Editor’s note: Steve Dalachinsky passed away in the middle of September, a good handful of days after this column had its final edits. Steve lived a full life and was at the age when his peers and colleagues were experiencing death, his dedications to them were an all-too-frequent kicker for Outtakes. So it is fitting and also very sad for me to write this dedication to you, Steve, lover of art, music, people, and a one-of-a-kind poet and man.
“I just started dating an artist…so we’ll see what happens.” — One young woman to another on Spring Street (Soho)
“I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there could be some never-before seen image.”” — Dorothea Tanning
“New York is like the sea, it always takes something away from you.” — Robert Frank
“there is no end to completion…I have one big story to tell but I have forgotten it.” — Jonas Mekas
When I encountered Thomas Maury at Phill Niblock’s concert in Paris the day Notre Dame caught fire we both felt as if we had met before. As it turned out, aside from crossing paths at many concerts in New York we had also met at Phill’s loft on Centre Street. After viewing the film Niblock's Sound Spectrums—Within Invisible Rivers I realized that it was Thomas who had made it. This peaked my curiosity so I decided to take the easy way out and ask him how and why it came about. The following is what transpired:
Rail: When did you meet Phill and why did you decide to make a film about him?
Maury: I experienced one of Phill’s concerts for the first time at the great Royal Saltworks building near Arc-et-Senans, France in 2010. I was obsessed with music and film at that time and soon after went to New York, where I attended concerts almost every night. I went to The Stone, the Village Vanguard, and to the Bronx, where I discovered fantastic musicians. My interest in jazz comes from a retired lady, with whom I took guitar lessons. When she was in her twenties, she played in a jazz band. We played and listened to Tal Farlow, George Shearing, Charlie Christian, and so on.
During that stay in New York I attended my second concert by Phill at Roulette. We spoke together after the show and he invited me to his home. After we arrived and relaxed in his famous kitchen, he put on some jazz. We listened and drank red wine. Phill told the story behind every recording he played including the name of each musician, where it was recorded, and who recorded it.
It was in December 2011 that I got the idea to make a film. I noticed that Phill would be coming in March to play at Café Oto in London, so I went. When I arrived, we met and shook hands. He introduced me to several people including the producer of Touch, Mike Harding. While Phill was doing his soundcheck, I told Mike my idea. He told me to tell Phill about the film and that it “would be wonderful and Phill would be very happy about it.” So I told Phill and after a moment of silence, he said “If you want to do it, let’s do it;” Someone else that night told me “if you want to make a film with Phill, you’ll need to drink a lot of wine.”
I told myself that I would be, in a way, making music, with this film. I imagined it could become a kind of duo by my creating the images. I also told myself that I could be useful to music in general by doing this film.
Rail: What was the reason you picked the people you interviewed?
Maury: Most of the time I worked with intuition and chance. I would also suggest people to Phill for his consideration. I saw every person we agreed on as a potential for the film project. We didn’t know what we would find, but we were exploring new territories.
For instance, I met Al Margolis very early in the film process as he tours often with Phill. We did a first interview in Prague in 2011. I was impressed by his energy, his vibes, and the flow of his speech. He was very enthusiastic about the project and he contributed in a way that helped make sense to what I was doing.
I remember Stephen O’Malley didn’t know what to say about Phill or his music before we started the interview. But during it he became very enthusiastic and wanted to engage more in the film process. As people felt more comfortable with the idea they wanted to be a bit more engaged. Progressively, I gained their trust and cooperation.
Basically I made this film alone, but in the general sense I needed more help from those I integrated into the film than just speaking during the interviews. It didn’t happen all the time but when it did happen, I was very grateful. The different pieces of the puzzle slowly came together because of this process.
I spent two years writing the film. Each time I or Phill chose a person it was with the perspective of filling a vital and specific need. In that way, each person became a specific part of the structure. Like a music composition.
In New York in March 2014 I began shooting the film and continued for a month at Experimental Intermedia. After a shoot at NYU, where Phill was giving a talk to students, I went to a shop to buy some equipment I needed for the shoot and met Charlemagne Palestine by chance. I thought it was a sign so I asked him if he’d be willing to have a conversation with Phill at EI. I explained the project to him and he said in French and English: “très intéressant, yeah, I want to do that, je veux faire ce truc.” And that’s how the great conversation between Phill and Charlemagne came about.
Phill introduced me to Alan Licht and Neil Leonard and I also interviewed Carl Stone. Interviewing Carl turned out to be a great idea because he had played many years ago at EI. He was happy to talk about Phill’s work and Phill was happy about having Carl as part of the film. The film also incorporates the time Carl came to play in a festival I organized in France named Hydraphonies in 2016, adding a nice touch.
I also did a few interviews by phone or Skype at times when I was a bit exhausted by the project. Not by the film itself but by the lack of concrete help from the film world. At first I kept these interviews just as an archive. But when I listened to the material again during the editing, I found it to be really good. The peculiar quality of the sound coming from the phone fit well with the film’s narrative. Within the film experience, I believe it tends to become something else. Films like Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others, have been references but from a distant perspective. That’s why, at the end, I kept these low quality phone interviews to use as fragments in the final version of the film. They help shape my narrative choices. In my imagination, Tom Johnson, for instance, is just speaking from a small spaceship from another galaxy. I like this idea of trying to find a good frequency that will enable the listener to hear him or not.
I feel there is something in these interviews close to Phill’s gestures when he was turning the dial of his analog radio at night as a teenager in Indiana. He could as he told me “pick up the station from an AM radio which was playing Charlie Parker live from [Birdland].” My documentary is certainly a narrative about space and time, guided by music. I also like this idea as it constitutes a good parallel with the film process, which took eight good years.
The film transcends, in a way, different musical styles, different people, and different temporalities through Phill’s presence and music—I would even go so far as to say through his musical perceptions. It is this phenomenon which constitutes the real subject of the film. In that sense, it becomes a truly artistic experience for the audience beside its role as a document. One final thing, I truly feel that what makes this film work at its best is the strong relation I had developed with Phill. We never gave up despite the difficulties.
So dear readers I strongly advise you to find this film and listen closely to it. If you already know Phill Niblock it can only help to understand him all that much more. If you are a newcomer to this man and his contribution to the world of art, film, sound, noise, and good wine it can make you a convert to all or at least some of the aforementioned. And please indulge in and enjoy the leaves as they soon begin to change color.
Dedicated to Steve Cannon. Lover of art, poetry, music, and above all people.