Phill Niblock and Katherine Liberovskaya
(Cafe Oto, 15 April 2023; review and live drawings by Geoff Winston)
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An 11am sound check set up Phill Niblock’s afternoon concert at Cafe Oto perfectly, ensuring that the venue’s sound system would be fine-tuned to the intricate nuances of Niblock’s multi-layered electronic minimalism and to those of his improvising collaborators, radical mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg and the refreshingly uncompromising guitarist, Susan Stenger. With visual elements also a key part of the performance, the venue’s large windows were boarded up so as best to present the film and video works to be projected on to a large screen at the back of the stage area.
Best known as a composer and performer, Niblock, now in his ninetieth year, and bright as a button, as I found on meeting him the previous evening, he also works in film and photography and refers to himself as an intermedia artist. Niblock’s approach, as Bradford Bailey cites in his notes to Niblock’s LP set, Four Full Flutes, was shaped by his epiphany, experienced when motorcycle riding, getting caught behind a slow-moving truck and becoming aware of the sounds of the engine drones harmonising with ‘subtly different droning frequencies [which] produced beating patterns which induced a trance like state.’ There are parallels with Pauline Oliveros’s epiphany, her discovery of micro-sounds revealed to her in a recording she made with a microphone on her San Francisco window sill in 1958 which led to her to develop her Deep Listening philosophy. Equally significant for Niblock was a Morton Feldman concert he attended in 1961 which ‘gave me permission to experiment and go in new directions. This was a type of music that did not have melodic structure, rhythm, or typical harmonic progression.’
With sunlight glinting through the venue’s entrance, video artist and frequent collaborator, Katherine Liberovskaya and Niblock sat together at the edge of the stage area, each at their respective laptops, as she launched her flowing, live video mix combining footage of nature with abstract forms and patterns. Waving grasses, a pollinating bee, reflections on water, and explorations of the shadowed blades of a windmill, bled and morphed in to fast moving abstract sequences with a dexterity reminiscent of Len Lye’s landmark experimental films.
Accompanying the flux of screen images was Niblock’s dense sound collage, incorporating his manipulated field recordings. Insistent, rhythmic pulses, thunderous, roaring and rushing, offered a contrasting perspective, suggesting natural forces alongside the power of industrial process, intensely engaging, yet not far from an underlying sense of threat.
Lixenberg, close by the screen, watching intently, summoned up an impressive range of improvised vocalised responses bordering on bird and animal calls, avoiding discernible language. Travelling deep within a gamut of modulated high pitches, skitterings and cries, these blended skilfully with Niblock’s tenacious drones, all of which ultimately faded to bring the afternoon’s first chapter to a close.
After a short break, sequences from Niblock’s monumental film project, “The Movement of People Working”, were screened, with Niblock fashioning the rumbling setting for Susan Stenger’s shuddering guitar work. Shot over a twenty year period, the films concentrate on physically demanding manual labour, often in rural locations worldwide, with repetitive actions that are indirectly echoed in the layered pulsing embedded in Niblock’s sonic statements. We saw newly edited video from Sumatra with labourers, female and male, chopping cassava with machetes, cutting palm leaves, and ploughing fields with cattle.
In parallel, Stenger with guitar on lap, wrung out waves of crushingly dense, vibrating drones with controlled distortions, care of her ebow and foot pedals, and swaying metallic string sounds as she adjusted the tensions of the strings. The moving, physical impact of Stenger’s playing recalled live performances of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (reviewed here) and rhymed fittingly with Niblock, who favours intense, high sound volume for his works.
Lixenberg rejoined for a final spell where she closely followed Niblock’s closing rhythmic figures to round off an uplifting and inspiring afternoon.