The context for this conversation is Unsound, a multi-day program of experimental musics with lineage in both the ivory tower and the dancefloor. Founded in Poland, the festival is visitng New York City for the fourth time. Both Ben Vida and Phill Niblock are presenting work during Unsound-- in fact Vida's performance, entitled Damaged Particulates, will be at Niblock's loft on Sunday. Such was the impetus for us to host conversation, but these are composers cut from the same fabric at two disctinct historial moments. Phill Niblock is often pegged as a member of the Minimalism movement in contermporary classical music, and his loft has been the host of many an abstract sound. Ben Vida rose to initial notereity as a member of Town and Country, but has made a name for himself with koan-like modular synthesizer and computer music work that seems to bestow his machines with something resembling their own agency. As we were trying to figure out how to get Phill onto a Skype conference call, Ben was explaining to me the implentation of SubPacs during Damaged Particulates at Niblock's loft on Sunday. The SubPac is, for the record, a literal booty shaker, a chair pad which resonates at sub-bass frequencies.
Ben Vida: So I was just saying that I was interested in using the pads as direct bass, and then the subs in Phill’s space as like an airborne bass. So finding a language that can work between those two forms of sub-bass delivery.
Ad Hoc: That’s interesting, there’s sort of two different bodily bass reactions.
BV: Right, right. And I think it’s kind of a way of expanding the physicality but also the sonic spatialization of it. These pads are interesting because they’re not really designed to produce sound, but inevitably they do produce some sound. And so as you start to bring the frequency range up, they sort of have an interesting quality of their own.
Ad Hoc: Phill, are you still there?
Phill Niblock: Yes.
Ad Hoc: Great. Following up on what Ben was talking about, could I get you, Phill, to talk about how you're taking the specific space of your performance into consideration?
PN: I’m just actually using pieces that exist and bringing them to that space. [laughs] However, the one piece with two violins and two violas in stereo I had done in October, and was very interested in doing it again in New York. So that was part of the reason for that. Also I’m showing some films that are quite different from the films that I normally show, which are films that look at the movement of people doing everyday work-- in China, Japan, etc. There is a film shot of nature materials, and the one we’re using was shot in 1971 and ‘72, at the Adirondack Mountains.
BV: So there’s no people in those shots, it’s just nature?
PN: There’s no people in those shots. And there’s no relationship between the film and the music.
BV: And when Andy [Battaglia, journalist] and Lawrence [Kumpf, Issue Project Room] and I were over at your loft, you were showing us some little clips, but those were new footage? The nature footage shots?
PN: There’s two things. There’s some stuff that I shot last may, which is part of an exhibition in Paris at this time. And they decided not to use the more recent stuff, but to use the older stuff. Also, it’s slightly longer in time, so it just sort of reaches the amount of time that we have.
BV: The first time I saw you present your music and film was in Chicago, at least ten years ago, it was a Lampo event. I had spent a lot of time in that space over the years, but that night was the first time that I felt like the structure of the building was possibly gonna give up. Like it had that false ceiling, and it just seemed like it was gonna go to pieces that night-- it was a really amazing evening.
PN: Oh really, that’s amazing.
BV: But it was Lawrence from Issue [Project Room] and Andy Battaglia who put Phill and I in touch in terms of bringing the SubPac, Damaged Particulates piece into Phill’s loft. The guys just approached you about using the space, probably because of the quality of the sound system and, historically, what an important site of performances it has been.
Ad Hoc: Maybe I could actually get both of you to talk a little about compositional approaches. Because Ben, I don’t know whether you’re using a modular synthesizer at this time, but I definitely see it as a sort of outdated technology that’s come back into vogue. Whereas Phill, what you’ve been doing is something that’s never really gone out of vogue. So maybe I could just hear a little conversation about this?
PN: I make music that uses microtones to produce a lot of overtone patterns in a sort of big cloud of sound, where there’s no melody, no rhythm, no typical harmonic structure or development. But I use instrument sources. I tried once to use electronic beats and synthesizers, and it simply didn’t work well for me-- I didn’t really like the sound very much. So I went back to that many years ago, to using instruments. And so I keep producing. There will be actually more pieces this year from October to October-- my birthday to my birthday-- than I’ve ever made in one year. I think around ten or twelve.
BV: Can I ask you a question, Phill, about that process? You’re working in a digital editing format then? You’re taking those recorded sounds and then are you processing them in any way?
PN: The only processing I actually use is for pitch-bends, which I used to record the pitches specifically with the instruments by tuning them, and recorded and went to tape with that, so it was multitrack tape. Now I’m using Pro Tools since about 1998, and so that becomes the body of the work. And now there are many, many more possible tracks. And also I can make the pitch-bends directly in Pro Tools.
BV: So you’re taking a recording of, say, like a flute or a cello, and you’re pitch-shifting it digitally in Pro Tools?
BV: Okay. But originally, when you were working on tape, was it just about having the performers play those specific pitches and there was no manipulation?
PN: There was no manipulation. It wasn’t very possible to have it, except to retune. But I wanted to be more precise. So I would tune them at, say, 220, 224, 228, 232 Hz, and we would record those tones very specifically.
BV: Right, right. So I’m very much inspired by experiencing your music. I use a lot of very specific pitch relationships in order to illuminate the overtone series. I built a Max patch that has a bunch of sine-wave voices, and then can determine the motion of the one single voice, and then the accompanying voices follow within a very finely tuned relationship to that one lead voice. But it’s been a process of refining that patch-- refining its motion, but not its sound. It was built and makes a specific sound, and has been locked in as a tool or an instrument. So it’s not a matter of reconsidering the synthesis everytime. So either way, kind of conservative. [laughs] It’s just the voice of the instrument-- like it’s a violin or anything, you know?
But Michael to talk about maybe the antiquated nature of the analog synth, I think with anything, a contemporary composer-- tools aside-- is just working through the contemporary moment that you’re living in. So it’s your ear that’s determining these things, and your history of listening that’s determining your choices. So someone who’s composing for piano right now-- piano I guess could be considered an antiquated instrument as well--the tools don’t matter as much as the way they’re utilized. The interface of the analog synthesizer is just, for me, really conducive to creating a certain kind of gesture. So much so that, at this point, I’ll use the analog gear and use a CV-to-MIDI, so that the analog messages are turned into digital messages, to control digital synthesizers. So it’s just like that-- it could be a fiddle, it could be a Buchla, you know?
Ad Hoc: I suppose my question is: in a time when so much technology is available-- reliable technology, efficient in terms of both electricity and as a compositional resource-- how do you translate your ideas across mediums? Phill, you were certainly not using a computer back in the day.
PN: Well I think there are several things that happen. There are many more tracks possible with Pro Tools, and if it does sound different, I don’t really hear that much of a difference in terms of the overall sound. I just think, as a tool, Pro Tools allows for a lot more flexibility. Partly because there’s so much more you can pack into 32 signals than there is in eight.
BV: Phill, when you’re determining the tuning systems, are you working from mathematical equations? Or it something more instinctual and you’re working more from ear?
PN: My decision was to not use any tuning system, but to simply work by whatever I had decided to do. So the lowest tone was 196 Hz, and then it was three to seven Hz above that, in some sort of random order, for eight notes or something.
BV: And you determined the number of Hz just by listening to the relationships and finding a relationship that was pleasing to your ear?
PN: No, I never did that, actually. It’s more than I accepted what I got, but I looked for a really random sort of ordering.
BV: Oh, wow, okay.
Ad Hoc: Could I ask why?
PN: I find that a lot of the tuning systems sound a little sweet to me. Most just-intonations don’t have the edge that I would be interested in. And maybe I’m just lazy. [laughter]
BV: It doesn’t sound lazy. The initial guts of the Max patch that I use to create these sorts of materials was built by Bob Bielecki, and was designed by him for two things. One was a sweeping wave thing that he had built for Alvin Lucier, but the other was just a test patch for training the ear to hear different intervals, and being able to break out of a tempered intervallic relationship. And at first I thought crunching the numbers was an interesting way of getting at things, but after a while I would just spin the knob until it got into an interesting place, I think because I was often hearing relationships that were often a little too sweet, so to speak.
Ad Hoc: Might as well get uncomfortable, right?
PN: It makes the audience uncomfortable.
BV: That’s the thing. My ear gets very calibrated to these things that sound really fantastic to me but I realize they’re just murder. So I’ve seen you present your film and video work with your music a bunch of time. What is your consideration when coupling them? There is no association, is that correct?
PN: There is no association. That’s the first thing.
BV: And when you’re leaving the house and you’re grabbing the video and you’re grabbing the piece, what is the decision making process for what might be coupled with what?
PN: It’s more likely I’ll play recent pieces of music if the film is fairly old, at this point.
BV: I’ve seen, over the course of an evening, it will go from a certain film stock to video. Is there a lot of extra film footage. Do you ever revisit or reedit or is it pretty much fixed?
PN: It’s pretty much fixed because the pieces, which were derived from material shot from 1973 to ‘91 and again in 2009 and ‘10. Up until ‘89 it was shot on 16mm film. Most of which has been transfered to video, where it actually looks better than it does film?
BV: Where these the films that ended up on Touch?
PN: No. It'=s out, and has been out for about 10 years on Extreme, the Australian label, which are rare. I hope within a year. Two very long ones coming out on Touch. We’re trying. I had a retrospective last year in Lausanne, Switzerland and for that I had to get a lot of stuff together. And so we transferred a lot of the stuff newly from 16mm film to video. And then I retrimmed some things and color corrected some things. So the stuff is in much better shape. So now there are three reels of film which are six hours each. They were shown in Lausanne in one big museum. But they are being shown now, even, in the Ann Arbor film festival in Michigan. And I’m showing stuff tonight, where I’m showing two older sets of films plus music, most of which was done since October 2013.
BV: And those screenings, will they be silent?
PN: No, there’s a set of music. What was showing in Lausanne was 42 tunes, which was about 20 hours of music. The installation was up for three and a half months.
BV: Does the music film cycle at same time?
PN: Totally not. Even the films don’t cycle themselves, because they’re different lengths. If you played them continuously there would still be a different set of films.
BV: So for the Unsound piece and some of the shows I’ll be doing in Europe immediately after I’m considering not having any extra hardware and just presenting the piece as a fixed piece. Have you ever had a performative aspect to your presentation, or has it always been just the presentation?
PN: It’s either I play alone without any people or there are other people playing. Tonight Neil Leonard was playing tenor saxophone. At Unsound there will be two violinists, Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris.
BV: I guess I’m just trying to find more of a comfort zone of presenting work without any performative aspect. It’s been my experience that when I present electronic music, if I have a box of wires out there, people seem to react to that. So I’m trying to consider different ways to stage the pieces so I don’t have to be as present as a performer. I don’t know if that means sitting in a soundboard or lowering the lights. What would be that sort of cue to the audience that there is nothing to look like?
Ad Hoc: What relationship do you guys want to have to your audiences?
BV: I feel like, especially with using a lot of synthesizers that get into a self-generating mode I feel like my relationship to this music is always sort of toggling between composer and audience anyway. In a sense I feel like-- and because we’re part of this community of makers really, where audiences are also people who I then go and see-- so I feel like the relationship is very much about a community of people who have a very clear understanding of what’s going on because they’re engaged in the practice as well. At least thats true at a setting like Unsound. When work has found its way to museums and galleries it’s a little bit different because there’s a bit of a knowledge gap on a technical level, and also an audience that’s coming more out of an artistic discourse will have a different read of these materials and its often a greater receptivity to certain kinds of abstractions
Ad Hoc: How about you Phil?
PN: One of the reasons I use film is to fill that gap. I sit on stage, usually, behind a computer. And I push a button. And I play solitaire on my iPhone. I try to stay awake, but I’m not doing anything. The film does make up some of the performative attitude. I frequently perform with live musicians or wandering around. But I recently got a bad review in London at the Cafe Oto because I set up at the back of the hall and there were ten live performers on stage. And I got a bad review because I distanced myself too much the act.
BV: It’s always so political in London, isn’t? You’re the composer setting himself apart from the performance.
PN: If I were clearly gone from the space, then it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d just be a normal composer with an ensemble playing the music.
BV: Right, you’re supposed to be in your villa working on the next masterpiece.
Ad Hoc: Or just playing some solitaire elsewhere.
BV: So, Phil, how long until you’re back. Do you get back right before your performance?
PN: I’m going to Boston to record with David Watson. We have a concert at Mobius.
BV: Wow, what a schedule.
PN: Well you know, I’m in New York after that for a month and a half.
PN: I’ll get tired of sitting at home and working.
BV: Yeah, it’s one of the things that, when I talk to old friends, who aren’t engaged in music scenes or the arts or something, sometimes they will talk about how hard it is to meet people with common interests and meet new friends. And its interesting because when you get involved in this, sometimes there isn’t much financial support coming back but there’s this international community of best friends you get to see once every couple of years.
PN: That’s a great thing.
BV: It’s a gift.