Phill Niblock | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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When New York composer and sound artist Phill Niblock presents one of his drone-based tape pieces, he plays it back loud--gut-thumping, heart-stopping, tooth-rattling, flood-the-room-to-the-rafters loud. Such serious volume is required not just to fill the performance space but to tease out the ringing harmonics that are Niblock's stock-in-trade. He'll layer several tracks of the same instrument--in the 60s and 70s, for example, much of his work used the rich timbres of the cello--and allow the superimposed waveforms to shimmer and shake against one another. Over time, latent overtones and minute aural details--a barely perceptible wobble in pitch, or the burr of a bow on a string--begin to sift out of the drone, like flakes of gold in a prospector's pan. For one recent piece, "Hurdy Hurry" (which appears on the recent Touch Records release Touch Works), he stacked two dozen samples of Jim O'Rourke playing hurdy-gurdy, creating a humongous wall of buzzing, vibrating noise. This might seem off-putting, but unlike other artists who traffic in earthshaking, monolithic sounds, such as Borbetomagus or Merzbow, Niblock has a droll, self-effacing presence, completely devoid of aggression, menace, or machismo. His work almost always has a playful element; because of the idiosyncratic way a given performance space shapes his sounds, for instance, he encourages listeners to wander around and discover all the different nodes and antinodes in the room. For this Chicago date, Niblock--fresh from an April residency at CCMIX, the Paris studio founded by Iannis Xenakis--will present five works. "Hurdy Hurry" will be unaccompanied, with Niblock adjusting the playback, and a piece for baritone voice, "A Y U (As Yet Untitled)," also on Touch Works, will be augmented live by New York new-music vocalist Thomas Buckner, who recorded the original tracks. The remaining pieces will be accompanied by local musicians: "S L S" will feature flutist Niki Mitchell; "Summing II," cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm; and "Ten Auras," saxophonist Michael Colligan. The venue should add to the usual acoustic intensity of a Niblock performance--in the hall of the Renaissance Society, the hang time for even a moderately loud sound is around seven seconds. Saturday, May 19, 8 PM, Renaissance Society, Cobb Hall, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis; 312-666-4412 or 773-702-8670.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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