Niblock’s Sound Spectrums – Within Invisible Rivers (2019)

A film by Thomas Maury

French director Thomas Maury has successfully achieved a difficult aim. In one hour and fifty-two minutes, Niblock’s Sound Spectrums – Within Invisible Rivers manages to synthesize almost perfectly the artistic universe of Phill Niblock, the composer who comes closer than anybody else to representing infinity through sound. The attention to the detail put by Maury in the realization of his project fully corresponds to the imagery’s beauty and the awesome profundity inevitably characterizing Niblock’s droning output. The latter is often labeled as a “wall of sound”; it happens here as well. However, trained ears connected to receptive inner aerials retrieve additional nuances – even delicate ones – from the sonic mass. Those nuances help in reaching a higher level of knowledge, which does not require the sententious exposure of what has been learned; our impermanence coalesces with the tangibility of the acoustic phenomenon. In synthesis, Niblock’s music demonstrates that the pulsating core of existence is clearly perceptible in the interstices between adjacent partials. Sheer conflict, or the painful intuition of a humanly unattainable harmony may arise, depending on one’s insightfulness and eagerness to decode the inherent messages.

It’s not merely a documentary for experts. Neophytes wishing to become acquainted with Niblock’s art find here an ideal compendium of his activities and personal history. The protagonist speaks sparingly about the origins of his research; the music is represented by lengthy excerpts in parallel with images of natural environments/events, or experimental videos by Katherine Liberovskaya, or Niblock’s renowned footage. The man’s penchant for visuals – be it film or photography – is skilfully framed by Maury’s editing. There are various contributions by leading figures from the avant-garde world, some of whom – Tom Johnson and Eliane Radigue, for example – appear only in voice. The diversity of approach in trying to describe Niblock’s work by players from diverse generations and frequent collaborators is a point of considerable interest. We have the opportunity to see him in the studio with some of the performers: the episode where Stephen O’Malley tries to draw useful tones from a rare Travis Bean guitar for the boss to use is particularly fascinating. Equally nice is observing Niblock engaged in purely manual/repairing tasks, or catching him in his loft connecting cables, or quietly working in a corner while an ensemble’s members rehearse in view of a performance. I loved the contrast of personalities between him and Charlemagne Palestine, whose description of the “minimalist neuroses” related to certain pieces by Philip Glass and Steve Reich – in opposition to Niblock’s continuums – is utterly hilarious.

There’s a lot more to see and hear, including some wonderful silences. The combination of the fragility of beings and their need to learn beyond intellectual manifestations is admirably expressed by Jim O’Rourke. His concepts, not coincidentally, define the film’s ending as “Stosspeng” influences our wholeness via frequencies that nearly brought tears to these eyes. As O’Rourke correctly notes, when a sensitive human discovers something which immediately becomes a fundamental necessity the first thing that ideally should emerge is the willingness to pass it on to others. Giving away without asking for anything in return, just so that the vital current can continue. The intention/non-intention of Niblock – a man of lucid rationality and undeniable modesty – is finely summed up by those words. Many of us have been able to apprehend and reflect differently after absorbing the Niblockian vibration; some, as Al Margolis amusedly recounts, have had a sort of lysergic experience thanks to the merging of contiguous pitches. One way or another, anyone who gets in touch with this phenomenology is moved, provided that the inside doors are left open. Consciousness-deprived specimens may think in terms of unbearable oppressive noise, but that’s their problem. As far as we are concerned, our gratitude for Mr. Maury – who is only 34, incidentally – is steadily mounting after each new view. Do your best to catch a public screening, as we remain hoping for a home edition in the next future.

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