Minimalist drone pioneer Phill Niblock has died aged 90

Niblock founded and directed Experimental Intermedia – and curated XI Records – paving the way for artists such as Arthur Russell.

Phill Niblock

Credit: Getty / Jack Vartoogian

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Phill Niblock, the influential avant-garde composer and multimedia artist recognised for his pioneering contributions to minimalist drone music, has died at the age of 90.

After initially studying economics, Niblock transitioned to New York in 1958, where he worked as a photographer and filmmaker. His musical journey commenced in 1968, marked by compositions created intuitively, primarily using tape. Over the years, he embraced computer technology, notably Pro Tools, resulting in more intricate textures.

As the director of Experimental Intermedia from 1985, Niblock played a pivotal role in shaping the avant-garde music scene. He curated over 1,000 performances and oversaw XI Records.

At XI Records, Niblock established a platform for avant-garde artists such as Arthur Russell to showcase their work, building a vibrant community of creatives. His efforts in organising and producing performances, coupled with his curation of the label, contributed to the recognition of groundbreaking projects within the avant-garde music and intermedia realms.

Niblock’s film series, The Movement of People Working, showcased stark realism and vivid colours, portraying everyday labour across diverse global landscapes. A retrospective exhibition in 2013, titled Nothin’ but Working, celebrated his intermedia art.

Influential collaborations defined Niblock’s career, engaging musicians like David Gibson, Rafael Toral, Lee Ranaldo, and many more. His compositional process involved layering single tones, creating monumental, continuous sounds.

His most recent performance was to celebrate both his 90th birthday and the Winter solstice, when the shortest day and longest night occurs. Entitled Winter Solstice: 24 Hours of Music and Film, the event at Roulette in New York presented a unique marathon spanning two days, featuring 12 hours of experimental music and mixed-media film each day, with special guest performers interspersed throughout. You can watch a 12-hour recording of the show above.

Head to Phill Niblock’s website to learn more about his work.

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