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Baobab - Phill Niblock

Structurally speaking, Baobab is the superimposition of two processes, both conceptually simple but musically rich. The first process involves the dyad B–C: the second, the single note B. In the first process, the dyad B–C is at first presented with a mass of microtonal adhesions; tempered Bs are heard together with Bs that are approximately 10 cents flat, 20 cents flat, 30 cents flat and 40 cents flat, and tempered Cs are heard with Cs that are approximately 10 cents sharp, 20 cents sharp, 30 cents sharp, and 40 cents sharp. But these microtonal adhesions gradually drop away, so that by the fifteen-minute mark we hear only the precisely tuned tempered dyad. (The process might be said to resemble an image gradually coming into focus.) After one minute of pitch stability the process begins in reverse, so that the B begins to accrue ever more microtonal displacements (in a downwards direction) and the C to accrue ever more microtonal displacements (in an upwards direction). Whereas at the beginning of the piece, the microtonally “messy” dyad took fifteen minutes to “clean up,” now it takes only seven minutes to get messed up again. Superimposed on this is a second process, beginning at minute 9: a new pitch, B, is introduced, first in only two voices and then joined by more players until, two minutes later, half of the musicians are sounding the pitch. Starting at minute 12 it begins to accrue microtonal adhesions, spreading sharpwards and flatwards simultaneously until the end of the piece, by which time it has “spread” by roughly a quartertone on either side. This means that by the closing minute of Baobab Niblock has built up a densely filled microtonal space spanning a minor third, from (roughly) B-three-quarter-flat to C-quarter-sharp, with however a semitone-sized “hole” between tempered B and tempered C.

It must be emphasised that Niblock does not expect us to follow these pitch processes in listening to the pieces, even though most of them are readily audible (the greater textural density of Tow by Tom and 4 Chorch makes their processes more difficult to follow by ear). The pitch designs are simply a means to an end: that of creating the immense sonic terrain that his music inhabits. The success of a Niblock orchestral performance thus depends heavily on the contribution of the players. For this reason it seems appropriate to end this article with some reflections on performing Niblock, based on my own experiences in performing ensemble versions of four of the orchestral works under the composer’s supervision.

All six of Niblock’s orchestral works to date are fully notated, each score prefaced by two pages of verbal performance instructions. The notation thus captures the essence of the music almost as much as does the notation of a classical piece (“almost,” because instrumentation and choice of register is not specified). The instructions were cowritten by Niblock and the musicians who assisted him in preparing the scores (Ulrich Krieger for Disseminate; Volker Straebel for Three Orchids and Tow by Tom; Arthur Stidfole for 4 Chorch; Bob Gilmore for 2 Lips, Baobab and To Two Tea Roses; Guy De Bievre for Three Petals and #9 (Number Nine). In tandem with this, however, we are witnessing today the beginnings of a Niblock performing tradition; this most gregarious of avantgarde composers has by now worked with hundreds of musicians literally all over the world who have absorbed a sense of the special conditions that make for good Niblock performance. What has emerged are a few, if not rules, then at least principles that have been proven to hold good regardless of circumstance, and to cause (musical) damage if ignored. Perhaps the most important of all is that this music is not about the expression of the individual ego: the best results have been when the player totally puts aside his/her need for “self-expression” and becomes just another part of the all-enveloping sonic texture. It should be more or less impossible to hear what an individual live player is contributing unless one actually looks at him/her: the overall volume should be such that no individual will stand out. This nonetheless does not negate the need for sustained concentration. A player may be being asked, by the score, to play slightly “off ” in pitch by, say, 10 cents (about a tenth of a semitone) from the player sitting next to them, so they create beats and other sorts of interference patterns in the sound; this requires careful listening. The player should not try to “do” much; it is actually more interesting to get into a state of calmness and enjoy playing the note or notes specified. For the musician this is not boring at all, despite the relative lack of activity. The music is already there; the player is just a part of it. The players need to avoid the temptation to make intense, dramatic crescendos and diminuendos to make life more “interesting”: the music does not need them, as there will already be much natural ebb and flow in sound simply through the accidental circumstances of the players resting from time to time (although not too many should rest at once, or for too long).

Bob Gilmore, Phill Niblock: The Orchestra Pieces,

Tempo 66 (July 2012), 2–11.