Phill Niblock at 85: Austere, Unpopular, Astounding Minimalism

by Michael Schell

Phill Niblock via Festival Mixtur Barcelona.

As a throng of third generation minimalist composers rides the movement’s most fashionable waves, an intrepid handful of the genre’s pioneers continue to sustain it in its original, unalloyed and uncompromising form. Phill Niblock, who turns 85 today, is one of those pioneers. His austere music and sense-saturating intermedia performances are as powerful today as they were at their inception half a century ago.

Niblock’s path to new music was an unusual one. He studied economics at Indiana University, then worked as a photographer and cinematographer for dancers and jazz musicians. His 1966 film of Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra is a classic of its kind. As Niblock became more involved in the New York arts scene, he outfitted his loft in downtown Manhattan as a studio and performance space that soon became one of North America’s most important venues for avant-garde music and intermedia—a distinction it still holds today, over 1000 events later.

Niblock contemplating his creation myth (photo JJ Murphy).

While this was going on, Niblock, following a path established by La Monte Young (the father of drone music and godfather of the more rhythmically active minimalism practiced by Reich and Glass), began to develop his own variety of drone minimalism. A formative experience came while riding a motorcycle up a Carolina grade behind a slow-moving diesel truck:

Both of our throttles were very open…Soon, the revolutions of our respective engines came to a nearly harmonic coincidence. But not quite. The strong physical presence of the beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies put me in such a trance that I nearly rode off the side of the mountain.

In 1968 Niblock unveiled the result of this epiphany, a style of music built from overlapping layers of sustained instrumental tones, usually multitracked recordings of the same instrument playing closely spaced pitches. There’s no melody, no change of dynamics and no pulse—the close, microtonal intervals create their own beats. What distinguishes his music from that of Young, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and all the other minimalist composers of his generation, is his consistent emphasis on tight, dissonant harmonies.

Early Winter, from 1993, is a typical specimen. Its 44 minutes feature the Soldier String Quartet, two flutists and 38 channels of recorded sound. It starts on an E♮ drone in octaves, with microtonal neighbor tones entering on either side. These intervals increase to minor and major seconds, and gradually the central drone shifts down to D♮ by the end of the piece. The bright instrumental timbres coupled with the dense texture create clashing high-frequency overtones, and this music is best heard with large loudspeakers powerful enough to fill the listening space.

Even the album covers are minimalist.

The arc of Niblock’s career has been as relentless as this one piece. He has continued to make new work, along the way transitioning from analog tape to digital recording to laptop-based tools. But each new composition is an additional data point along an unbroken line. His oeuvre shows no discontinuities, no sudden breakthroughs, no abrupt shifts in style or aesthetics. Individual pieces differ in their details and their range of timbres, but they all inhabit a shared space that allows them to be chained or even superimposed.

Thus, choosing a favorite Niblock composition often comes down to instrumentation. For sleep time I enjoy the clear tones and natural breath sounds of Winterbloom Toos multitracked bass flutes: an enveloping aural blanket without sudden sounds or other distractions. For more intensity, there’s the strident soundscape of Niblock’s Hurdy Gurdy piece. In between is Sweet Potato with Carol Robinson playing a variety of clarinets. Sethwork features an acoustic guitar played with an EBow (a handheld gadget that magnetically stimulates metal-wound strings—it’s normally used with electric guitars). This creates auxiliary buzzes, a cloud of insectoid artifacts that in a Niblockian context seems practically melodic. For hard core listeners, there’s the mammoth Pan Fried 70 (the number is the length in minutes), whose sole sound source is the rubbing of nylon threads attached to piano strings.

The full Niblock effect, though, comes only to those lucky enough to attend a live performance. Most legendary are the annual six-hour winter solstice concerts at his loft that were long a Mecca for the Downtown new music cadre (they still take place, but at Roulette). At their core is an uninterrupted stream of music delivered in loud quadraphonic sound, often enhanced by an ambulatory musician who wanders through the space, doubling pitches from the prerecorded tracks while standing alongside individual audience members.

Accompanying this are several channels of silent video and projected film usually featuring long takes of repetitive human manual labor gathered by Niblock during his travels to dozens of countries all over the world. The movies are minimalistic in their own way, focusing on atomized movement—hands reaching into the frame, the camera moving only to follow the subject—and lacking such traditional cinematic devices as cutaways and reaction shots. In effect, they’re as devoid of gesture as the music is. And just as the music’s rhythm is mainly limited to the natural acoustic interactions of the multitracked sounds, the cinematic rhythms are likewise limited to the intrinsic motion in the shots themselves. You can see an excerpt from Niblock’s film China combined with Early Winter above, and a glimpse of a typical live Niblock intermedia presentation can be seen in this performance preview from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

With Joan La Barbara in 1975.

As a concert producer, Niblock has had a personal impact on literally hundreds of musicians. As a composer, his influence is prominent in the music of his contemporary Éliane Radigue, several members of the next generation (including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Lois V. Vierk), and a multitude of still younger musicians raised on newer digital tools that facilitate the creation of static, multilayered music. Recent examples of the latter include Lea Bertucci’s Sustain and Dissolve (with its multitracked detuned saxophone drones) and Jordan Nobles’ Deep Breath (for multitracked, slowed down flutes).

Today’s conference centers and dance clubs love to tout their “immersive” facilities, equipped with splashy video walls aiming high-tech wallpaper at the attending retinas to the 360° accompaniment of beat-driven consonance. The intent of this encirclement is, ironically, to drive everyone’s attention in the same direction. Meanwhile, in a far less pretentious building on New York’s Centre Street, there remains at least one steadfast practitioner of an art that is likewise immersive but sincere, fueled by an admiration for the complexity of raw sound and a respect for the cycles of shared human experience. Niblock’s art manages to be of our time, but not of our clichés. It invites each of us to foster a personal relationship with its materials, whether abstract or mundane. It proves that you don’t have to be dazzling to be astounding.

Niblock at his loft with Shelley Hirsch (seated) and Katherine Liberovskaya (photo from the Wall Street Journal).

Women in (New) Music: Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, wrote a piano concerto at the age of fourteen. But by the time she was in her thirties, she had largely given up the idea of composing.

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she said. “A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it.”

Why did Schumann believe this when many talented and prolific women composers—like Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn—had come before her? Because music by women was too often ignored and trivialized.

While women composers have made significant gains in the music world in recent years, there is still a disparity between how often and the way in which we talk about male and female musicians. Many writers and audiences still use deeply gendered language to discuss music by women, often subconsciously. Ideas that women’s talents are limited to shorter, simpler forms and emotional, but technically unimpressive works still lingers. The percentage of music by women taught in music classrooms is still staggeringly low. To many young musicians, it still can look as though women don’t really compose.

That’s why changing how we talk about women in music is so important, and why the website Music Theory Examples by Women is organizing an Edit-a-Thon to change the way women in music are representedstarting with Wikipedia.

The national Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29. The goal is to edit existing entries and create new entries to radically update the way women in music are represented across Wikipedia—and eventually, the broader musical discourse.

Anyone anywhere can participate, but if you’d like to edit with a group, in-person workshops are being offered throughout the country. The first half of the event will focus on discussing biased writing on women in music and learning how to edit Wikipedia. Attendees will have the time to work on editing and adding to Wikipedia entries during the second half. No prior musical knowledge or experience with Wikipedia is needed.

Seattle’s event is hosted by Live Music Project Executive Director Shaya Lyon, and will begin this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10am. Click here for additional details.

Additional workshops are being held in Boston, MA, East Lansing, MI, Houston, TX, Fredonia, NY, and Rochester, NY. Click here to learn more or register for a workshop.

At the Edge of the World with A Far Cry: Friday, Sept. 21 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

Composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol.

This Friday’s A Far Cry concert takes audiences to the edge of the world for a world premiere: Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s A Gentleman of Istanbul. Join us Friday, September 21 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET for a LIVE video stream of the Boston-based chamber orchestra as they perform Sanlıkol’s new symphony.

Scored for strings, percussion, piano, oud, ney (an end-blown flute), and tenor, A Gentleman of Istabul is inspired by the expansive travelogue of Evliya Çelebi, a 17th century Ottoman explorer. Born in Instanbul in 1611 and educated in the Ottoman court, Evliya’s travelogue is among the longest ever written, its pages filled with bold colors and vivid descriptions of his adventures.

Through its four movements, Sanlıkol’s symphony depicts the gentleman of Istanbul as an observer, an epic storyteller, a novelist, and a historian. Like Evliya’s travelogue, the symphony traverses vast musical territory, drawing from classical music, jazz ballads, African polyrhythms, Koranic chant, and various types of Turkish music. Plus, the composer himself performs with A Far Cry on piano, oud, ney, and voice parts.

Also on the travel itinerary are John Corigliano’s poignant Voyage, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s mythical Suite from Les Indes galantes, and Claude Vivier’s visceral Zipangu.

Visit this page on Friday, September 21 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET for a LIVE video stream of A Far Cry’s Edge of the World concert, streaming right here:

Check out the full program below, and click here for program notes.

John Corigliano: Voyage
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite from Les Indes Galantes
Claude Vivier: Zipangu
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: A Gentleman of Istanbul (World Premiere)


A Far Cry’s Edge of the World performance streams live on this page on Friday, Sept. 21 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. For more information about the orchestra, please click here.

Westerlies Weekend in Seattle: Sept. 20-23

by Gabriela Tedeschi

The Westerlies are a Seattle-bred brass quartet that has gained national acclaim for their genre-defying chamber music. Now, they’re giving back to the community that raised and inspired them with Westerlies Fest: a four-day music festival in Seattle featuring student workshops and concert collaborations with local artists.

The New York-based quartet is made up of Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. Mulherkar, Clausen, and de Koch are childhood friends from Seattle, and Rowlands (their newest member) was also born in Western Washington.

“The festival, for us, is an opportunity to feature all of the elements of what we do in their purest form as we envision them,” de Koch said. “Of course Seattle, being our hometown, seemed like the perfect place to bring together everything that we’ve gleaned from living in New York and traveling around the country performing.”

The festival runs Thursday, Sept. 20 through Sunday, Sept. 23. During the day on Thursday and Friday, the Westerlies are speaking and performing in schools around Seattle, with an emphasis on teaching in underserved areas. On Saturday and Sunday, they are leading a workshop for high school and college age musicians at Seattle Pacific University.

All four evenings, the Westerlies are performing at different venues around Seattle with a diverse group of collaborators ranging from spoken word poets to jazz singers and music students of all levels and instruments. Learn more about the concerts below:

Poets Troy Osaki (left) and Azura Tyabji (right).

Troy Osaki and Azura Tyabji with The Westerlies
Thursday, Sept. 20, 7:30pm, Wing Luke Museum

In partnership with Youth Speaks Seattle, the Westerlies are inviting local spoken-word poets to perform alongside them. Music will be interspersed between poetry performances, and the quartet will also accompany two poems with original compositions.

“[This performance includes] a lot of exciting young voices from Seattle that we wanted to hear and we wanted to give a platform to,” Mulherkar said.

One poet is Troy Osaki, a friend of the Westerlies from Garfield High School who now serves as a Youth Speaks mentor. Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Azura Tyabji will also perform original works, as will Zora “Rainchild” Seboulisa and Esther Eidenberg-Noppe. Emphasizing identity and examining areas of inequality, these young artists use poetry as a tool for inspiring change in the world.


TORCH with The Westerlies
Friday, Sept. 21, 7:30pm, Nickerson Studios at Seattle Pacific University

Friday’s performance is really two concerts in one: a set from the Westerlies and a set from the Seattle-based chamber ensemble TORCH.

The group is comprised of trumpeter Brian Chin, clarinetist Eric Likkel, double bassist Steve Schermer, and percussionist Ben Thomas (who also plays vibraphone and bandoneon). Like the Westerlies, TORCH is known for combining the intellectual rigor of classical music with a genre-meshing sound. Chin is also the founder and artist director of the nonprofit arts organization Common Tone Arts, a partner for the festival.

“That night really features some of the best of Seattle’s contemporary classical scene,” Mulherkar said. “This is really an opportunity for us to bring what we got from New York and present it right alongside all the amazing music that’s going on in Seattle.”


Kate Davis (left) and Theo Bleckmann (right; photo by Lynne Harty).

Theo Bleckmann and Kate Davis with The Westerlies
Saturday, Sept. 22, 7:30pm, First Free Methodist Church

The Westerlies are joined by two acclaimed guest artists from New York: contemporary classical and jazz singer Theo Bleckmann and singer-songwriter Kate Davis.

The core of Bleckmann’s set will be “Songs of Refuge and Resistance,” a project that the Westerlies and Bleckmann developed this June while in residency at Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music in Vermont. The project combines songs of refuge and protest pieces to highlight both music’s integral role in resistance movements and its ability to provide solace in the midst of turmoil.

Davis will perform a set of original works showcasing her warm, velvety vocals and inventive lyrics—including a Westerlies collaboration on her song “St. Joseph,” arranged by de Koch.


The Westerlies with Workshop Students
Sunday, Sept. 23, 4pm, Nickerson Studios at Seattle Pacific University

Sunday’s performance will serve as the culmination of the two-day student workshop the Westerlies are hosting for young musicians of all levels, styles, and instruments. The workshop will give students insight into the Westerlies’ unique approach to composition, improvisation, and ensemble practice.

“One thing that we’ve grown to be passionate about as an ensemble is improvising in a way that isn’t idiosyncratic to any genre,”  de Koch said. “The goal is to be able to introduce improvisation in a way that isn’t inhibited by any of the trappings of particular styles of music.”

The Westerlies also want to push young musicians to explore unusual instrument combinations, and to allow creative compatibility to overtake conventional ideas about ensemble work. Given their own history, the Westerlies know that good chemistry can lead to great music with any instrumentation.

“When we formed as a band, we didn’t form with the intention of being a brass quartet,” de Koch said. “We formed because we got along well as friends and admired one another’s personalities and musical tastes.”

At the concert on Sunday, students will perform in ensembles with the Westerlies, playing the music they create themselves through improvisation exercises.


Westerlies Fest runs Sept. 20 through Sept. 23. Thursday and Sunday’s performances are free, but reservations are recommended to guarantee admission. Student discounts and festival passes are available for Friday and Saturday’s concerts. For tickets and more information, click here.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Ken Thomson’s Sextet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Naomi White.

Ken Thomson’s music dances at the crossroads of contemporary classical and jazz—filled with boundless verve, blistering improvisations, and contrapuntal complexity. When he’s performing, his energy shines onstage—and when he’s writing music, it leaps off the page.

Though the clarinetist and saxophonist is perhaps best known as one of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Thomson’s new album of original compositions, titled Sextet, features him performing alongside a hand-picked cast of jazz all-stars: saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Daniel Dor.

The album begins with Thomson’s own arrangement of György Ligeti’s melancholic Passacaglia Ungherese before spiraling through a collection of six original groove-driven compositions that float freely between the rigor of through-composed music and the spontaneity of improvised solos.

We’re excited to premiere a track from the brand new album ahead of its September 7 release date. Click below to hear Thomson’s “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”

Learn more about the music from the performers themselves in the trailer below!


Ken Thomson’s Sextet comes out September 7 on New Focus Recordings. Click here to pre-order the digital album.

Oliver Knussen (1952–2018): Music of New Epiphanies

by Michael Schell

Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.

Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.

Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.

If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.

Second Inversion at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival!

Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy is thrilled to be attending the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival this year as a participant in the festival’s first ever Media Workshop! She will be at MASS MoCA from July 22-29, working alongside three other music journalists under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist).

If you see her there, say hello! We are excited for an opportunity to take Second Inversion to the opposite coast and connect in person with composers and new music-makers from around the world. Maggie will be attending rehearsals and concerts throughout the festival and would love the chance to talk with you about new music and upcoming projects. She’ll also be armed with free Second Inversion swag, so be sure to grab a magnet or pin when you see her!

Plus, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for summer music updates from North Adams, Massachusetts. See you at the festival!