Rituals from a Distance


Today’s media channels and social networks demand that each news item, personal creation or archival clip be formatted for ease of transmission, duplication, editing, comprehension and consumption. No matter how seemingly unique or context-specific an event may be, any alien contours will always be smoothed and flattened as a feverish uploader attempts to share it, or a media broadcaster reports on it, so that it may be validated, ‘liked’, on trend with a mass public; or so that whomsoever should feel the inclination might re-purpose the material for their own amusement or other questionable agenda. In the interests of maximum exposure, any controls that an artist might have over the production and reception of their work are liable to diminish; as physical enactment, labour and risk, as well as the particularities of place and time are dissolved into the whenever of its remediation.

To discover an abundance of works from the past that resisted the commercial imperatives of artistic practices (both professional and amateur) then, and still manage to do so to a large extent today, is special. The Rituals of Rented Island exhibition that ran between Halloween 2013 and February 2014 at the Whitney Museum in New York focused on the little-known ‘object theater, loft performance and psychodrama’. The artists chosen by curator Jay Sanders for inclusion shared an approach to art that placed them as creator and performer with no restrictions on their work to a specific realm, say that of music or dance, but extending to aspects of theatre, film, confrontational body art, poetry and comedy. The largely unknown New York that Sanders brought into focus is one of intense artistic activity, which took place in lofts and storefronts between 1970 and 1980 – underdocumented and seldom studied.

Often hermetic, with some performances being invite-only and restricted to a dozen people or fewer, some of the unique idioms that developed among the downtown lofts and artist-run spaces did come into contact with the mainstream now and again – sometimes directly, as with late night television appearances by the Kipper Kids and the signing of Laurie Anderson to Warner Bros; other times through consciously adopting the gestures and aesthetic bases of popular television or local cable channels as a critical armature of specific works, such as those by Michael Smith.
It’s not that these works evade capture entirely. But unlike a typical novel, film, painting, or even the work of those performance artists such as Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic, which have been extensively documented through visual media and text, many of the pieces referred to in the Rituals of Rented Island Show cannot be experienced first-hand or even reconstituted fully through the imagination. What is left are evocative photos, early video footage, home movies, open reels thought lost or destroyed, flyers for fabled shows otherwise surviving only in the form of personal reminiscences.
There are some representative videos and leftover objects, such as the tiny unidentifiable bits and pieces that were once activated under a microscope light for John Zorn’s performance of Fidel, and the bras made by Jack Smith, whose euphemism for Manhattan ‘Rented Island’ inspired the title of the show and whose film Flaming Creatures had earlier brought the idiosyncratic dream life of the artist to public notoriety.
All of these remainders allow somebody like myself to begin to engage with this fascinating area of art and social history. To be clear: like all of those original, late night performances the exhibition itself was also out of reach to me during its run. A small portion of this work was already familiar to me, some documentation can be viewed at publicly accessible archives in the US, some is available through video data banks or in unflattering formats online. The recent release on DVD of Ericka Beckman’s Super-8 Trilogy means some small rituals at home are now possible for more people, and hopefully some of the video and film work of other artists will be upgraded to DVD where amenable in the future.
Some traces remain but the original environment that fostered these activities does not. There are echoes in the work of those artists who continue to work today, including Richard Foreman, John Zorn and Michael Smith. Through the obvious routes of text and visual media the potential of the work explored in Rituals of Rented Island to be absorbed by a wider audience does exist, though not to the same extent as artists whose work is more compatible with the still, timeless image. Much of the work Sanders draws attention to is specifically durational and involves the artist being in physical proximity to the audience; with particular rhythms, performative nuances and inflections that cannot be so easily approximated through audiovisual recording or writing.

While Chris Burden’s installations have a conceptual neatness that travels via a short summation and a picture for posterity, Stuart Sherman’s Spectacles have to be experienced in their entirety and their content cannot easy be articulated, largely owing to its sidestepping of meaningful description, but also because of the amount of physical moves and object manipulations he compresses into a short period of time. In the case of Jack Smith and Ralston Farina, a resistance to copying, co-option and orphanage of their work led them to take more aggressive control of it, making any public presentation dependent upon their presence.
Though I cannot comment on the experience of the exhibition itself, or evaluate how effective Sanders’s design of the show was, any subsequent interest developed in this area by historians, writers and artists will undoubtedly have his efforts and those of his colleagues to thank. It is a sign of a sensitive and deeply engaged curator that many local, personal and relatively private works, which have managed to elude the institutional realm and the canon for so many years, have now found a fitting context in which to be shared with the wider public.
The video above is a recording of a presentation given by Jay Sanders about Rituals of Rented Island at the University of Buffalo’s Department of Media in February 2014. Introducing Sanders is Tony Conrad, who was closely involved with Rituals artists Jack Smith and Mike Kelley and whose varied artistic work since the 1960s has been similarly resistant to easy co-option.

Archival material relating to the exhibition can be found on the Whitney Museum's website: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/RitualsOfRentedIsland

Six Days

Super Deluxe, Tokyo, 17–22 June 2013

As shifting arrangements of dots are moved across four sets of magnified staff lines projected onto the back wall of the music venue, and the unconventional notations slowly reveal themselves to be isolated fragments of a blown-up, halftone, TV guide cut-out of the face of Aunt Esther, the complex and comical sensibility of Jim O’Rourke comes into focus.
The transposition of an old weekly listings clipping into the arrangement for a composition; the creative displacement of an icon from a popular ‘70s US sitcom into the rigours and free play of experimental music in a club in Tokyo, where memories of Sanford and Son are as good as non-existent; and the realisation that there is still so much to learn about and from the work of O’Rourke were characteristic of a surprising and wide-ranging showcase in June of this musician’s formidable talents.

Playing six consecutive nights in his current city of residence, and offering a rare opportunity to witness him revisiting material from the past, both solo and accompanied by a variety of groups, O’Rourke’s tireless approach to music was plain to see, and hear. Avoiding the commonplace ritual exhumation initiated by ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, the work history that O’Rourke presented stretched back to certain periods in which it is unlikely anyone in attendance would have seen him perform, and happily looked to the future too.

Appearing uneasy about returning to ground covered more than twenty years ago, O’Rourke’s replication of the style of his earlier interactions with a six-string launched the Six Days event. The opportunity to see the handiwork behind the type of prepared guitar playing that appears on Remove the Need revealed an array of interventions by O’Rourke that went beyond a checklist of tricks that has given even this non-normative use of the instrument a predictable traditionalism. Remote control interference and curious extra-circuitry adaptations sent screeches through the speakers, tempered by hand to muted emanations and, at times, a gorgeous ambient drift – the unstable discordances and the gentle melody of extended technique.

The shadow of O’Rourke’s younger self was literally cast during the second set of Day One, onto the side of a tent. Camped out indoors with only tape machines for company, the crowd were left out in the wild, immersed in throbbing, babbling, brutal analog tones tearing through the monitors. Recent archival LP releases have provided a wider picture of O’Rourke’s explorations of electro-acoustics, which have been ongoing for many years, but the unexpected performance setup was a reminder of the non-academic trajectory of his research.
Day Two began with a version of the 1990 composition Mizu No Nai Umi, the original drone work played back and accompanied by several performers who moved around the floor space sounding various percussive, resonant objects. The clink of beer bottles and chime of crotales thickened the cloud of overtones. Screened at the same time, a looped and processed video clip of a commercial plane landing at sunset – a notoriously painstaking and expensive shot excerpted from Brian De Palma’s widely reviled film, The Bonfire of the Vanities – provided a visual complement to the music. The shifting colours and contrast of the golden image, already blurred by the warm air currents of the JFK runway, the pools of light and the deepening shadows, mirroring the nuance and microtonal movement in the shimmering sound. A ten-second shot extended to last thirty minutes, a cinematic drone of equal density.
Aunt Esther dates back to O’Rourke’s college days, and is emblematic of his challenges to the strictures of the Academy, the piece’s untypical notation interpreted by an ensemble of improvisers playfully switching classical snippets into free jazz fits and starts. No doubt a failure in the eyes of his tutor, the composition reflects both the discipline and humour which together defined much American and English experimental music after John Cage, a tendency seemingly forgotten by many dour contemporary experimentalists. As with much of O’Rourke’s strongest work, assumptions were gladly upended.
The young performers of String Quartet and Oscillators – Atsuko Hatano, Hiroki Chiba, Eriko Teshima and Masabumi Sekiguchi – might not often be tasked with sustaining tones for long durations, but their combined, concentrated bowing built a moving wall of pitches. Swapping the classical, romantic melodies usually associated with a string quartet for stacked harmonic rapture these players too showed themselves happy to dismantle expectations. Waves of acoustic frequencies swept over the buzzing of oscillators, stripped of extra-musical referents down to thick tone colours and textures. Like the work of American minimalists Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad, the result was physically captivating.
It was instructive to programme the performances of Bad Timing and Happy Days back to back on Day Three, since they illustrate two ways of exploring a single musical connection, that between the folk and blues influenced concert guitar style of John Fahey and the massive drones of Conrad and Niblock. The brass fanfare of Bad Timing was sadly absent – the album performed by O’Rourke and his regular band, with Sudoh Toshiaki on bass, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums and Eiko Ishibashi on piano – but shorn of its joyous tooting horns, the signature melodies of the album were driven home with more percussive punch.
Repeatedly plucking two acoustic guitar strings against a rising storm of hurdy gurdy, whose blasting tones lent a pleasurably oppressive weight to the air, O'Rourke's performance of Happy Days was almost scuppered by a broken string at the very end of the piece. Though evidently unintended, the hiccup seemed to be a necessary structuring element of the performance, as if O’Rourke was meant to go on unceasingly, aching and exhausted until the string could bear the tension no longer.
The blisters were allowed a chance to heal on Day Four, as O’Rourke conducted Big Band and Tapes, for a group which included firebrand saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, flanking the composer on either side and bolstered by Yuji Katsui on violin, Daisuke Takaoka on tuba, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums, Todd Nicholson on double bass, Shinpei Ruike on trumpet and Yasuyuki Takahashi on trombone. The uncertainty was clear on the faces of some of the musicians, a little perturbed by the idiosyncrasies of O’Rourke’s score. Nevertheless the exertion and musical prowess of all the performers was compelling. The intermittent blare and solo flights into the edges were riveting and unpredictable, though the overall conceptual framework of the music remained somewhat obscure. Still, with this much raging force the audience knew what a real Salvation Army band could sound like.

A new Jazz Trio kicked off Day Five with a monstrous version of ‘Back Woods Song’ by Gateway, the effortless saunter of the original being ignited by O’Rourke’s guitar shredding, the electronic manipulations of Hiroki Chiba’s double bass and the exploratory thump and clatter of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s percussion. All of O’Rourke’s stylistic predecessors may be readily acknowledged but there are few guitarists who could marry the modes of John Abercrombie, Ray Russell and Tisziji Munoz in one sitting with baffling ease.
Another trio, Kafka’s Snore played a thirty-five-minute set unfurling a single improvised piece. Beautifully paced, emerging from Eiko Ishibashi’s sparse piano motif, allowing quietude much duration within an elegiac melody, and elaborated by Yamamoto’s intelligent reassessments behind the kit, and the steadily amassed tones, chords and timbres of O’Rourke’s electric guitar and synth, the dynamic steadily moved on into a fiery rock spree to close out the evening.

A packed house on Day Six eagerly awaited renditions of O’Rourke’s pop songs. Tracks from each of the 'Roeg' albums that feature singing were played, as well as selections from the Halfway to a Threeway EP and the second Loose Fur record. Having performed with a regular band in Japan for some time – for song performances; in improvisational contexts; in various combinations with other musicians – O’Rourke’s music benefited from the familiarity, elasticity and invention that such extensive group playing across these contexts can encourage. With the addition of pedal steel player Ren Takada, unfortunately not involved in the earlier Bad Timing performance, it sounded powerful and assured in the club space; O’Rourke’s rarely heard vocals much fuller and louder than on record, and the sight of his fretboard navigations a further confirmation of the unassuming complexity of his Drag City albums.
From the looped, harmonised solo guitar and feedback which opened the show, to the final, urgent, bellowed refrains of ‘The Workplace’ the thrill of hearing this increasingly influential music played by a band so alert to its possibilities is only matched by the thrill of anticipation as to where O’Rourke will take his music next. Good times.    

The first album by Kafka's Snore, Okite will be released by Felicity Records in January 2014 (an EP is already available for download at kafkasibiki.bandcamp.com). For more information: http://1fct.net/archives/7492

Nine albums of mostly unreleased music by Jim O'Rourke, including the String Quartet and Oscillators performance from the Six Days event can be downloaded now at steamroom.bandcamp.com

More photographs of the Six Days event taken by Ujin Matsuo, can be found on the Super Deluxe Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/super-deluxe/


Completely in the Present, Partly in Lincoln

The first exhibition of material concerning Tony Conrad to take place in Lincoln, Completely in the Present was a surprising and welcome addition to the 2013 Frequency Festival. Drawing on excerpts from a forthcoming documentary film, with the same title, the exhibition was focused around two looped videos of Conrad being interviewed about the nature of sound. One video was projected onto a wall from a small antique table flanked by framed photos of Pythagoras – its audio track played loudly into the room through speakers. There were a few other pictures relating to the Greek mathematician in the room, including one sat alongside a picture of Hermann von Helmholtz on a mantelpiece underneath this large video image. These two figures, as well as Jean-Philippe Rameau are subject to criticism in the 7-minute clip of Conrad cycling around New York and sitting in the park – an excerpt which has been available online since 2009. Theories about sound, music and harmony developed and consolidated over the centuries by these thinkers are declared to be manipulative, generalised and politically loaded in Conrad’s fearless monologue.

The other video in the same room was played on a small television screen, on the opposite wall, and two chairs and pairs of headphones were provided for visitors to sit close to the image and listen in on a car journey conversation. In this video, Conrad expands further upon his ideas about sound, declaring “It’s not a cosmic harmony baby, it’s language!” This brief, but illuminating speech asks us to step back from the romantic notions about music that have shaped human thinking for many eras, to put aside judgements of ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ and to contemplate critically how music functions and how our normative responses to music have been conditioned over time.

Conrad gives credence to scientific arguments that music is a mating ritual but criticises such theories for their “reductivist” approach – because they suggest that everything we do is for the purposes of the reproduction of our DNA. They also fail to account for why we tend to prefer harmony. On this question, Conrad has startling ideas of his own, borne out of years of study and practice. Comparing the relationships of fundamental pitches and combinations of harmonic notes to the formation of low vowel sounds and the pitches produced by the nasal cavities and the mouth, Conrad directly links our ability to understand language and the qualities we delight in in music. Far from being a comforting analogue, however, Conrad points out that if we recognise music and language as being so intimately connected, then music will inevitably go in directions in which language goes: languor, nostalgia, aggression, power.

The exhibition gave almost no indication of Tony Conrad’s long and varied activities in the worlds of film, music, art, teaching and community-focused media. Conrad was at the heart of a vibrant New York experimental film scene beginning in the 1960s, which spawned not only the infamous Flaming Creatures (directed by Jack Smith), but also his own material interrogations in The Flicker, Straight and Narrow and later his Cooked Films series. This is the man who indirectly gave the Velvet Underground their name – in the early minimalist group The Theatre of Eternal Music he played with John Cale, who went on to form the well-known art-rock band with Lou Reed, taking his electrifying viola drones from one group to the other. Conrad has influenced, collaborated with and has been supported by contemporaries and younger generations of experimental composers and improvisers too; his violin drones intersecting with both the krautrock of Faust in 1972, and the American noise and electronic underground in the 1990s and 2000s. He is currently a teacher at SUNY Buffalo, where he has been involved in the university’s energetic and progressive media studies department since the 1970s. Its history has been documented in the mammoth and invaluable publication, Buffalo Heads. Although Conrad’s inspiration is far-reaching he is still clearly under recognised in both academic and journalistic histories of modern film and music. It is typical to reduce Conrad’s output to a niche concern, his violin music still hard on the ears for many casual listeners (an example could be heard in an adjoining room of Chad Varah House, where Conrad’s music provided the soundtrack to Tyler Hubby’s film ‘Folded City’).

While it was wonderful to discover that attention was being given to Conrad’s work here, the room was, sadly, largely empty – the wrong type of minimalism in this case. My hopes were raised when a motion sensor in the room set two film projectors whirring away and casting abstract film images on another wall. Had the festival organisers managed to get some of Conrad’s film works for presentation in their original format – works as inventive and dazzling as those to which a three-day event was devoted at Tate Modern in 2008? Inexplicably, this was instead the work of another experimental filmmaker, Karel Doing.

Knowing that the entirety of a festival such as Frequency, of which this Conrad exhibition was a part, could have been devoted to the man’s rich and multifaceted artistic life, it seems somewhat rude to interrupt the space between the two Conrad video installations with the work of another artist. Yet, since his involvement with the Theatre of Eternal Music, and especially with the ‘attack high art’ protests along with his friends – notably Henry Flynt – at the Museum of Modern Art in New York decades ago, Conrad has continually questioned the status of the artist in relation to the audience, and other artists. Conrad has always been chipping away at the edifice of the art world and its elitist habits. Socially engaged and ever critical of the power games that surround many aspects of our lives and culture, one gets the sense that to overly revere to the point of enshrining, or rubberstamping Conrad’s art in the white-walled rooms of modern art galleries would be to undo everything he’s been taking on since the 1960s. As the video projections in this exhibit confirmed, Conrad is still ready to take on an icon or two. The hope is that visitors to this exhibit gave fifteen minutes of their time to listen to what Conrad has to say. You’re unlikely to encounter such insightful, combative ideas about the luring frequencies that appeal to us anywhere else. More immediately, they offered a reassessment of one’s experience of the rest of the Frequency Festival, the guiding theme of which was, vaguely, ‘revolution’.   

Working Life: A conversation with Phill Niblock

The Movement of People Working 1973–91 (film still) copyright Phill Niblock

There is a modesty that has repeatedly characterised the presentation of Phill Niblock’s art for the past fifty years, from the title of his 1982 India Navigation LP Nothin’ To Look At Just a Record to the current retrospective of his creative output since the early 1960s, Nothin’ But Working. All of the apparent simplicity and humility belies the immense power, density and singularity of his intermedia explorations.

Niblock is known primarily for his microtonal drone compositions in which recordings of specific tones, played on a single acoustic instrument, are amassed to create a dense, continually shifting cloud of overtones, through multitracking and playback at volumes of up to 115db. Despite the careful compositional choices, the results efface the sense of a directing hand, as well as the typical identifying marks of the source instrument.

Niblock’s series of 16mm films, The Movement of People Working (1973–91) – which comprises scenes of individuals engaged in traditional modes of manual labour, in countries including Mexico, Peru and China – avoids rhetorical, and non-linear editing as well as any narration, which might contextualise the images more specifically but also ask us to interpret them. They are more engrossing and unusual without.

Presentations of Niblock’s works primarily involve pre-recorded material played very loud, along with multiple projections of the films of workers. Yet far from yielding a result which is unresponsive to the particularities of a given performance situation, the sound interacts with each space in a different way and the films are not specifically timed to follow the music. In addition, Niblock often invites musicians to accompany the material, sometimes a recording of their own playing, in the live situation. The audience’s attention is not directed toward any single point of focus and the different rhythms imparted by the sound and pictures eradicates any normative sense of time.

This year Niblock celebrates his 80th birthday but he is evidently a tireless and enthusiastic artist. Niblock regularly performs in various countries, and several records have been released through Touch Records over the past decade. In addition to the retrospective – taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland – a collection of essays and interviews, Working Title has been published, in a bilingual edition by Les Presses du Reel. It reflects the diversity of Niblock’s artistic undertakings, which also includes jazz photography, street photography, films of musicians including Sun Ra and Arthur Russell, as well as a number of asynchronous sound films collected on the Six Films DVD available from Die Schachtel.

Touch has recently made a number of Niblock’s records available for streaming online. While the accessibility of Niblock’s work in a recorded format is invaluable, the direct experience of a Niblock live performance opens up entirely new possibilities for audition and physiological interaction with sound. I spoke to Niblock in February prior to a performance at Café Oto, in London. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Yusef Sayed: One thing that is fascinating about your drone works is that they can be experienced somewhat differently in each new context in which they are played.

Phill Niblock: This is literally true, because so much changes in the acoustics of the space and the sound system that it can be an entirely different piece. You don’t really hear the music if you’re playing it from a recording on a home sound system. You have to be in a concert space where it’s happening and then it has to be happening well. So there are a lot of concerts where the sound is so-so.

Is that what keeps you excited about going to different places to present them?

It’s interesting that there is that much variety. We did a concert in Lisbon recently, in a pretty lousy hall – with a low ceiling with two Meyer speakers in the front and two JBL Eons in the back – and we were going to show video, but the projector was so dim.

Of course, it is not just the space in which the drones are played that determine what is heard, but the technical conditions as well. Do you just have to rely on whatever equipment is at the venue, or have you had the ability to specify?

I used to carry a projector, but my projector broke and wasn’t fixed properly.

And in terms of the sound system?

Whatever you get.

When you arrive at a venue to setup, you must do a soundcheck before people start filing in. As I understand it, when the audience come that changes the extent to which the sound can move and the overtones can react. So how much can you do beforehand, or do you not get too hung up on it?

Well, the main thing is to find out when you play it at the right level, that it doesn’t distort. When you get a really bad system, it’s so distorted, you can’t do a lot.

Is the setup in your loft in New York the ideal, in terms of the playback equipment?

It’s very good. Ideal? I don’t know, because of the old speakers. On December 21st I do this six-hour concert – which I can’t do anymore – and sometimes, towards the end, one speaker will start to sound raggedy. But then the next time you try it, it’s perfectly fine.

Are all the pieces finished by you at the loft, or are they worked on and finished wherever you are at the time?

Wherever I am, basically. I wouldn’t probably play it on the big system until it’s finished anyway. I’m working with monitor speakers in one place or another. Even in the loft, I don’t work in the same room, with the same sound system.

Phill Niblock in performance, 2006 copyright Diogo Valério (Creative Commons)
Are there certain engineers whom you prefer to record your pieces?

The chief one is in Belgium, Johan Vandermaelen, but I’ve recorded recently with Marcus Schmickler in Cologne. He has a Brauner microphone, it is really fantastic, so when I recorded my last piece in Boston, in the Fall, I asked them for a Brauner microphone and it turned out they had a Brauner microphone – because it’s the Berklee school of music. The guy who was the chief of the sound crew came with a microphone himself and put it on the stand, left, and as soon as we finished the session he came and took it off and put it back in the locker. It was a $10,000 microphone, he really wrapped it up fast [Laughs]. Another recording engineer is Robert Poss, in New York. Robert is a composer and guitarist, with a small studio. I have made many pieces with material recorded with him. On some of them he is both the engineer and a playing guitarist!

I came across a piece that you did for Touch Records, called ‘Sound Delta’ which is comprised of field recordings, and it struck me as being one of the few recordings of yours that was somewhat distinct from the typical drone pieces.

It’s totally distinct, yes. There’s a series of twelve or fifteen sound collages. There’s a new one, of crickets.

Where was that recorded?

In Ikaria island in Greece, in August. I do quite a bit of work with my partner, who does live video and I play those sound collage pieces and I mix them – so I’m constantly mixing, which I never do otherwise with the music.

What are the other recent pieces you’ve been working on?

I finished a scored piece, 'To Two Tea Roses', in September 2012. We recorded multiple tracks with the Ensemble NeoN and then I mixed them to make the recorded piece, the playback. In the concert, the ensemble played live along with the recorded parts.

In 2011 I recorded three versions of a scored piece called ‘Two Lips’ which was commissioned by the Champ d’Action in Antwerp three years ago, and they were played by three guitar quartets, three different guitar quartets. So we’re issuing the next Touch CD and one side will be those three versions, one after the other. Then in 2012 I made a piece for cello for Arne Deforce and a piece for electric harp for Rhodri Davies, both of which are a half hour long, and so that’s the other CD of the two CD set. I finished the masters, they’re at Touch but I haven’t finished the notes. I was hoping to have it out before the retrospective opened in January but I didn’t make it.

That label has recently celebrated a milestone of their own, 30 years. You obviously have a good relationship with them.

They reprint my stuff too, which was my request – they just reprinted 'Touch Food', which had been unavailable for a couple of years.

I’d heard that the plant had lost the masters tapes.

They just found a CD copy and copied that, which is not uncommon. Everybody’s having their trouble with pressing plants. One thing that is interesting about Touch is that they’re always willing to reissue the stuff because it simply continues to sell. It’s a weird phenomenon. It’s the same with XI, that stuff’s really old. It doesn’t sell as well as Elaine Radigue’s ‘Trilogy de la Mort’ – our bestselling record, which is great because that’s a really beautiful piece and the best piece of hers, I think.

XI is the other label that you release stuff through, which is your own. Do you have any plans to keep that label ticking over in terms of anything that you want to put out?

There’s only a couple of CDs still in the works, and then we have to decide what to do. There's a CD from Ulrich Krieger and he just simply has been too busy to get it out. He keeps saying, last year he said he’d finish [Laughs].

And related to that, in terms of the history of Experimental Intermedia, I’ve come across some archived recordings that have been put in a couple of places online. One of the websites is Art on Air and there’s a couple of pieces in the Free Music Archive.

We’ve been putting on some recent concerts for Art on Air. But the label New World Records, which has a division called DRAM – which makes music available to universities, music schools, subscribers –they’ve taken the archive. So they have all the archive recordings and they’re digitising them now. They will either keep the archive tapes at the end or we’ll find a place which will take the archive. There’s a couple of places that want to take my archive and that archive, but it is not decided. But they will have them all digitised, that’s the most important part.

Do you foresee then that it will be only available as some sort of subscription service to a limited number of people, if it’s through music academies? Do you think those Experimental Intermedia archives will be available at anytime to the wider public?

They said that we could have the files and that we could do what we wanted to with them, but if we compete with them directly by making them all available it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s relatively easy to get access to that archive. It would be more likely that we did the same thing that we’re doing with Art on Air, to make some things available on a piecemeal basis.

It seems that there’s such a rich history and archive there.

There’s a page on the website where you see all the composers who have performed from 1973 until 2007. And there are omissions in it as well, because the advertising of the early concerts was done using postcards. It was before computers. In those first years, when the postcards were just typed on a typewriter and sent out, we always kept a stack. But if we lost the cards, we didn’t know who did concerts on certain dates. We didn’t start recording until ’79, so there’s six years when there were interesting people but none were recorded – there was Julius Eastman, it would be nice to have a copy of that.

I found it heartening reading the history of Experimental Intermedia that Bernard Gendron wrote that sometimes there were just a handful of people there at shows.

Sometimes even less than a handful.

A lot of that stuff has a tendency to be romanticised, that it was this buzzing hive full of artists. But it was a lot more small-scale for much of the time.

Well some people simply weren’t well enough known and frequently we would prompt people to send a card themselves and in a few instances people didn’t do that at all and nobody would show up, zero audience. In one instance a guy played and one woman came. It turned out she was a former lover of his from years ago – but she was also a former lover of mine [Laughs]. So I was shocked to see her.

Currently, there’s a huge retrospective of your work underway in Switzerland. How did that come about?

It was actually supposed to happen in 2010 in Lyon but the financial disaster bombed their budget so they cancelled it – and it probably won’t happen there. What the curator Mathieu Copeland wants to do is put together the films, the Movement of People Working films, which are pretty much together now, and music, and sell it to a few museums as a playable archive.

Getting the material together was extremely hard work and in the middle of it I had a heart bypass operation, so I was in the hospital. I came out and there were two weeks when there wasn’t any thinking or working at all, I couldn’t edit film. And then I started editing it, and it was just very hard work.

From the series Buildings Along SoHo Broadway, 1988 copyright Phill Niblock

So a lot films were edited for the first time?

The basic editing was all done in 16mm film and they were transferred to video at a very high level shop in New York. They were all spliced workprints and one thing that happened with the splices is that when a splice got to the shutter it bounced – so at the end of every shot there’s usually a bounce. So I was going through anyway and cutting out the splices but then also the bounce; or if there were any flashes. And then re-colour correcting what they had colour corrected. There’s no montage or anything like that, I’m not reversing or changing the order. It’s really trimming and colour correcting.

And what were the arrangements for the audio aspects of the retrospective. Did you have the opportunity to put in place an adequate technical setup?

They simply kept saying there was no budget, so they got a relatively shitty sound system in the place where the most sound is, which is too bad because it could have really sounded great – if they’d had a couple more thousand to spend. Johan Vandermaelen was supposed to come with a sound system but it was bureaucratically impossible to bring a sound system from Belgium to Switzerland and take it back again, totally insane customs. And they couldn’t buy the sound system, so we were arranging to rent it to them at a very cheap price, but then he’d have to take it back again at the end of the exhibition. We couldn’t do it.

That’s disappointing.

The sound system they got was okay, but it could have been much better sounding with a bit more money.

When you perform live you regularly involve your films as an accompaniment, and a lot of the time you have multiple screens going. Again, a lot of that must be dependent upon the space and what resources are available at a given time. Does the exhibition in Lausanne reflect your preferences here?

The stuff in Circuit is really pretty good. It’s three screens that are roughly four metres wide and a big enough space so the sound is good, except the sound isn’t as good as it could be because the sound system is 20 per cent below what it should be. What’s mostly wrong is that the clarity in the high end is simply not there. So the volume is there, but the clarity of what happens in the overtones is not happening.

Alongside the retrospective there is the book, Working Title.

Yvan Etienne is editing a whole series of books, for the publisher Les Presses du Réel, in Dijon, France. The first book was Paul Panhuysen, who’s a very close friend. So Yvan and I got together and collected articles and decided a few things that had to be written, like the Kase article on the films. One of the interesting ones, in fact I just read it myself recently, is Volker Straebel’s music analysis: I learned a few things reading it (finally) [Laughs]. And I’ve even been in lectures where he presented the ideas, but it was in German, in Berlin.

I was hoping that the visual material would come out through the book, not having had the opportunity to see some of your photographic work. So was that a conscious decision, to not publish any images?

They decided that it had to be in black and white and no pictures. We did the four DVDs, so…

Of course, two double-sided DVDs are included with the book – a new installment of the Movement of People Working Series, shot in Japan, and the rarely seen Anecdotes from Childhood videos – but I'm particularly interested in the photography which isn't so often seen. I know it’s part at the retrospective.

There have been a number of proposals over the years to make a book of the jazz photos, which I did early on in my photography. I have resisted. The problem with the jazz photographs is that they’re just pictures of people and I have felt the artistic merit to be at a low ebb. Recently, after the retrospective in Lausanne it is perhaps more determined to do a book. I have proposed doing a duo book with the Boatyard in Brazil project, which is also in the retrospective and which I like very much - maybe a book that one has to turn over so that the book can start with either project. 

The boatyard project was shot on Kodak Tech Pan film, which is very fine grain, for 35mm it looks really good. The Panhuysen’s wanted to do that at The Apollo House Editions, but it was simply too expensive, $15,000 in the early ‘90s and they had about $5,000. To print it badly, not having it be duotone, just sort of didn’t make any sense. We even went to printers and got tests of the duotone printing which looked really great; you virtually couldn’t tell the difference between the photograph and the duotone print, it was really good. So it would be nice to get them to do that as a book.

Duke Ellington in control booth, 1962 copyright Phill Niblock

In Lausanne you’ve also restaged 'Environments', which was last presented in 1972.

The Environments pieces were done as events with dance and music, with three simultaneous film images and two slides. And we looked for the prints of the three images and I couldn’t find them and then I found something that had two – I don’t know what they were ever used for – and so that’s what I converted and that’s what’s showing. There was another big batch of 16mm film negatives from 1986 from China, where the film was fogged very badly by the Chinese X-rays and the print was no good. It was printed but I never could use it. But I did do a conversion of some of that material to video and the uneveness across the frame wasn’t so obvious, so I was hoping to use that…but we couldn’t find those negatives and we couldn’t find the three screens films. Then at the end, as we were getting ready for the show, Mathieu came again and we moved some stuff away from some shelves and there were six boxes of film. So we found all the stuff. But it would have cost five to ten thousand dollars to redo the Environments and it simply wasn’t possible within the budget. And we were going to try to do ‘China ’86’ and another film which hadn’t been done, from Brazil.

The Movement of People Working films on the Extreme DVD set were almost impossible to get for a while. It’s nice that those are available again.

They had a really lousy distributor. Then it was sent to Microcinema and they do a really good job of getting it about. It’s still selling. I just got 100 copies myself, because I was running out totally. He originally issued it without the notes (beause it has a really extensive notes). In fact, I even printed the notes myself so that I could put them in copies that I send out.

Are there any plans to release any more from that series? The one I’m intrigued to see, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen footage from, is from when you shot in the Arctic.

That one’s less interesting. I want to do four DVDs. One of them would have been out a year ago on Mode, it’s of Brazil. But it hasn't come out. I found a good place for mastering in Cologne, from Marcus Schmickler, so I’ll try to do one and see what it’s like.

I also want to do a two DVD set on Touch. So we’ll do four hours – two two-hour films – and then I have to find the music. Some of it will be music that hasn’t been issued before, but a lot of it will have to come from stuff that’s already out on Touch. There isn’t very much music that I have done that isn't published, that I want to have out anyway.

I’ve read your comments about your earliest pieces that you released on LP. The medium clearly determined how long the pieces could be, at a certain quality as well. But in terms of standalone compositions, there seems to be a point beyond which you wouldn’t go in terms of length, despite the possibilities for data storage today. I think the longest piece you’ve done is 70 minutes for Pan Fried, which I like a lot.

70 minutes for the piano piece, yeah. It has a beautiful sound, there’s an incredible amount of bass. But because the timbral qualities of the piano played that way are so loose, there’s not really a heavy fundamental and all of the microtonal stuff doesn’t really do anything. You put two microtones together and they simply don’t do anything that they’re supposed to do.

It’s much more interesting to play 3 or 4 pieces in a program that’s an hour and a half than it is to play one long piece. So I’m not sure that in concert I’ve ever played the piano piece at 70 minutes. There’s another version of that track that’s 27 minutes and yet another version which is 11 minutes.

  The Magic Sun (film still), 1966–68 copyright Phill Niblock

I saw Frederick Bernas’s short film ‘Loft Chronicles’ on the Internet recently, and it includes footage of you preparing a film of a music box. It strikes me that an interest in close-up and detail links a number of the film works. It's especially striking and untypical in the musician films, the Sun Ra piece and the footage you shot of Arthur Russell.

Arthur Russell was shot just with a standard old single-tube colour JVC camera which had a fairly long zoom lens, so it’s all just shot with that lens. Whereas, in the Sun Ra film, the second two-thirds was shot with a Bolex, but with a Kilfitt 135mm lens with extension tubes. So with that I had extension tubes and a 135mm lens.

I like details. There’s a bunch of nature stuff that’s a completed film called ‘Ten Hundred Inch Radii’, the last of the Environments pieces. There are a lot of close-up images of ice and running water at the end of that film. I have a commission to make a new video and probably a new sound piece for a Paris gallerist, who has a house and garden (actually, more of a park) which also has an exhibition space within the garden. She wants to make an exhibition there for one, two or three years, so we have to design and make screens to have projections and sound. And probably I would project the film 'T H I R' there too, as a historic piece from ’71. I am shooting in May, I hope!

The retrospective exhibition, Nothin’ but Working continues at the Musée de l'Élysée and Circuit in Lausanne, Switzerland until 12th May. My review of the book 'Working Title' appears in issue #351 of The Wire.

Special thanks to Phill Niblock and Rie Nakajima.

LWL Wide Angle - FJ Ossang

The latest installment of my Wide Angle blog for Little White Lies is online now. This month, I have written an introduction to the work of FJ Ossang. Thankfully Ossang's feature films, except for his most recent, Dharma Guns, have been collected in a fantastic boxset issued this year by Potemkine/Agnès b. The set gets my vote for best DVD release of 2011.