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Slow movement at the fringes of sound

Drone art and multimedia pioneer Phill Niblock kicks off Tulsa Noise series

Phil Niblock

Katherin Liberovskaya

There are countless ways to appreciate the reflection of the sky in a pool of water. There are the surface ripples that bounce back and forth from shore to shore and gently but chaotically modulate the image of the clouds hovering in space. There are increasingly more subtle effects—sunlight speckles, insects lighting on the surface of the water, birds flying overhead—that give dimension and fluctuation to the image of the clouds in time and space.

The sound art of NYC-based Phill Niblock deals with these sorts of higher-order effects in sound and moving images. “What I am doing with my music is to produce something without rhythm or melody, by using many microtones that cause movements very, very slowly,” Niblock said.

Later this month, Niblock will perform for Tulsa Noise, a year-long series devoted entirely to noise art and related expression. Curated by Tulsa Artist Fellow Nathan Young and Philbrook Kress Fellow Lucas Wrench, the performances in this series will explore the edges of sonic expression, from the nuanced psychoacoustic aesthetics of Niblock, to the harsh noise onslaught of Witches of Malibu, to the confrontational cult queer industrial performances of Lincoln, Nebraska’s Plaque Blague.

Niblock is a seminal sound artist in a class of composers broadly categorized as Minimalists, a label that encompasses music as widely varied as Phillip Glass’s delicately written piano arpeggios, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s unearthly electroacoustic symphonies, William Basinski’s haunting Disintegration Loops tape experiments, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music album, which contains 64 minutes of layered, atonal guitar feedback.

As acoustic waves travel and resonate in the air within a room, they form modes, or locuses of acoustic energy. Niblock’s work is an exploration of real sound as it moves within a space. The modes give rise to such phenomena as standing waves, which blur the line between the sensations of hearing and touch. Anyone who has ever heard a playerless snare drum rasp with the swelling of volume in a loud room has witnessed, and felt, this effect. Niblock exploits this tangible quality of sound using drones (which are constant, humming sounds), digital processing, multi-track textural layering, and other sonic methods.

Listening to his work is in ways an exercise in unlearning the conventional way one listens to music. In a conventional song, one focuses on the melody and the beat. Other sonic dimensions are often an afterthought. In “P K” from Niblock’s Four Full Flutes album, the musical activity is in the spaces between tones. The soft, subtle interplay between the interferences of almost identical tones create “beats,” and the development of these beats tells a sonic story. Like the dragonflies piercing the image of the surface of a still pool that reflects the sky, the slow movement of these tones beat together to take center stage in the mind of the listener.

Niblock is one of the pioneers of drone music. Drones play a large but often overlooked role in the development of rock and roll music as an art form. A popular example is the mysterious, continuous horizon note in the background of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” from the band’s The Velvet Underground & Nico album. This element, the elusive yet most important element of the track, establishes dimension, mood, and a sense of distance. Early pioneers of drones, such as La Monte Young, Rhys Chatham, and Terry Riley, inspired a generation of rock and roll experimentation among punk, no wave, avant-garde, and metal artists. The immediately recognizable sonic fingerprints of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Earth are each inextricably linked to drones.

Niblock is also a filmmaker. An installation of his groundbreaking film series “The Movement of People Working” will be on display in Tulsa for the first time on Friday, March 30 at Philbrook Downtown, alongside his live music performance to form a multi-media experience.

The series, filmed in 1970s Kodachrome, reveals everyday people from various parts of the world engaged in assorted manners of work along with the meditative, entrancing sound compositions. The purposeful, almost unconscious motions of the film subjects express something both beautiful and fascinating.

Later this spring, the Tulsa Noise series will feature a two-day harsh noise festival at the Cameron Studios, located at 303 N. Main St. in the heart of the Tulsa Arts District, on May 4 and 5. Other “Tulsa Noise” events and happenings will be announced throughout the year following Niblock’s inaugural performance.

Phill Niblock at Tulsa Noise
Fri. March 30, 7 p.m. | Philbrook Downtown
116 E. M. B. Brady St.

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