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Marissa Cetin
9 January 2024, 17:07

Phill Niblock, influential avant-garde composer and filmmaker, dies aged 90

The American drone pioneer's body of work stems from a 1968 motorcycle ride behind a slow-moving diesel truck whose sounds nearly entranced him off the road 

Phill Niblock, influential avant-garde composer and filmmaker, dies aged 90

American avant-garde composer and filmmaker Phill Niblock has died at age 90.

News of the influential experimental artist and drone pioneer's death spread on 8th January, confirmed by The Wire, New York arts non-profit Blank Forms and later by Experimental Intermedia Foundation NYC, a multimedia arts nonprofit where Niblock served as director since 1985. The cause of death has not been reported.

"Our beloved director Phill Niblock has sadly passed away on January 8th, 2024", a statement on EI's website reads. "He will be greatly missed. His spirit will forever remain with all future Experimental Intermedia activities." 

Born in 1933 in Indiana, Niblock moved to New York in 1958 with an economics degree from Indiana University and two years with the US Army under his belt. He dove into the city's music and art scenes, although he had no formal music background, photographing the likes of jazz great Duke Ellington in the '60s, according to Art News. Around this time, he worked with dancer Elaine Summers, who founded Experimental Intermedia in 1968.

That same year marks Niblock's first known compositions, inspired by a mountain motorcycle ride behind a diesel truck, whose sounds, when synced up with his bike, nearly entranced him off the road. "I’m interested in sound — a particular order in it", he said in a 2020 interview with Tone Glow. "It all came from a very short moment of about five minutes of thinking about music and how I could make it and what I could make and what I couldn’t make. I defined what I was going to make in the middle of 1968 and the first piece was at the end of 1968, and that piece defined what I was going to do. What I was doing got better and more clear in a few years, but basically I had decided what to do, how I was going to do it, in a few minutes in 1968. And that’s all I did."

One of Niblock's most well known visual works is a film series titled The Movement of People Working, spanning 1972 to 1992. Exhibitions feature silent videos of people from around the world performing tasks alongside live musical performances.  

Last week, Italian label Alga Marghen released three of Niblock's earliest pieces, recorded between 1969 and 1972 in New York and Boston, on vinyl for the first time. The limited-edition run of 'Boston / Tenor / Index' has already sold out. 

Read Lawrence English's tribute to Niblock at The Quietus, and friends, peers, mentees, admirers and more remember the pioneer on social media below.