Review: ‘Phill Niblock at 80’

Thomas Ankersmit, solo performer at ‘Phill Niblock at 80’, Café Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

‘Phill Niblock at 80’
(Café Oto, 28 February 2013. Drawing and review by Geoff Winston)

This was, in many ways, a lost opportunity. There had been a fair amount of low-key hype about Phill Niblock‘s concert at Café Oto, as part of his 80th birthday celebration, coinciding with his retrospective exhibition in Lausanne, yet although he was ‘in the house’, it was just as a shadowy presence, lurking entirely unannounced at the back of the room – either at the mixing desk or by the bar.

Given that it was to be a rare sighting in the UK of an influential figure in the New York’s Minimalist firmament, it would have been fairer to his followers, and those just intrigued by the tantilising publicity, to have scheduled a pre-concert conversation with the composer/film-maker, and/or to devise a concert which involved Niblock performing onstage, or at the very least to have introduced him to the audience before the concert started or at its conclusion. The closest we’ll get is Frederick Bernas’s concise, well-paced short documentary about Niblock.

The net result was a curiously impersonal non-encounter, leavened only by David Ryan‘s excellent interaction on bass clarinet – recalling Dolphy’s significant impact on Reich on seeing him live – during a section of the lengthy ‘Sweet Potato‘, a composition from Niblock’s Xenakis Centre Paris residency in 2001. Sampled tones from the instrument were the partial subject matter of multi-tracked, pre-prepared drones of fluidity verging perilously close to the soporific in the packed, airless room, which played alongside the projection of an excerpt from his 1988/89 film series, ‘The Movement of People Working’, shot in small workshops in China and Japan.

David Ryan performing in ‘Sweet Potato’ by Phill Niblock at Café Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

Against the intently observed takes of workshop process, primarily in a fish preparation factory (‘101 Things to do with a Dead Fish’?) and food and veneer production workshops, the dense, minimally accented flux acted like a soundtrack. The audience, probably drawn by the musical promise, were unwittingly, or cynically, turned into a cinema audience, as the film was the only visual focus offered. As with Niblock’s non-appearance, one did question the validity of constantly recycling his archive films to form the visual element of a performance/installation; the challenge of creating a new visual artefact with interactive components for this special event would have been much more satisfying.

If the sonic proposition, compelling to a degree as it was, would have offered a more challenging aspect, building on the kind of intense and expressive involvement that Ryan demonstrated, then the concert might have taken on a mythic dimension. As it as, it was a bit of a damp squib, as evidenced by the tepid applause at its termination.

Earlier, in solo performance, Thomas Ankersmit, a frequent collaborator of Niblock’s, got to grips with a two-panel analogue synthesiser in a flush of synthetic abstraction and imagism which evoked the blustering wind catching the sails out at sea and rhythmic aircraft choppers, with skids and deep drones evaporating in to flickering intrusions and elusive tinnitus-like whistles.

The whole concert could have been a more imaginatively connected and integrated event and, given Café Oto’s superb track record, it was a shame that its promise was not fulfilled.

Categories: miscellaneous

5 replies »

  1. Phill Niblock has sent in this response by email:

    This concert follows the form that i have used since the late '60s. I am not a stage front “star”. I use the film to be my performance visuals. I choose to work with the materials I use so that I am not on stage.

    The film itself, shot in video in Osaka Japan in 2009 / 2010 (not in the film series that i usually use from 1973 – 1991), was a premier showing for England, here.

    Two of the pieces of music will be on a new Touch double CD (out soon), the first piece – FeedCorn Ear, for cellist Arne Deforce, was finished and played in Lyon in march 2012; the third piece – “Two Lips”, played by the Coh Da guitar quartet, recorded in 2011 (a scored piece for ensemble from 2007) will be on the same touch CDs. Neither piece has been played in England before.

    As far as I know, Sweet Potato has not been played in London before, and David Ryan was magnificent.

  2. Thanks, Phill, that 's really helpful.

    Agreed, David Ryan's performance was great. I had thought that the film looked as though it was shot in Japan, especially with the fish focus – interesting that it was more recent than usual, too; it had that feel about it, somehow, but the pre-concert information didn't explain that. I wasn't suggesting that you should be performing, although Frederick's documentary shows you onstage as does the Harm video from 2003 – it was just one option.

    What I felt was that you had taken the great trouble to be present at the concert, but had remained entirely anonymous, so there was no tangible connection with you, and that was a shame.

    Whereas in New York you are well known and musicians beat a path to your loft space, and you are keen to make connections, encourage collaboration and foster talent, here your visits are few. This is a special year for you, hence the concert title 'Phill Niblock at 80', so to make the link with those interested, even just to put a face to the mind behind the concept would have been nice, and maybe also some outline of the concert content and rationale.

    Didn't need to be a performance, although a pre-concert conversation and/or a showing of the 11 minute documentary would have been a good way in for those interested. Café Oto are very good at that kind of presentation, so maybe next time!

    Thanks for the feedback and for the concert.

  3. Geoff (Winston) responds by email:

    I have read this piece and have no problem with it. Calum is in the main endorsing what I said (acknowledges the lacklustre applause and the high quality/nature of Ryan’s involvement), but adding a slightly different viewpoint to justify the nature of the experience – which is fine.

    My main gripe is that actually the possibilities offered by the presence of Phill Niblock at Café Oto were not maximised and the experience was under-enriched as a result. All well and good, sure, but those attending would have been open to a more rewarding immersion in the music/media of Mr Niblock – incidentally, probably seen in the distance (but not definitely) at the RFH Steve Reich concert last night (?)

Leave a Reply