Centre and Periphery

New York

Left: Choreographer Sally Silvers. Right: Phill Niblock. (All photos: David Velasco)

“I don’t know what 95 percent of you are doing,” admitted Katherine Liberovskaya, the Montreal-based video artist and organizer—sort of—of the forty-four poets, musicians, and filmmakers gathered to pay homage to the composer Phill Niblock on his seventy-fifth birthday. The slate of participants alone ensured a good turnout on a rainy Wednesday night at Anthology Film Archives, but if the evening’s master of ceremonies was befuddled, what hope did we, the audience, have? “This whole evening was kind of haphazard,” Liberovskaya said, laughing—the cost, evidently, of organizing on the down-low in an effort to hide an otherwise public event from said event’s honoree. (Impressively enough, Niblock only figured it out a week before, when he accidentally glimpsed a press release.)

Who better to ring in the coming financial apocalypse with than a crowd of artists who’ve survived Manhattan’s routine depredations for the better part of fifty years? Niblock, the man of the moment, arrived in SoHo roughly half a century ago, falling in with a demimonde that included filmmaker and choreographer Elaine Summers; together, the two founded the interdisciplinary arts space Experimental Intermedia, Niblock’s home base—and frequent literal home, at 224 Centre Street—for the past forty years. Niblock’s reputation is as a composer (“Phill is very involved with music,” an eighty-three-year-old Summers said wryly. “He wants to be sure you hear it”), and his process-based métier—minimalist, single tones, recorded discreetly and then layered gradually over time—gave the celebration its template.

Left: Choreographer and filmmaker Elaine Summers. Right: Musicians David Watson and Matt Welch.

“This piece is based on seventy-five e-mails Phill sent me last year,” noted the critic and curator Jozef Cseres, encapsulating the overall “tribute” approach, itself a blend of numerology, superstition, word games, blurry video footage, squawking feedback, and frequent audience incursions. “What kind of name is Niblock, anyway?” asked guitarist Alan Licht, performing via a cell phone held up to a mike by Anthology’s archivist, Andrew Lampert, who then staged a mock meltdown in response to Licht’s supposed absence. In fact, the ubiquitous Licht was in the lobby downstairs; surprisingly, this performance was one of two involving phone calls—the other featured the choreographer Sally Gross thanking Niblock for use of his 401(c)3 status on innumerable grant applications. New York–based composer Michaal J. Schumacher, for his part, went for outright satire: a slow-building series of microtonal, discrete sound samples of Schumacher chanting “Phill.” He encouraged the audience to sing along.

What it all added up to was a giant, benevolent in-joke, a laid-back recap of a lot of years in the trenches in an arts scene willfully ignorant of both booms—say, the real estate surge of the past two decades, which has presumably made the Centre Street loft space in which Niblock and his friends still perform the envy of brokers everywhere—and (oncoming) busts. “Back then, Phill wasn’t as dapper as he is now,” quipped the chorale composer Mary Jane Leach. “He used to wear a blue denim shirt, battered corduroys, and boots, all the time”— a fairly exact description, give or take a bolo tie and jeans, of what Niblock appeared to be wearing that very evening. The avalanche of work commissioned specifically for the event eventually coalesced into a portrait of the artist as a working man: Phill in cargo shorts, swatting flies and slicing salami (Peter Shapiro’s video Phlies), Phill looking serious, wielding a mouse, computer screen reflecting on his glasses (Alexandra Dementieva’s Phill and the Red Mouse), Phill fumblingly putting batteries into a microphone (Liberovskaya’s Movements of Phill Niblock Working), Phill counting stripes on a woman’s dress (Irina Danilova’s Phill Counting Stripes on Liberovskaya’s Dress), and so on. A person could be forgiven for assuming we’d wandered into a wake or a retirement party, not a celebration of a still-producing artist. Until, that is, the nostalgic, overstuffed, four-hour evening came to a close, leaving Niblock just enough time to set the record straight: “Thank you for coming. I think that’s enough.”

Left: Poet Chris Mann. Right: Musicians Okkyung Lee and Alan Licht.