill's music, like any music, it's possible to play it well and possible to play it badly. What exactly constitutes the nature of a bad performance? It's not just playing wrong notes, although certainly you could play something that's wrong harmonically; it has to do presumably with concentration, concentration on the sound…
(GdB) There are two things, I find: there's your presence within the harmonic evolution of the piece, and there you can really play wrong pitches. Probably nobody will hear them. And then the other thing is: performances that I've found bad, or less successful (I mean by other people!) are performances where players feel the need to add decoration or artefacts that are not in the piece. And then it's this tendency some people may have: well, this thing lasts 30 minutes and nothing is happening, so maybe I have to do something funny or something interesting. It's the same with some Cage performances: people start vibrato-ing or introduce some little decorations, but they seem like foreign bodies. At least that's my experience. You really have to stick with the aesthetic of the piece. Don't try anything fancy, it's not made for it. If you do, that's when the piece starts to get boring.
There were two especially bad performances in my memory. One was in The Hague, actually. We were doing a concert and one guitar player had come to the rehearsal; and the other guy couldn't come for a rehearsal at all – he'd never heard the piece nor had the CD or anything. So he came and got up on the stage and immediately started improvising over the drone. And the other guy was playing perfectly. I almost got up and said to him: please lay out. But I didn't. And a similar thing happened very recently in the States. I had even sent the CDs to this woman who I knew, and who knew the music, and the same thing happened; I came very late, there was no chance to make a rehearsal or a soundcheck, and she just used it as an opportunity to make a really long improvisation for herself with a drone background. I was sort of shocked. I didn't say anything to her because we were actually staying with her, so that made it difficult.
(GdB) As a player I've had performances that I'm more happy with than others, while I didn't do anything particularly wrong. It's like any musical performance: tonight I really played well, you know, it really worked better than last time; and it's very strange, it's not something you can really grasp clearly. It's like playing anybody's work: the same rules apply.
(BG) Another thing I wanted to ask you, Phill, was that even though your pieces are apparently "doing" the same sorts of thing, I find the emotional (if I can use that word) impact of them is very different from one to the next. Some are radiantly exciting and uplifting and cheerful; some are very austere and serious and sober. There's a big range of emotional content. I just wondered: to what extent are you aware of that when you're working on these pieces? Is that something you think about when you're composing?
No. My attitude is pretty even. I think that all comes about from the timbre of the instrument. Sometimes because of the form. I do try to change the internal form of what's happening for each piece. A lot of times that happens just because of the tones that are recorded; the tones I decided to record. Are you aware of the chord structure of what happens in different pieces? Does that have anything to do with it? I'm asking you a question now!
Well, I haven't really analysed any of the pieces yet, although I'd be quite interested in doing that. The one I did look at quite closely was Disseminate, with the score, looking at what's happening in there. But in general no, I haven't really thought much in those terms, not yet.
That would interesting if you'd do that. Probably more interesting than having me suggest pieces to listen to would be for you to play through them and see what you think. In some things there's much more of a chord, and other things there's one or two notes. To see what kind of effect that has on how you perceive the piece or how you feel about it emotionally. Nobody's ever really done that.
And I suppose, thinking about what you've just said, that in the hurdy-gurdy sound there is a sort of graininess, a kind of richness, a whole world of colour; whereas with the flutes in Four Full Flutes (to take the opposite example), the nature of the actual sound source there is much cleaner and purer, so that in a way you could say there's less in it to "bring out"; although I don't know. Maybe not. It's an interesting question.
(GdB) Do you think it could have something to do with the harmonic content of the timbre? I mean, the overtone situation could yield more even harmonics, which are brighter, or more odd harmonics. I don't know, I never analysed any instrument in detail in this way, but some instruments have more even harmonics and others more odd harmonics? That will certainly influence a character in the music. That's something I wonder about.
(BG) The other thing I'm curious about is: what kind of things do you write down on paper when you're working on a piece? Even some of the recent pieces, that are made entirely in Protools; is there a notated thing of some kind, and if so what?
Pieces in Protools basically not, but pieces that are multitrack are all scored; there's a multitrack score before I begin building the tape. They're actually finished without hearing anything. I mean, I finish the entire score, then I just go back and lay it all in. And I almost never change stuff, afterwards. There's very little revision in all of the pieces, over the years. So I just lay the stuff down, layer it and mix it. That's it. To some extent Protools is slightly different because I can always listen to whatever's there as I go. I'm not sure how much it effects what happens, though. I sort of work out in advance most of the structure of the piece.
You mean in terms of the harmonic progression of it, the layerings of stuff?
I work out some of the basic form. That usually occurs when I'm actually listening to the material – even in the editing process, because I'm editing the stuff. It's quite similar in a way to editing the material for the multitrack tapes, because I've recorded a bunch of stuff and I normally just chop off the breathing space and then the tone sounds and it trails off and then I chop off the next breathing space. And if something goes wrong with it (say the recorded sample has an error) I simply throw it away – the tape goes on the floor. It happens a lot also in Protools. What normally happens is that I go through the original recorded samples and I edit; I take out the stuff that I don't want. Usually in Protools we slate the thing (a voice says what the note and parameters are), and so if somebody's playing we decide what it should be called, that note; and then they say that, and then they start playing. And it was weird because I just recorded a piece for Susan [Stenger] and Robert [Poss] where they're both playing guitar and one's in one channel and one's in the other channel. In the end the piece will be completely Robert on the left and Susan on the right. And they're playing a slightly different chord, so there's a fundamental that they both play, off and on, but then there's one chord on Robert's side and one chord on her side. The chord actually appears in the space as it's being played, as the stereo track is being played; the sound of both channels is mixed in the performance space. But pretty much the Protools file is the score of the piece.
And then if I can ask a stupid question: when you're at that initial stage and recording the sounds, who decides what pitches they play? Do you decide, or do they decide, or a combination of both, or what?
A typical thing would be, if I'm recording somebody newly, that we sit down and talk about what sort of resonance points there are on their instrument, what sounds particularly rich. And then they actually play a bunch of tones and we choose something that sounds really good. So it's sort of worked out in the process.
So that's specific to different players and indeed different instruments. So if you were to make two pieces for, say, two different violists..
...it might happen that the resonance points would be vastly different. Or somebody might play better in a certain range. That would be a factor. I'm just making a new piece for chorus and orchestra, and a couple of weeks ago asked Tom Buckner if he wanted to do a solo baritone part. I asked him what's the lowest note that he can sing where it's really fat. We had a half-hour conversation on the phone. And he said finally that F was a really great note because the middle octave and the higher octave above that are really very resonant and sound great and the lower octave doesn't sound as great; but the other note, an A or something – I forget what it was actually – he couldn't make sound in the upper octaves nearly as good. So that seemed quite interesting. So probably the chord will be based on F because of him. And I think probably what will happen is: there'll be a chord that will be three half tones – the half tones on either side of F – for the chorus, and whole tones for the orchestra. So it'll be a five-note chord. The score will look very much like Disseminate. Which seemed to work really well in performance. I mean, the idea was that the score that's in the CD booklet is what's passed out to the musicians. And they pick out a line. And they play just that one line. So there are 15 parts all written in one octave and they just play the octave or two octaves that they can play.
When you're in full swing working on a piece in Protools, do you often stop and listen back to where it's going, or do you not do much of that kind of playback?
Well, theoretically I do that but practically I don't. I still work pretty much how I used to work. And I think that probably when I do do it I'm more lazy and I don't do it as carefully as I guess I should. I think it's a very intellectual exercise for me. It's weird. I mean, the music is very much about sound, but the actual construction is much more intellectual. And again, I often don't know what the real sound is going to be, even when I'm in the thick of making the piece. I have studio monitors in Ghent, so it doesn't sound anything like it would in the big hall. So who the hell knows what it'll sound like? The final thing. In New York, if I were working on something, I'd… I've made some pieces where I actually played it on the big system, but I have a workroom which has the same studio monitors [as in Ghent] up above, and I tend to listen that way. And something happened in my G5, where the Protools that's installed didn't scroll correctly, and so now I have a sound system in my kitchen, which is where I usually work, on a big brown table with the computer sitting there, doing email for hours a day; and so I simply moved the thing in there and used that sound system while I was making the last couple of pieces. My laptop doesn't have any technical problems with Protools. And I'd probably never take the laptop into the other room because there's no place to put it, unless I put up another table.
What was it led you to establish a base in Ghent in the first place?
I've been going to Ghent since 77. I met Gottfried-Willem Raes and Moniek Darge. They were producing a series of concerts at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, one weekend a month. They did a Saturday evening and a Sunday matinee. It was in the foyer, so the audience were mostly people who were coming out of a concert and walking through. And it was on the steps, and next to it was the bar, so you had the babble of voices in the bar. It was really weird. But they had some money, so they'd pay about $400, which was basically the airfare across the Atlantic. But I wanted to see them before I actually thought to do something in their festival. So I went to Ghent and met them in their apartment. They were in their twenties at that time. And then I kept going there. Even if I wasn't doing a concert I'd stop and stay with them when I was in Europe. So I spent a lot of time there. And then someone I knew bought a place – he bought a house in a former workers' row of houses, which was two rooms with a very narrow ladder leading to the second level, with cold water, and nothing else – the baths were across the street, it was a common bath-house. Hell, it was really horrible. He paid $4000 for it, and he bought it with his credit card. So I thought: "that's interesting". So Moniek and I went to their notary, and we started looking. I wanted something on a canal, because I have a real fascination with the juncture of water and land – a lot of the films are all about that. So we looked all over the town and the first house we looked at was the one I eventually bought. It was $11,000; it was rented to some people who didn't particularly want to live there anyway. And next to it was this abandoned house – it was abandoned from 1965 until 1992, when I bought it. It was a complete wreck. There were huge holes in the roof, holes in the floors, from the water. People had broken the windows and thrown trash into the room which is now the gallery. But it was the best location – it was really a fantastic location. So I made a bid for the house. The people who owned the house were being fined by the city because it was an abandoned house, and so they were actually paying a higher fine per year than I was offering for the place. I offered them $3000, but I finally bought it for $4700. But of course it took a lot more money to fix it up inside.
Do you find there's any difference in working in Ghent and working in New York? Do you find you're more productive in one place or the other?
Ghent is a surprisingly distracting place. But New York is totally distracting! So it's much harder to work in New York. It's harder in a way to concentrate, even though I can listen on the big system as I'm making stuff. I've even worked in Berlin finishing a piece where I had only headphones. I hate working with headphones. They don't sound at all like anything. But at least it gives me some indication. So I can tell if there's some really big mess-up or something. It's not so bad for editing the original tone material as it is for actually doing the multitrack process.
I want to ask specifically about your piano piece Pan Fried '70, as I'm extremely interested in playing it.
Well there are three versions of that piece. The first version was actually a test when I was working at CCMIX in Paris and recording it. Then I made the longer version, 70 minutes. But then it was too long to actually play in concert, and so I made a third version, which is 27.5 minutes. So there's an 11-minute version, which is much quieter and delicate. And then the 70 minute version, and the 27.5 minute version.
And the piece is played with threads, right? Bowing the strings?
It's actually not bowed. It's just one monofilament nylon string tied to the piano string, and it's pulled with rosined fingers. It's such a weird, jaggy sound and you never really hear the fundamental. And there's lots of microtones. The sound is really great, but it's not particularly Niblock in the realisation.
Could you imagine a version of that piece with two pianos? I have a piano duo and I'd love to programme it.
Well there's no reason why not. Sure. I think it would make it more interesting visually also. You have to play the tape, plus the live part. And the piano can be amplified. There was another piece which I did once with Reinhold [Friedl], and we never did it again, which was sad for me. I did a bunch of things with people with these various small video cameras – they look like lipsticks. And I would strap them to the hand, and so you'd see the fingers and whatever they're doing. So he's playing in the piano, scraping and all of that stuff, with these on each hand. And we projected it. He only did it once actually, in the Akademie der Künste. And they made these big screens in a big tent over the stage and so they were projecting on these four-metre-wide screens. And they didn't set up any video recording – they didn't even have a VHS player, so there's no record of that piece. I tried to do that with Anton Lukoszevieze but he never realised the piece, this collaboration. But he's been doing other stuff with cameras.
A lot of people would see what you are doing and what Alvin Lucier is doing as being fairly closely related. But one of the differences seems to me that his music has a lot to do with beats between sine tones of closely related frequencies, whereas that's less of a focus in your case. Is that how you see it too?
Yes. Well, it depends. The flute is very sine-tone-ish - so in that flute piece for Barbara Held, Held Tones, there's a lot of beating in there. In Sethwork also: most times when it's played the whole space really vibrates. And it's because Seth [Josel] was playing acoustic guitars with ebows and just one microphone. It was funny. It was a commission from the Deutschland Radio in Köln, and we did it in their studio, which is large enough to hold a symphony orchestra plus an audience – the booth is three stories up and you're looking down at this floor. So there's Seth, like a dot, sitting down there – you almost had to have binoculars to see him – with one single microphone, making this enormous sound! But it's very sine-tone-y.
I was very struck by the comment you made in one of your CD booklets that in your music it's the microtones that do the work. Do you think of your music as microtonal?
(GdB) When you pitch shift in your recent pieces do you pitch shift in semitones or more arbitrarily?
In cents. It used to be in Hertz when I was tuning people as they were recorded.
(BG) That's interesting, because tuning in cents and tuning in Hertz are quite different mind-spaces. Did you make a decision to work in cents for a particular reason?
Well, my sense of these things is very loose. I'll sometimes work with very close ratios and sometimes with bigger ratios. And so with cents I'm sometimes working with, say, 15 cents, and other times with three or four cents – that's very narrow. What happens when you use a very close interval is that you get an amplitude modulation, so the sound actually becomes louder and softer. There's a number of pieces where that happens, where it just sort of goes out completely. There's a series of four-channel pieces in the late 70s where I was working with very narrow intervals, plus it was only four channels, so amazing things were happening in the space. But they were really very thin, totally unlike the big fat 32-channel Protools pieces. I never design systems for pieces, mathematical systems, or just intonation systems. It's all done by the seat of the pants.