Phill Niblock (b. 1933) is an Indiana-born, New York-based composer and multi-media artist. Since 1985 he has been the director of Experimental Intermedia, a foundation for avant-garde music located in his Chinatown loft, which has hosted over 1000 concerts throughout its history. Experimental Intermedia also has an accompany record label, XI Records, which Niblock helps run. Niblock’s career also includes photography, a medium he took up in the 1960s that led to him capturing numerous jazz musicians at their height. He also has made films that range from avant-garde shorts and striking documentations of Sun Ra and Arthur Russell. The Movement of People Working (2003) is also noteworthy, as it’s he worked on between 1973 and 1992 that involves a series of 16mm films and videos shot around the world. Focused on people doing manual labor, it largely relates to Niblock’s interest in movement and dance. His drone music, for which he’s largely known, is dense, all-encompassing, and distinct—one can find his recordings on record labels such as Touch and Matière Mémoire. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Niblock on October 25th, 2020 via Zoom to discuss his childhood, his time in the army, his films, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: You were born in 1933, in Indiana—
Phill Niblock: But I escaped!
When you think of Indiana, what comes to mind?
Uh, “escape” is the thing that comes to mind.
Why did you want to escape?
Why? Because there wasn’t so much happening in Indiana. I went to Indiana University as a pre-med student but then I changed that and eventually got a degree in economics. I had to decide very quickly what I was going to have enough credits to major in. Economics allowed me to take a lot of business courses, so I just did that—I had all the science stuff already done. And then I went directly into the army under a voluntary draft ’cause I was going to be drafted anyway—rather than wait around for a year for them to decide, I did. A couple of other friends did that so we went in together.
I was stationed in Southern Alabama in Fort Rucker, Alabama, which was a training school for helicopters and small craft. More observational stuff. Then I was there for a year and a half and traveled a lot in the South during that time. When I got out of the army after two years, I had to decide where to go outside of Indiana.