Live: Phill Niblock @ Cafe Oto, 17/02/11

Strangely, Phill Niblock wasn’t on stage for any of this performance. The man himself was sat at the back, hunched over his laptop next to the mixing desk, whilst the staff and students of Brunel University took audience focus – violinists, flautists, keyboard players, a vocalist, a cellist, a bassist and someone wielding a sort of violin/trumpet hybrid, which probably has a name to those with the necessary music knowledge. Whilst I’m lead to believe that this wasn’t a typical set-up for a Niblock live show, you’d be hard pushed to attribute the resulting wall of sound to anyone else. The relentless barrage of microtones at high volume caused the instruments to shake off their distinctive timbres anyway, bleeding into eachother to leave an ultra-dense, unwavering wall of sound.

The new and currently un-recorded “Two Lips” kicked off a set of three twenty minute pieces, and was the only one on which Phill himself is entirely absent. As a first-timer to his performances, hearing that initial groan of all instruments coming in at once was an absolute delight, galvanized by a warmth and visceral energy that feels exclusive to the live environment, and immediately engulfing the tiny venue in a manner I’d anticipated. The very slightest of sound issues surface on occasion (sound cut out for a split-second once or twice), but nothing substantial enough to jolt the audience out of trance.

The second piece was introduced as featuring “no live performers”, and seemed to simply be the recorded version of “Poure”, as it is on the album Touch Strings, fed through the P.A system. At first I felt disappointed that a whole third of the set didn’t make use of the live ensemble at Phill’s disposal, and initially some of the audience seemed to treat this as an extended interval, with a quick flurry of scraping chairs and muttered conversations. But I get the impression that I wasn’t alone in quickly forgetting the source and simply immersing myself in “Poure” as I had done with the piece before. Its conclusion was followed by a firm applause (amusingly, the staccato and percussive nature of which acted as a sort of palette-cleanser between the drones).

The closing performance of “Disseminate” brought Phill and the ensemble together for the strongest of the three pieces, with the tones gradually sliding away from a central point at an unnoticeably slow pace, drifting apart until any resemblance was entirely lost. Teacher and ensemble leader Bob Gilmore ended the night with a half-jokey plea for money with which to record “Two Lips”. They’d certainly deserve it, and more than proved themselves worthy of channeling Phill Niblock’s music with this performance.