Niblock Under the Microscope

I’m teaching my Analysis of Minimalism seminar this semester, and I have never had a group of students (eight of them) who came in already knowing so much about the repertoire we were dealing with. They bring up pieces I hadn’t planned to mention and occasionally even one I hadn’t heard of, and I have to think quick to stay one step ahead of them.

What I enjoy doing most in my analysis seminars is figuring out music I’d never analyzed before. I let them do the work for me (or if I end up doing it myself, I assume they’ll learn from watching me), and this class is certainly obliging. For the first time I’m analyzing scores by Phill Niblock, some of which are included with his CD liner notes. For instance, the following stack of random-looking numbers is the beginning, about half the score, of his 1980 piece for eight overdubbed flutes, titled SLS after the initials of his soloist Susan Stenger, on the XI disc Four Full Flutes:


(Click on the image for better focus.) With just this to go on, the students figured out that the top numbers in each line above the little T marks (110, 418, 606 in the first flute) are the timings of the piece: 1:10, 4:18, 6:06. The upper number above the horizontal line following each one is the duration of the note in minutes and seconds. The bottom number, below the bottom line, is the frequency of the pitch, since Niblock never uses musical notation, but writes directly in cycles per second instead. We worked out that there are only ten pitches used in the 20-minute piece; three of them, C, D, and F, are based on frequencies from the conventional equal-tempered scale, and others are tuned upward or downward a few cents:











In addition, as someone in class figured out, each pitch at a certain frequency lasts the same duration every time it comes back: the pitch 260.7 cps always lasts 3:09, 345.7 cps always lasts 2:32, and so on. We figured out how we could make something of a readable score from this sloppy accounting sheet, and that, with the timings across the top, it would look something like this:


(Here’s this much of the piece to listen to, although you really need to hear the whole twenty minutes to appreciate the overall shape.) At least this translates the number score into something that we can follow with the timer and hear somewhat, although this hardcore minimalist essay can really only be experienced, not analyzed by ear. But we’ve figured out that Phill does seem to start pretty much with equal temperament as a basis, and that while some of his pieces have a gradual process going (as does Five More String Quartets, which we looked at the number score of as well), SLS has a more whimsical, less logical form.

The other day we used Neo-Reimannian analysis to compare the chord progressions in movement 2 of Phil Glass’s Low Symphony to those in Einstein on the Beach, and then we traced the course of the ubiquitous four-note rhythmic motive on which John Adams’s Phrygian Gates is based. This week we’re finally analyzing Gavin Bryars’s The Four Elements, which I’ve always wanted to do, a fabulous piece. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a graduate-level seminar at Bard, because the students walked in the door already loving the repertoire. And it’s such a cool new world of music to analyze, I can’t believe most music departments want to opt out of it.




  1. says

    I read some days ago, but can’t remember where, about “that time” when it was “a trend” to write pieces for that kind of ensemble (8 flutes, 20 trombones, 44 English horns). Is this piece from “that time”? – Also, do you ever include analysis of pieces of yours, either by your own initiative or under students’ pressure?

    KG replies: Yes, it was a very big thing for awhile in the ’70s and ’80s, and in fact Mary Jane Leach (who did a lot of that herself) has a page on her website documenting pieces for multiples of one instrument. I think my own Long Night was part of the trend. I will occasionally, in any class, put up a piece of mine to show some technical thing I did. Whether I would fully analyze one of my pieces for an analysis seminar remains to be seen, I guess. I try not to seem self-aggrandizing.

  2. says

    It’s certainly great that students already know a lot of minimalist repertoire now and are interested in the work. But in some ways, at least, Phill’s “sloppy accounting sheets” make more sense than creating a quasi-performable score for eight flutists.

    Phill’s early works are tape pieces, his scores present in a very clear way what elements go on each track of a four or eight track tape recorder. Because the attack and decay of each long tone was cut off when the tapes were assembled, any live performance made from the score you’ve created would sound a lot different from the intended piece.

    Many, perhaps most of the early tape pieces are arch structures, starting with something close to unison, with limited beating, and “resolving” back to that state after various patterns of layers that were less in unison.

    Once Phill began using digital recording technology rather than tape recorders, he was able to make works in which pitch shifts like the ones in Five More String Quartets were possible and fewer of these works “resolve”.

    KG replies: Oh sure, I didn’t mean to imply there was anything wrong with his score. But it’s difficult for a musician to look at that score and get a feel for the overall sonic effect. Much of my career has been spent transcribing strange new music scores into more followable notation. I think the students find it humorous but cool that we’re analyzing columns of numbers.

  3. says

    I wish I could take that class but I will gladly settle for this blog. I am not a trained musician, just an interested audience member who finds analyses like these very useful in better grasping a piece of unfamiliar and/or experimental music.
    You know there could be a book in there eventually. Imagine a series of chapters about individual pieces like the above. What a reference for geeky listeners like myself.
    Thanks again for a great post.

    KG replies: Well Allan, that’s the dream, or used to be, back when I thought all this music would become well-known someday. “We can’t publish a book about those composers, nobody’s ever heard of them.” “Why has no one heard of them?” “Because no one’s ever written a book about them.” Even with Ashley I get that, who’s far better-known and much more audience-friendly than Niblock. And if I wrote the book, how would people hear the music? Order a hundred CDs from tiny labels, half of which may already be out of print? So I’m writing a book about Ives, whom people have heard of, rather than one that will disappear into the same ghetto I’ve spent my career in. Thank god for blogging.

  4. says

    As a side note to one of the comments, I have indeed compiled a list of pieces for multiples (leaving out percussion and piano) – 787 pieces to date, and a huge backlog to enter. When I started out, I thought that it was the province of people like Niblock and myself, but quickly learned that all styles of music have pieces for multiples, many written for conventions devoted to one instrument – i.e., Dodecacelli by David Ott.

    KG replies: And I forgot my 1978 piece for five flutes, Siren.

  5. mclaren says

    Kyle mentioned: “And if I wrote the book, how would people hear the music? Order a hundred CDs from tiny labels, half of which may already be out of print?”

    See, this is where I really fault our current stone age practice of written liner notes. Folks, it’s the digital age. Lots of music now comes in the form of downloads. Every composer should create an audiovisual analysis of their compositions that the listener can download and follow along with the piece to see and hear what’s going on.

    This isn’t rocket science. Ordinary people put videos up on YouTube all the time explaining everything from quantum mechanics to how to groom a dog. Why not create a separate video for each piece you compose, playing excerpts from the piece, showing how whatever notation you used fits with the music, and exactly what processes go on in the composition, and let the listener download those accompanying explanation videos instead of liner notes?

    In your book on Nancarrow, Kyle, you remark that he spent five years notating his early composition because Nancarrow knew that “musicians would never take him seriously unless he produced scores that could be analyzed.” Now that we’ve got the ability to visualize data digitally, any source of data can be turned into striking diagrams. So I’m wondering, Kyle, if you think these kinds of analyses may be weakening the stranglehold of traditional music notation in contemporary music analysis?

    A lot of contemporary music gets marginalized among our so-called “serious” elites because it doesn’t lend itself to easy notation — computer music, tape music, microtonal music, much process music, music produced on Digital Audio Workstations, environmental music, sound sculpture, and so on.

    KG replies: Brian, I have no idea of the answer to your question. Contemporary analysis is certainly changing, but I’ve come to expect that it’s taking a big detour around the repertoire I hold dear. And even that might change someday, if the pendulum ever swings back from its present conservatism.

    • Ian Stewart says

      Hi mclaren, you said “A lot of contemporary music gets marginalized among our so-called “serious” elites because it doesn’t lend itself to easy notation —”.

      This may be true but I think it misses the point of notation for me. Notation means that the musicians then interpret the composer’s ideas, which means that that other personalities add to the the musical ideas – and I am certain this enriches the composition. There are specialist interpreters and I think this is what makes classical music such a rich tradition.
      I have also been involved in experimental techno and this has made me really appreciated the benefit of notation. One of the things I found with techno was that you had to create the music and produce the sounds. I prefer just to create the music and let others produce the sounds and interpret what I have written.

  6. says

    To McLaren: No! Don’t tell me what’s going on in the music (this goes for too-detailed liner notes too, I guess). I’ve been toiling in the fields of new music long enough to hear what the composer is up to most times anyway, but I relish those pieces that “work” yet I can’t figure out how. I don’t want to be deprived of that seduction, that mystery that keeps me up nights!

    KG replies: Well, you’re not a composer, you’re not looking for things you can steal. We want to learn how to keep people like you up nights, too.

    • mclaren says

      That’s a really interesting observation, Joe. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of Susan Sontag’s 1966 essay “Against interpretation.” Not a lot of contemporary musicians seem to have embraced the notion that there should not be one central overriding narrative for how a piece of music works, or what the history of modern music is, or what the alleged “mainstream” of contemporary music is.
      But what Kyle is talking about here is basically the fact that the long-agreed-upon narrative of what compositions/composers were Important (with a capital I) in contemporary music is falling apart. The supposedly important contemporary composers (Babbitt, Boulez outside of IRCAM, Carter, Stockhausen outside of Darmstadt, Schoenberg, Webern) have gotten performed so infrequently in major venues for so many years now, while the allegedly marginal contemporary composers (Riley, Reich, Hanson, Schuman, Diamond, Risset, Brant, et al.) keep getting performed so often that the tension twixt the official narrative and the reality on the ground in the concert halls has grown to extreme for the official narrative to hold.
      What if the supposedly important composers and compositions from 1945-1980 weren’t the ones the critics and textbooks told us they were? What if we’re entered into the fluctuating steady state predicted by Leonard Meyer in his 1967 book Music, the Arts and Ideas where there is no such thing as a mainstream anymore?

  7. says

    I have to agree with Joe. Too often a visual score limits us in our perception of a piece, “hearing” what our eyes are telling us instead of what our ears are telling us. Also, music/sound isn’t two dimensional – most notation only includes the fundamental pitches, leaving the rest of the spectrum out. Obviously I’m not opposed to notation, as I use it for just about everything, but it’s only a blueprint for a 3-d structure.

  8. says

    As an interested listener who lacks much of the rigorous training in theory and harmony and such, I have always found written liner notes useful. Sometimes they are instructive and have at times improved my ability to better understand and appreciate what otherwise sounded like an assault to my ears. Perhaps some have too much detail but I don’t mind the contextualization of a piece either.
    Visual scores are another matter. I need written notes with those even more.

    KG replies: I have always said that there’s a huge swath of the potential audience who take in information better with their eyes than with their ears, and that if we can reel those people in – who might otherwise be simply puzzled – by providing verbal information, why not do so?