10/18/2004: "sounds like now."
Been living in New York City for about two and a half years now, and I can't believe it's taken me this long to go to a live performance by Phill Niblock, master of extreme drones and microtones. I finally did this weekend as part of the "Sounds Like Now" (which, if I was being more snide, would call "Sounds Like Twenty or Thirty Years Ago," but let's leave that discussion for another time) experimental music festival. The other performers that night were iffy, but Niblock was flat-out spectacular. The last thing I saw that was as terrifyingly resplendent was a marathon performance of Olivier Messiaen's complete organ works, the most transcendent moments of which made me feel like I was suspended in midair.
The performance space -- a small theatre in the East Village with a capacity of less than 300 -- was incredibly drafty; it was almost as chilly indoors as it was outside, making the 'new music' on display seem even more cold and out of touch than usual. I sat through performances by Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, and by the Downtown Ensemble, before Niblock went onstage. I like Pauline O. a lot -- she's one of the most punk-rock octagenarians I know -- but she wasn't at her best here. The best adjective I can think of is "clumpy"--ungainly little sound-clusters thrown willy-nilly, plinking piano here, accordion noodling there, laptop whooshy sound here. The Downtown Ensemble had some scattered moments of brilliance, but went on too long.
More polite applause. I sat there, teeth chattering, in a denim jacket, and cursed myself for not bringing a flask of Maker's Mark or something to, er, heat things up a bit. Heh heh. I made do with a cinnamon-flavored Altoid, its sweet burn dissolving slowly on the tongue.
Then Niblock. The icy blue and green stage lights went off, and warm whiskey-colored light flooded the space, making the back wall look like one of those fuzzy autumn-hued Rothko paintings. Then "Hurdy Hurry" began, and suddenly it felt ten degrees warmer, as if fluffy down blankets were falling from the ceiling. "Hurdy Hurry" is one of my favorite Niblock pieces, made by putting together and pitch-shifting samples of a hurdy-gurdy played by Jim O'Rourke. Basically, the piece sounds like what would happen if you took a hurdy-gurdy, wood 'n strings and all, threw it into a pot, and boiled it down to a thick, sweet, sticky goo. The piece moves sl-o-o-o-o-o-wly, letting the tones and microtones develop their own multidimensional, shimmering, expansive richness. There's nothing much to see, cuz Niblock stands to the side of the stage and lets the speakers do the work. He's a stickler about volume and sound quality, and with good reason--it's amazing how much detail is embedded in these drones if the sound is right. The next piece he did, "Sethwork," comes courtesy of a dude named Seth, an e-bow, and an electric guitar; it wasn't as grand or as absorbing, but it was nice enuff.
Then today I listened to Phill Niblock while cooking--all grand, dense, richly textured drones--and sort of went with whatever the music led me to make. I ended up making pumpkin pie. Which makes me think I should bake different pies for different avant-garde composers. I've been tending lately towards making apple pie, which seems like it might suit Steve Reich; all that percussive apple-chopping would fit perfectly with Drumming or Clapping Music. The big question, dear reader, is this: just who is strawberry rhubarb? LaMonte Young? Terry Riley?