Phill Niblock: Connecting the Dots
Phill Niblock’s music sounds like it is from another planet. Read the interview…
The music of Phill Niblock is so completely different from other music that it sounds like it is from another planet. Yet to create this totally unique approach to sound, Niblock uses standard instruments—e.g. cello, flute, trombone, electric guitar. However, Niblock multi-tracks these instruments, originally with tape recorders and currently with computers. The basic idea is for an instrumentalist to record a series of long, held tones, all ever so slightly out of tune with each other, and then to play additional long held tones along with those tracks at an extremely loud volume for about half an hour, and sometimes longer. There are no melodies per se and it is devoid of harmony and rhythm in the conventional sense. But multiple layers of pitches only slightly away from each other is after all a kind of harmony, and the way the ear perceives the jarring clashes of those pitches—we actually hear fluctuations in volume occurring with periodicity (what acousticians, in fact, call “beats“)—really is a kind of rhythm.
If this all sounds pretty heady, well, it is. And Niblock rolls off numbers of Hertz frequencies—e.g. the number of cycles per second at which a waveform oscillates—with the same kind of glee that other composers might reserve for harmonic progressions or polyrhythms. (Watch the video!) Yet despite such seeming erudition, Niblock’s approach has little to do with theory; it’s completely intuitive:
I completely don’t use any sort of tuning system. So whatever tuning system there is, is just made up.
Niblock never formally studied musical composition and did not even start composing until he was 35. In fact, in college he was an economics major.
I was in pre-med for a year and a half, and then I was a sort of an undeclared major for about a year, and then suddenly, I realized that I had to graduate with something. Having an economics major meant I could get a B.A. ’cause I had all the science credits and still take on business courses, and so I became an economics major. But theoretically, I wasn’t much of an economics major; I wasn’t much of a theorist at least.
Four decades later, he’s more fired up than many composers one-third his age, and his mind-bending sonic experiences attract devotees of experimental music and even the indie rock and laptop crowds. In fact, CDs of Niblock’s music are now released by the British label Touch, which issues recordings by Fennesz and Brandon LaBelle. He’s also writing lots of music for orchestra, a performance paradigm that might initially seem completely at odds with his compositional aesthetics, but he’s found a champion in conductor Petr Kotik, and a second CD of his orchestra music is coming out on Mode Records later this month.
Most of Niblock’s projects, however, are totally DIY. It’s a self-sufficient business approach that goes back to his early years as an experimental film maker, before he composed a note of music, and it has also guided his half-century of work as a concert and visual art presenter (he runs Experimental Intermedia) and as a record producer (for Experimental Intermedia’s XI label). Perhaps that economic degree helped steer his path after all.
Frank J. Oteri: Although you’ve had a career in music spanning decades, you started rather late. And music wasn’t your first passion. In fact, the early part of your life wasn’t really spent with music at all.
Phill Niblock: That’s not true. There are six hundred 78s sitting on the shelf over there which started in 1948.
FJO: What’s on those 78s?
PN: It’s mostly jazz. There’s some classical stuff, but 78s weren’t great for classical stuff.
FJO: I mean in terms of you creating your own music.
PN: Ah, that’s a different issue. I didn’t make music until I was 35.
FJO: And the first thing that you did artistically, and did for many years, and continue to do is make films.
PN: I made films, but I made films just a couple of years before that actually. I started doing films in ’65 and then music in ’68. I was doing photography from ’60, ’61 on.
FJO: And before that, you earned a degree in economics, which seems completely unrelated to the kinds of non-commercial enterprises you’ve spent a lifetime pursuing.
PN: Well, it’s barely a degree. I was in pre-med for a year and a half, and then I was a sort of an undeclared major for about a year, and then suddenly, I realized that I had to graduate with something. Having an economics major meant I could get a B.A. ’cause I had all the science credits and still take on business courses, and so I became an economics major. But theoretically, I wasn’t much of an economics major; I wasn’t much of a theorist at least.
FJO: So it wasn’t your parents saying, “Oh you can’t really have a career as a filmmaker or composer. You’ve got to do something that’s going to earn a living.”
PN: Well it all came much later anyway because I went from school directly into the army, to a voluntary draft, so I was gone for two years doing that. It turned out to be a fantastic period because I traveled really extensively. The traveling began in the army, including taking a month’s leave and going to Europe in ’58. I was at the Brussels Expo.
FJO: So that means you heard the premiere of Varèse’s Poème électronique.
PN: I did, yeah. I don’t remember much about it, that’s true, but I did know what it was also because I was already collecting records and knew of that stuff.
FJO: So where did the passion for music come from? Where did it start?
PN: Well actually it probably started in ’48 listening to jazz. I was always interested in sound. And that was the beginning of LPs, the beginning of hi-fi, and the beginning of tape recording. So there was an incredible sudden blooming of technology. It was actually possible, because of hi-fi, to hear sound in an entirely different way. This was not your typical Edison phonograph. So all of that was a really big influence. I was a hi-fi fan. I built a speaker system in 1953 which is in that corner over there which the guy who records for me thinks sounds best of all the speaker systems here. My first tape recorder was 1953 also. But I wasn’t using it at all creatively. I was just transferring time essentially. I was using it to just record some sounds, but more for dubbing stuff from records to tape.
FJO: Back in those days, why would you convert a record to a tape? I know that years later you could carry around a cassette on a Walkman. What would be the reason to convert something to a reel-to-reel tape?
PN: Records are more expensive and harder to transport. I converted a lot of stuff when I was in the Army because I started to do a night show for the in-house hospital radio station, which had a lot of 16-inch transcriptions and stuff. And so I could take that stuff off on tape, too.
FJO: You said you were in Brussels and heard Poème électronique and you knew what it was. So were you exposed to that music also by just picking it up at record stores?
PN: I started collecting because there was a guy in Anderson, Indiana—my hometown—who had a small record store, which was in a former alley way. It was actually about one and a half widths of a car. And the shelves were constructed along the brick walls of the alley way, which had a roof over it. I began to go there and listen and take his advice. Then, for some time, if he had to leave town or something like that I would hold the store open and stuff. So I bought most of those 78s in that occasion, sort of under his tutelage. And I heard a number of jazz bands. I heard Ellington first in 1948 actually playing in a theater, in Anderson. And then I heard the, the band in either late-’50 or early-’51, which was just after Louis Bellson joined the band and Willie Smith. And Willie Smith was actually the only person sitting with a book. And the book was open in the middle, and was this thick on both sides. It was really amazing to see. No one else had any sheet music as far as I could tell at all.
PN: So the band just played.
FJO: But he needed it because—
PN: He just joined.
FJO: So jazz was a passion of yours. And when you got to New York, you were making films, and you made a film about Sun Ra.
ON: I made a film about Sun Ra in ’66 to ’68, so I had started making films not too long before. And I had an idea that I could realize in 20 minutes shooting a live set; it was totally stupid of course. So then I spent two years developing, and redeveloping, and working on new stuff for that film. And when it was finished, it was sort of a tour de force. It was very, very nice. It’s still nice to look at.
FJO: But then you went from being a passionate listener of jazz, and maybe some classical music, and later being a documentarian of that scene, to creating your own music in a style that’s decidedly not jazz—
PN: Decidedly not jazz. OK, but to go back a little bit, I’m not a musician. Totally. And so when I’m listening to music, I’m listening to sound. That’s also part of the thing about Ellington; Ellington is about sound much more than almost any other jazz around. So that was a big, a big element, and I was also listening to hi-fi. So I was listening to sound systems as well. And because I was collecting records in Indiana, I was listening to jazz as sound from speakers. And since I was also recording, all of that technology of sound reproduction and recording was a basic part of my thing. So I stole. I constructed pieces directly as recordings. And so when you hear a piece of mine, you actually hear a recording. In a concert I’m playing back a recording. And frequently there are live musicians playing along with the recording, but they’re still playing along with the recording. In recent years there have been a few orchestra pieces where it was just an orchestra playing, there’s no other foreign pre-recorded sound. But for the most part, the pieces are constructed as sound, and as recorded material.
FJO: I want to get to those orchestra pieces a lot later. We have a long way to go before we get there. So you’re listening to music, and it eventually makes you want to make your own music.
PN: Well hmmmm, it’s a little more particular. I started in film working with a choreographer and filmmaker herself—Elaine Summers. I was immediately involved in the Judson Dance Theater at Judson Church. So I was around a lot of dancers, and there was an intense period when I was shooting film of a lot of different dancers. I was sort of the cinematographer of choice. So I was slated to make live performance events because of that. The first piece of music was actually for one of those events in late ’68. I decided to make an organ piece. I was interested in this phenomenon of microtones creating different tonal patterns. That’s what I was working with. And I was using an organ because if you use different stops you get microtones because nothing’s ever pitched quite the same.
FJO: Where would you have become aware of microtones? How would you have known about them?
PN: That was around. I was listening to music, and I was listening to this kind of music, and I was listening to some technical stuff. So I knew about that, and it was part of the sound world I was interested in.
FJO: Stuff like The Theatre of Eternal Music, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad?
PN: I heard those pieces. I actually heard a fantastic concert of everyone, the whole band, in ’65. But I also heard some pieces of Feldman from a very short period in Feldman’s writing life, from ’61, called Durations. The fact that they could play long tones, where there was no rhythm, and no obvious melody and no sort of obvious harmonic progression happening was an amazing idea, I thought, so in some sense that gave me permission to think about making music, which happened a few years later.
FJO: What’s so interesting though is that in some ways this is the exact opposite aesthetic to jazz which is all about a feel and a swing, taking a melody and transforming it through endless variation. And you had such passion for that music, and you followed that scene. But then when you created your own music, it was 180 degrees away.
PN: Well it was also for a purpose. I was creating music to be part of this performance scene. And, in fact, the music almost immediately began to be more important than anything else. Somehow or other, I became known for making music much more than I was as a filmmaker.
FJO: It’s unusual that you started writing this piece from an idea you had without ever having studied composition formally. You said you’re not a musician. So you didn’t play music. Did you know how to read music? How did you get this piece done?
PN: Oh, I can figure out what the note is if I spend a little time looking at it. But that piece was basically improvised as I was recording it. I was making a recording of the organ, again a recording. And it was a through recorded piece, so I was not constructing something. I was actually improvising and using that material later. So I didn’t need to write anything down, and since I was ignoring melody and typical harmonic progression and rhythm that was O.K.
FJO: Well the other thing I’m thinking about in terms of the music that you’ve done is, based on what notation is optimized to convey, it really can’t be written down.
PN: Well, that’s I guess probably not true. The pieces which exist—except for that piece—virtually are all completely scored.
FJO: Using standard music notation?
PN: No, using my own notation to make the piece. In the scores of all those early pieces, there are mixed scores. They’re my scores. They’re not for the musician to play. So the musician is already out of the loop. I’ve recorded the musician, and then I construct a score given that material that I’ve recorded.
FJO: But theoretically, if somebody were able to decipher your notations, they would be able to re-create the process.
PN: Uh, yes. It’s happened. There are a few people who’ve actually done that. They’ve gone back to the score, and they’ve remade a piece that sometimes doesn’t sound much like the piece, but.
FJO: Why doesn’t it sound much like the piece? I’m curious.
PN: Stephan Mathieu from Saarbrucken did it recently. He was using an instrument which has a very steady state, like a synthesizer. And it just creates a very constant beating. So the whole piece was full of these constant beatings which is totally against what I would do normally—recording instruments which have some variations in pitch as they play: wind instruments or string instruments. That really seems to destroy the constant beating a lot. I’ve learned a few things in my day.
FJO: I will say the style you developed is quite different from the other drone-type pieces that were being done at that time by composers like La Monte, Charlemagne Palestine, Tony Conrad, etc. When they were using just intonation they were trying to create things that were somehow natural, or cosmic, or otherworldly, and serene, in a way, if I may posit that. Whereas I get the sense from your work, even from the onset, that serenity has nothing to do with it.
PN: I should be appalled.
FJO: [laughs] This is not qualitative. It seems like you’re aiming for something else, something that’s potentially more visceral, and more difficult to listen to in a way. Is that fair?
PN: Yes. I don’t know how much is prescribed and by me when I do it. And a lot has happened over a long period of time, ’cause I’ve been doing it for a long time. So that I find that the pieces which I’ve done in the last five years are in a way much richer. But partially they’re richer simply because I’m using 32 tracks instead of eight, or four. So things really get compounded when there’s that much more possibility. And the recordings are very clean. I really like the idea of analog, but digital really works out very well for me. And working on the computer is much, much faster than working with tape machines.
FJO: But getting back to this idea of a visceral, almost dangerous sound.
PN: I should say one thing, I completely don’t use any sort of tuning system. So whatever tuning system there is, is just made up. That was one of the things I decided not to do, so.
FJO: But in a way, it’s also—if I may posit this—to re-contextualize these terms. Other people are using ratios to be more in tune, you’re using them in a way to be more out of tune, to highlight the discrepancies.
PN: Um hm.
FJO: It’s not something coming together, but something breaking apart somehow. Is that fair?
PN: That’s really a fantastic statement. Can I use that?
PN: Well I think that’s pretty much exactly it. Part of the unease is that it tends to break apart. There’s actually a piece which I think is really classic from ’77. It’s the piece for trombone that I made for Jim Fulkerson. And it’s based on As and sharp As. So I’ve actually recorded the 55 [Hz], 110, and 220. So in the lower octave it’s 55, 57, 59, 61, and then in the next octave it’s 110, 113, 116, 119—three Hertz differences; two Hertz, three Hertz, and then four Hertz in the upper octave. So when you play the 57 hertz against the 113 hertz, you have a one hertz difference. And in the middle of the piece, it just becomes harmonic distortion. It’s just completely shattered. And so I think probably there’s very little sense of As or anything, you know. It just really falls apart. And it’s only eight channels.
FJO: Now to continue along those lines. You create clashes like that and the playback is at very loud volumes generally.
PN: If you play the pieces at a low to middling volume, you hear the instrument and you don’t hear the overtone patterns. But when you play it louder, the overtone patterns really become very prominent. There’s another piece, which is the first piece that I finished which I think is really a classic piece for me, made in ’74 with David Gibson on cello. When you play it really loud, you hear this incredible high cloud of overtones. And the cello disappears. And when you play it very softly you hear cellos then. You don’t hear the overtones virtually at all.
FJO: And your piece is about hearing the overtones.
PN: The piece is about hearing the overtones. It’s like a tape music concert in some sense because I sit there and I just push a button and the piece starts. However, if I’m not there, and I’m not doing it, you don’t hear the music because I’m the one who’s setting the levels, and tweaking things and making sure the speakers are turned in the right direction or something like that. So really the music is about creating the sound and the space and that’s what I’m controlling. It’s bad when I don’t have a good sound system.
FJO: So the goal is to emphasize very distorted intervals that are not quite matching each other.
PN: Um hm.
FJO: And it’s a continuous sound with no break, sometimes with durations of a half hour or more. It’s an intense experience, which might even border on painful for some listeners.
PN: There are some people who leave. And I’m actually playing it a lower volume than I was ten years ago so. I mean I was actually doing 115 [dB] with the sound level meter ten or fifteen years ago and I’m probably playing more like 105 now with the sound level meter setting.
FJO: Are you concerned about audience reactions that are negative in that way? Does that impact what you do?
PN: No. Audiences are so completely different. I just had a concert, a really fantastic concert which wasn’t loud enough in Milan. But there were six film images, five meters wide, each in a row. It was really fantastically beautiful, in a huge place, 30 by 100 meters. And there were four to five hundred people sitting on a concrete floor, at the very beginning there were that many. But at the end there were about 50 or something like that. But it was a three-hour concert, so it was long. And they simply ran into real budgetary problems. The guy didn’t pay enough attention to what I said when I asked him for six speaker systems, and he had four. And it wasn’t loud enough. It was right at the edge of distortion, so if I made it really louder, it would have started to fall apart.
FJO: But I thought that you want it to fall apart.
PN: I want it to fall apart naturally, but I don’t want the speakers to be distorted.
FJO: Right. Of course.
PN: Sounds systems are always a big problem for me because. And it’s amazing because now in the last 10 to 15 years, it’s possible to have really fantastic sound systems in a lot of places. I mean there are sound systems which sound good, and they will produce that much volume. Thanks to rock and roll, but, so that’s the way it goes.
FJO: So to get back to those concerts years ago that were at immensely loud volumes. You have this space in New York City where we can hear the traffic outside—
PN: —You don’t hear the traffic when there’s a concert of mine going on.
FJO: I’m thinking the other way. I’m thinking about people hearing the concert who maybe don’t want to be hearing the concert somewhere else. Are there issues in terms of volume with things that you’ve done, either here or elsewhere; has that ever been a problem?
PN: Well sure, there’s a multitude of problems if it’s an audience which comes and doesn’t expect to have what they get. They’re confused, and they’re much more apt to leave quickly. I did a concert not so long ago at the REDCAT Theater in L.A. and half of the audience had gray hair, and they didn’t last too much, so. But the other half didn’t have, and they stayed pretty much. It was a pretty loud concert in a fairly standard concert hall, you know, raked seating and plush seats. Plush seats are usually very bad for me. Usually the best places for me are churches. They really are fantastic. There’s a really great one in Cologne which is extremely bare stone. There’s no pews. There’s virtually nothing in the church except this carapace, and it’s very nice sounding because it’s very reverberant, because of the size of the church and the curved ceiling. Big reverberant spaces are the best thing for me so that the sound is sort of going around. There are a lot of standing waves and typically in a concert like that, if you walk around, you would hear entirely different things if you walked close to a wall or into a corner. If you just keep walking around in a space, the sound changes all the time. The sound’s changing all the time in the piece, but the sound is really changing in the space as well.
FJO: So ideally, that’s a good thing for the audience to walk around.
PN: Yeah. That’s a good thing. And the problem with film is that people don’t walk around when they have film. They watch the film, so they’re looking at the screen. And especially if there are seats. Then they sit down, and they never get up.
FJO: So in terms of audiences walking out—you talked about REDCAT and Milan. Does it bother you at all that people leave, or is that just par for the course?
PN: That’s the nature of the music and the scene. I’m not trying to please everyone in the world, or I wouldn’t be making this kind of music.
FJO: So to talk a bit about musicians you’ve worked with. You record people playing these different tones, and then you take over from there. But you’ve also written pieces that involve players in real time, whether they’re playing with a recording, in the sense of some of these pieces, or the orchestra pieces, where they are orchestra pieces in real time. I’m curious to know your thoughts about the ideal musician.
PN: A virtuoso musician is always good to have. It does make a huge difference. When I’ve worked with musicians who weren’t very good on their instrument, it’s not so interesting. And especially if you’re working with a musician who knows that you’re going to do microtones which are going to make a lot of close pitches, they tend to play differently. I mean I made six pieces for Ulrich Krieger for saxophones, and he totally understands what’s happening. He’s incredibly supportive. And I made a lot of pieces for David Gibson, this cellist in the ’70s, and he was really amazing. I’m working recently with Arne Deforce, who is a Belgian virtuoso cellist. And we’re making another piece, on November 9th in Cologne, in a really fantastic studio situation.
FJO: So, most of the people you work with are people whose backgrounds are, for lack of a better term, “contemporary classical music performance.”
PN: Yes. Or in this experimental field, ’cause there are very good players who don’t normally play classical music, but they’re playing this experimental scene, so they have something, they really have knowledge of what the things sound like.
FJO: And you mentioned the speakers getting better because of the rock world. You’ve also worked with people who have very strong ties to the more experimental end of the rock community, like the people who founded the Band of Susans.
PN: Robert Poss and Susan Stenger. Yeah.
FJO: So your music does overlap different genres to some extent, which makes me curious about how you perceive your music in the greater arc of history. Would you consider yourself a composer of classical music?
PN: It’s not a big issue. [laughs] How’s that for an answer?
FJO: It’s a good answer.
PN: I’m not trying to please the audience, but I am interested in having the music live further. So for one thing, it’s quite important to make recordings. I’m on an English label [Touch] which is still selling CDs, which is totally amazing, and they’re pushing it because they keep doing stuff. So virtually nothing I’ve done in the last 20 years hasn’t been published on CD, except some of the orchestra pieces, simply because it doesn’t make any sense to do them on Touch, but I have a new DVD with three orchestra pieces coming out on Mode in the beginning of the year.
FJO: The thing with performances of orchestra music is that most of time you automatically have to face the question of what your relationship is to older music. They’re going to get played alongside a Beethoven piece or a Tchaikovsky piece. And if these pieces are to live on, and you talked about having the music live further, they’ll probably get played on these kinds of concerts.
PN: It’s sort of unlikely. The orchestra pieces that have been played live so far have been played mostly in Ostrava by [Petr] Kotik, and consequently they’re not easily played on a program with Tchaikovsky.
FJO: Are those pieces more conventionally notated?
PN: They’re scored dots on a line, or between the line sometimes.
FJO: They would have to be for all those intervals that you’re playing around with.
PN: They’re scored in a very peculiar way, I think. There are no parts for the differentials. They’re scored so everybody gets the same score, and they play an A, for instance, and there’s indications whether they should play a certain amount sharp or flat, how much sharp or flat with a series of arrows beside the note, etc. And they have to play in the octave which is natural for them, so it’s written in the middle octave and they play whatever they play, whichever octave they play, or maybe two octaves, or three depending on the instrument.
FJO: So that means that multiple performances of a piece will be somewhat similar, but never exactly the same.
PN: Sure, but that’s true of Beethoven too, so.
FJO: Maybe, in a different way though. What I’m trying to understand is the element of indeterminacy that may or may not exist in this music in terms of your own aesthetic for it. How important is the precision?
PN: If I play a concert in one hall, and I go to the next hall and I play exactly the same program, it’s not going to sound the same, even though it’s playing from recordings. It doesn’t sound the same. And if you move around the space, it also doesn’t sound the same. So if you’re standing in one corner, there’s a huge standing wave right where you are; it’s totally different than if you’re sitting in the middle of the audience. So there are so many variations. The structure of the music has a lot to do with sound, not with the musical ideas that would be present in Beethoven. So that sound is the musical idea, and that changes really constantly, so.
FJO: On your website you define yourself as a Minimalist composer. You embrace that word.
PN: Yeah, I think it’s very good.
PN: Why not? Everything that I do is really the Minimalist aesthetic. The essential Minimalist aesthetic is to get rid of, to pare down, to deliver decisions about what you’re going to include, and mostly what you’re going to exclude. And so that’s very inherent in what I do in film or in music basically.
FJO: So here we are in this space. Experimental Intermedia. This place has been another lifelong project of yours. This Experimental Intermedia was founded the very same year that you started composing music. 1968.
PN: Yes. I also moved to this space in ’68. The lease runs from June 1, 1968. I probably put those 600 78s on the shelf in late ’68, and they haven’t moved since.
FJO: You haven’t listened to them since then?
PN: Most of the really good stuff in there has been reissued in much better sounding form. And a lot of it actually is in that pack of CDs that were on that chair when you came in, which haven’t been opened yet. I never really play LPs, either. So there’s this big collection of LPs, and there are LPs from 1950 on the shelf, too.
FJO: So why do you keep them if you don’t listen to them?
PN: Oh, ’cause I’m a collector. I don’t see that one thing has to do necessarily with the other. A collector collects, you know. I mean, people buy paintings and they put them away someplace and they don’t necessarily look at them every day, but they’re still part of the collections. I can feel the music on that shelf.
FJO: I actually really understand that. I also feel the energy that’s emanating from it, but it still begs a further question about what you acquire and how you acquire it. You’ve said that stuff gets sent to you, and I know that you also buy things. Is there any rhyme or reason to how you collect? What makes you pick up something rather than something else?
PN: Things come to me, but there’s two things. People give me music because I’m a producer at Experimental Intermedia, or because I’m another composer and they want me to hear what they’re doing, which I want to do, too. So I get a lot of CDs or whatever form it could come in, mp3 files even. But I also collect. Last week I bought three or four hundred CDs in Mannheim. Really. It’s a great store. I bought a big box of Brendel playing piano for instance, so.
PN: Beethoven and other things. It’s a mixed box.
FJO: So you get a lot of recordings when you’re traveling and you’re always traveling. You also have an additional Experimental Intermedia venue based in Belgium, in Ghent.
PN: It’s so totally different. I bought a house in Ghent in 1992 and the first exhibition there was is in 1993. It’s a window gallery. We can’t do sound. It’s a very small room. It’s triangular. The house is built on a curved street with the tram coming right in front. The tram stops in front of the house now. You get out of the tram, you’re in front of the window of the gallery. And you don’t go into the house. The house is normally closed. There’s no one there. There’s just a window gallery. You look through the window; that’s what you get. And if you go into the house, the floor of the gallery is raised this high. So you have to get on a ladder to get up into the gallery floor, from the inside of the house. The space is about four meters, by four meters, by four meters. But it’s a triangle, so when you look in the window, you’re always looking in a corner of the space as well.
FJO: So you exhibit European visual artists there?
PN: Mostly European artists. My original idea was that we wouldn’t do any Belgian artists. So for years, all the artists were from elsewhere. And I tried to invite as many people from the East as possible in the ’90s. It was very difficult because we didn’t have a lot of money, even when we had some money. Then in recent years, the board has sort of fallen apart, so the exhibitions are much more chaotic. There’s someone in Ghent who’s actually taking care of that and doing mostly video installations and stuff.
FJO: But you do tons of concerts all over Europe. In fact, it seems like you make more music outside of the United States than you do here.
PN: Totally. Totally. Absolutely. Totally. Like 90 percent.
FJO: So are audiences abroad more attuned to your music outside the United States?
PN: Audiences are more attuned. And there’s obviously much more of an infrastructure. There’s more money. There’s more possibility of doing it. Oh, yeah. The U.S. was beginning to be a little bit good at the end of the ’80s, and then it completely fell apart. When the NEA was attacked by the religious right wing, it just destroyed the whole fabric of artist-run spaces like this one for instance. We lost all of our NEA funding in that three years.
I don’t know how we get more funding. It isn’t a natural part of the American ethos to fund culture, particularly culture that is more emerging. MoMA can get money, and the Metropolitan can get money easily. But not something like Experimental Intermedia or even Roulette or Issue Project Room, which continue to do a really fantastic job.
FJO: So where in Europe is there a really exciting scene right now from your perspective?
PN: There’s an incredible array of stuff happening in more composed music, but also it’s harder to distinguish any more the improvising scene for instance with composed music, because that stuff is so solid. There are amazing people, and when they come together in different combinations, amazing things happen. And there’s just simply a lot of places and there’s money. One of the country’s that has a really amazing infrastructure is France; the only problem is that they mostly do French people. But there are many small organizations spread around and they get enough funding to have one or two people who can work only on that. So they get money for production, but they also get money to support someone who’s working, which is very hard to do in France. And Germany is good. Holland used to be very good. And in the last ten years, it’s really shrunk a lot. And now the funding scene will be extremely tightened for culture in Europe. The recession has really hit, and it wasn’t just that initial hit a year ago, it’s what’s happening now to funding and countries are really having trouble; Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are very hard hit.
FJO: So then for all the American artists who are going abroad to make a livelihood as a creative artist, like yourself, what happens now?
PN: There’s less. That’s all.
FJO: Any other avenues to open, like in the Far East?
PN: There’s some activity in China which I haven’t tried to go to, to actually play. I was there a lot shooting film in the ’80s, but I haven’t really pursued that for myself. Japan is also like America; there’s no tradition of cultural funding in Japan. They play in clubs, and you get door money and stuff like that, but that’s a lot of it. There’s not as much city funding or federal money for cultural projects.
FJO: But to get back to home and to Experimental Intermedia: You have this idea, you wanted to create music, you’d never written music before, and you wrote a piece that was fully formed, as it were. And your ideas about music have been pretty much consistent since that very first piece, which I find fascinating. But you also established a do-it-yourself aesthetic with this place. You curate concerts, so you became the presenter of your own work. You have a record label; you became the recording maker. So you became the means by which your music was disseminated, as well as the creator of it. But you also present and record other people.
PN: I’ve always felt that artists should produce other artists. When artists produce other artists, it’s different than when professional curators produce other artists. They are more apt to see people for their work and for their personality, I think. They’re also more apt to find things which are not so obvious and so mainstream. I get a lot of emails cataloging who’s curating what. And you see either totally strange names, or the same names coming up all over. There are a few people who get curated a lot, and they’re very famous either in visual arts or in music. And other people are not, and I think it’s really important that we search around.
The reason for doing XI records, for instance, was there were a lot of people even in sort of my generation who simply didn’t have very well-made CDs out. There wasn’t a real collection of their work. For instance, we did the very early edition of Eliane Radigue when there was virtually nothing out. And that’s what I think was really her crowning work actually. So I’m very happy, because she’s become much more famous; it’s really amazing. And she’s touring a lot, so. I thought it was really important to give these people an opportunity to have a CD for which they essentially could decide what was going to be on it themselves. And that we did as much as we could to make it work. One particular one was Jackson Mac Low. Anne Tardos and Mary Jane Leach produced that and it never would have happened. It was a combination of Jackson and Anne, but also Mary Jane really put together the record. And so there’s a real document of Jackson who, whose work is very scattered and not so well documented. It’s really an amazing thing. Now it’s still pretty much the same. I think probably there’s less emphasis on certainly people of my generation, but we’re still interested.
FJO: What about digital dissemination?
PN: One of the problems with digital dissemination is that things like the notes don’t go along. It becomes much more anonymous, even the name. I mean, once you have an mp3 file, where does it get named? Virtually.
I noticed in the early ’90s that people consistently did CDs without enough notes; not playing notes, but notes to read. There was not enough text material. There was not enough background. And so the second CD I did, I decided I would really try to make a model for it. I asked several people to write and the scores are in the CD as well. And I think it was really an amazing model. Then I tried to make everybody do something similar so that there were a lot of extensive notes, historical information, and background for the piece, and all of that stuff.
We don’t do very many CDs and we really try to make each one good. And some years ago, I decided to make it two CDs for the price of one. And so people have to come up with two CDs full of stuff or they can’t do a CD. And we sell them for very cheap in fact.