This article focuses on the six pieces for orchestra, the earliest from 1998 and the most recent from 2011, by the American composer and filmmaker Phill Niblock (b.1933). These works stand apart from Niblock's more usual practice: that of making compositions on tape (later on computer) by superimposing layers of recordings of held tones played by individual instruments, the tones pitch-shifted to make dense, microtonal drone textures. Yet there are many similarities, in intent if not in sounding result. The article examines the manner of construction of the orchestral works, with emphasis on their pitch structure, and describes the performance practice that has grown around them in recent years. It describes Niblock's particular use of microtonal intervals (approximated in his notation in increments of a sixteenth of a tone) in generating both the textures and the overall form of his compositions, as well as the intended spatial distribution of the musicians in several of the pieces.
Bob Gilmore is a musicologist from Northern Ireland. He studied at York University, England, Queens University Belfast, and, on a Fulbright Scholarship, at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of Harry Partch: a biography (Yale University Press, 1998), and editor of Ben Johnston: Maximum Clarity and other Writings on Music (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Both books were recipients of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award ‘for works of excellence on American music’. More recently he has written about spectral music and is presently completing a much-awaited biography of the French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier. He also writes regularly about the new music scene in Ireland, and is founder and keyboard player of Trio Scordatura, an Amsterdam-based ensemble specializing in microtonal music. He teaches at Brunel University in London.