From the very beginning, he developed a method that he continues to pursue today and that found its first culmination in 1974 with the piece 3 to 7 – 196: a specific sequence of notes is played on a classical instrument, which is recorded. Several such tracks are then layered on top of one another. This produces an overlapping of long held tones, which often only differ by a few frequencies. Out of this emerges an interplay that is difficult to determine in advance. An overtone pattern is developed that the artist further elaborates when performing live. For this reason, his music must be played very loud, for only at this level are the overtones audible. This process also results in distortions and auditory deformations, although it isn’t Niblock’s intent to work with dissonance nor is it the actual goal of his compositions.
These types of sound recordings are the foundation of Niblock’s concerts. He uses them to build sound clouds to which one to three musicians then play saxophone, guitar, or percussion instruments live. Niblock gives no guidelines to the musicians and they may respond to his drones as they wish, deciding spontaneously during the performance what to play. Niblock has also organized concerts with only live musicians, whereby his orchestras may consist of up to 110 musicians.
How his music ultimately sounds is dependent upon the setting, as the sites of the concerts become resonating bodies and in that way form part of the specific acoustic identities of the performances. Niblock plays in concert halls, churches, and museums, and yet he prefers churches on account of their very specific acoustics. During his concerts he projects his films from The Movement of People Working onto large-format screens.
In contrast to artists like La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, who, in the early 1960s, also began to experiment with long tones and their overtones, and whose influence Niblock acknowledges, he doesn’t use math as the foundation of his music. Unlike Tony Conrad, he doesn’t insist on just intonation. On the contrary his method is based on intuition and experimentation: »I know that it’s going to sound a certain way, but I never know exactly what’s going to happen.«
Since 1985, Niblock has directed the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, which supports avant-garde music: it was founded in New York in 1968 by Elaine Summers and Niblock and now has a branch in Ghent. Besides numerous music events, he has run the music label XI Records since 1998 as part of the foundation, helping to release the work of countless musicians.