Phill Niblock (born 2 October 1933, in Anderson, Indiana) is a composer, filmmaker, videographer, and director of Experimental Intermedia, a foundation for avant-garde music based in New York with a parallel branch in Ghent, Belgium.
After an early period studying economics (BA, Indiana University, 1956) Niblock came to New York in 1958. Initially he worked as a photographer and filmmaker. Much of this activity centered around photographing and filming jazz musicians. Thereafter he made a number of films in a series titled The Movement of People Working. Filmed in primarily rural environments in many countries (China, Brazil, Portugal, Lesotho, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, the Arctic, Mexico, Hungary, the Adirondacks, Peru), the films look at everyday work, frequently agrarian or marine labor. These films are remarkable for their realistic quality and absence of artifice, their use of long takes in high resolution and their supposedly artless juxtaposition of compelling images in vivid colors. These scenes of the movement of human manual labor are treated abstractly without explicit anthropological or sociological meaning. As in the music, a surface slowness is countered by an active, varied texture of rhythm and form of body motion within the frame; this is what Niblock himself considers the ultimate subject matter of his films.
Niblock's first musical compositions date from 1968. Unusually, even among the avant-garde composers of his generation, he has no formal musical training. He cites the musical activities of New York in the 1960s (and occasional memorable performances, such as the premiere of Morton Feldman's Durations pieces) as a stimulus. All his compositions are worked out intuitively rather than systematically. His early works were all done with tape, overdubbing unprocessed recordings of precisely tuned long tones played on traditional instruments in four, eight, or sixteen tracks. Since the late 1990s his music has been created with computer technology, notably with Pro Tools on a Macintosh computer. His later works are correspondingly more dense in texture, sometimes involving as many as forty tracks.
Niblock's music is an exploration of sound textures created by multiple tones in very dense, often atonal tunings (generally microtonal in conception) performed in long durations. The layering of long tones only very slightly distinct in pitch creates a multitude of beats and generates complex overtone patterns and other fascinating psychoacoustic effects. The combination of apparently static surface textures and extremely active harmonic movement generates a highly original music that, while having things in common with early drone-based Minimalism, is utterly distinct in sound and technique. Niblock's work continues to influence a generation of musicians, especially younger players from a variety of musical genres.