While most subjects of Tape Op interviews have discussed their interest in recording, Phill Niblock thinks far more about reproduction of sound. He composes his pieces, which are often described as minimalist, for playback in large rooms with loud, clean reproduction systems. While he constructs his pieces as recordings, he prefers for people to hear them in controlled settings, rather than at home on their own stereos. I talked to Niblock when the organization Lampo brought him to Chicago to present both his films and music at Odum.
"I didn't even do recordings for a long time because I wasn't willing to give up that control, even though I didn't always have it in performance anyway. The idea of somebody playing the music in a small room with a boom box or with headphones wasn't real appealing. But it was, in the end, more important to get the music out."
"Almost no home systems have [enough] high-end and low-end response, and they don't have four speakers. People never play my music loud enough. One of the reasons I didn't want to do recordings in the first place is that I couldn't control the way it was played. If this [music] was played in an apartment house, you could never turn it up very loud, [and it would be in] a really small space. The CD of my music that I like best is "Music by Phill Niblock", with the string quartets and ‘Early Winter'. The string quartets you can pretty much hear what's going on, even at relatively low volume levels with a stereo system. ‘Early Winter' is totally impossible. If you play it softly, it's kind of a mush, and you really have to crank it up and have the space to go into it. It's very easy to distort, if you play it on a system that doesn't have enough guts."
"I've never listened to [his own music] in headphones. I don't really like headphones. I mean for a while when I was commuting, while I was teaching, I would carry either a radio or a Walkman. I don't like the experience."
"With my music it's more a matter of the sound system that we're playing back with. Full range has something to do with it. If you get speakers that either don't sound good or don't have very good frequency response - that's one thing. If they're not very powerful and you can't turn ‘em up enough, that's something else. It's easier and easier to find really good speaker systems for concert playback. It used to be really horrible, especially in Eastern Europe - horrible, bad sound systems. The architecture/sound has to do with every room, shape, and size - bodies in the room cause change too. Always the sound check is completely different from the actual concert, unless no audience comes. But if we get a big audience, a room that sounds really great empty can sound really flat and dead once you get a big audience. You will have, I suspect, much more sound from the speakers, and much less sound from the space. I've worked in some spaces where the speakers weren't that great but the sound was fantastic. There was a cathedral in Einhoven, Holland, where you had 4 relatively simple speaker systems in the huge space, but the sound was great because of the space itself."
"It's about engaging the whole room. I use speakers in the corner of the space, and sometimes along the wall, if I have 6 or [more]. There were actually other, bigger speakers we could have used within [Odum]. I didn't like [them] in a sense because they were too huge for the space, and especially the low ceiling. The sound in there was so much better than I would have expected with audience there - I was amazed. In that situation, you usually get much more of the sound coming out of the speakers. I faced the speakers so they bounced off of walls to diffuse the high frequency stuff a lot."
"It usually depends on the room and the situation. In Merkin Hall, which is a big recital hall, we had 6 Apogee boxes plus two subwoofers on the stage. We had two on the stage that were facing the audience pretty much directly, but on the side we had two and I did the same thing as [at Odum], I faced them so that they bounced off the wall. And then two on the balcony that were on the front of the balcony, also pointing at a wall, so it was very diffuse sound."
The music "has to do with acoustics. It has to do with architecture, because it changes drastically depending...