Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Days Start Getting Longer Now

If Philip Glass's early minimalism is hectic, kinetic and primary-colored – a Mondrian painting come to life – and Steve Reich's compositions for mallet instruments are like gentle sun-dappled rivers, listening to Phill Niblock's pieces is like standing on a runway waving those colored flashlights as jet planes roar over you. I enter Niblock's Chinatown loft (for his annual winter solstice festival) to the sould of three notes, just above middle C, ever so slightly out of unison so they beat in great seismic sine waves – 20 minutes or so without a pause. This is carried on in similar increments for the next three hours, though occasionally live musicians wander around the large, crumbling loft space, playing along. The intense volume of the music from the speakers renders the live instruments the subtlest possible additional element – one strains (delightedly) to hear exactly where they fit in, though one viola player was good enough to hold her instrument directly over my head for a couple of minutes (as I reclined in a black canvas butterfly chair – by far the best seat in the house, which I recall from prior years), so I had the full electro-acoustic experience.

The music, despite its intensity, does tend to move to the background of awareness and films from Niblock's series The Movement of People Working, projected on two walls and half a dozen TVs become the focus of attention. His wikipedia entry describes them as well as I could - interesting that they (if I'm reading right) date mostly from the 1960s, as it's a bit hard to tell. The predominance of rather fancy wristwatches on the wrists of peasant manual laborers provides an interesting (and welcome) contrast to the somewhat timeless quality of the (in many ways pre-Industrial revolution) rural rhythms on display. The more repetitive actions, coupled with the style of the music, inevitably bring to mind Godfrey Reggio's films with Philip Glass, but Niblock's work is considerably less edited and far less heavy-handed in making any points that might be there to be made. The extended time scale of the work itself, and its presentation (6 hours at a time, every Dec. 21st for years), contributes to the undoctrinaire quality.

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