Glover, Richard (2009) Phill Niblock and identity in reductionism. In: Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, 2nd-6th September 2009, University of Missouri, Kansas, USA.

American experimental composer Phill Niblock is a pioneer of drone music, influencing generations of younger artists and directing the Experimental Intermedia foundation. However, despite many regular performances of his music internationally, he remains an artist relatively unknown outside of the minimal music world. This paper aims to introduce Niblock’s music and, through investigation of the music’s compositional processes and resultant soundworld, explore why Niblock is often omitted from the dominant minimal canon.
Focussing on Niblock’s output in both the acoustic and instrument-and-tape domains, the paper will explore different compositional techniques undertaken to produce a similar resultant sonic environment. Both strategies employ relatively pure tones from the instruments (whether performed live in concert or recorded in the studio) which could be recreated easily via synthesis; the paper explores what implications live instruments have on the realisation and perception of such drone music, and how this charaterises Niblock’s music from other drone composers.
Through detailed study of selected pieces, Niblock’s use of compositional devices such as layered glissandi and transforming clusters will be discussed, exploring how teleological concepts and gestalt perceptual processing can create hierarchical formal constructs within the overall musical experience.
While some scholars have called into doubt Reich’s claim in Music as a Gradual Process that ensuing acoustic phenomena in the sound form a cogent part of the compositional intent, the paper discusses how Niblock’s aims are clearly directed towards creating environments from which acoustic phenomena arise and can be directly experienced by the listener.
The paper also discusses the implications of Niblock’s audio editing techniques and draws parallels with the work and phenomenological philosophies of earlier so-called Minimalist visual artists, looking at how these aspects of Niblock’s creative process serve to delineate his approach to that of other systematic composers.
Using information theory and memory recall models, it is shown how Niblock’s music works within a world of large-scale predictability, but on a micro level operates with high entropy. These results are dependent on acoustic space, specific intensity level, position of the listener and other physical factors.
Aiding this level of uncertainty is the absence of specific tuning systems or discernible numerical or frequential patterns in the music. The paper explores this approach, which remains significantly different from the more systematic compositional methods used by other composers within the minimalist tradition.
The paper draws conclusions regarding the unique compositional approach forged by Niblock, resulting in a characteristic soundworld with a singular identity. While there is a distinct lack of scholarly writings on Niblock - and indeed other drone artists such as Palestine and Radigue - future avenues for exploration are discussed to illuminate more the qualities and implications of this most experiential of musics.

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