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Phill Niblock - Touch Strings

Touch

Following 2006’s monumental 3-CD set Touch Three, amid the uppermost pinnacles in Phill Niblock’s career, the latest bulletin by the Indiana dronemeister - who forces the aficionados to settle for just a double helping this time - is completely dedicated to string instruments, both electric and acoustic. The release was repeatedly postponed, generating the sort of anticipation that precedes almost every major artistic statement. There’s no doubt that Niblock’s recordings weigh heavily on the sonic movements of our era and Touch Strings is certainly no exception, especially in virtue of how opposite sensations are strikingly counterbalanced from the very beginning – “rationally brooding” versus “disquietingly awesome” distinguish the discs. A curiosity: the peculiar mini-damnation typifying the minimalist maverick’s Touch label outings continues. While the last two releases presented an incorrect title sequence, this one shuffles bits and pieces of the liners due to a pagination mistake. One starts reading about a composition and ends somewhere else, or a thought is truncated halfway through.

Disc one is taken up entirely by the 59-minute “Stosspeng”, the name a combination of Susan Stenger and Robert Poss, early associates who commissioned the work, which is scored for electric guitars enhanced with a sustainer and e-Bowed bass. The structure of the piece is reasonably straightforward – conspicuous stereo separation, a restricted range (E, F, F#), direct recording from the pickups (no amplifiers or microphones involved), and the muted quality of the derived pitches. These often result in a tight-lipped humming of sorts, bringing concentration informed by a subliminally comforting throb (typical, for instance, of the bulk of Eliane Radigue’s oeuvre). However, Niblock’s comes with a measure of conflict. In sections where overlapping overtones design noticeable patterns, they occasionally transform a somewhat unquiet murmur into subterranean inhospitality (principally unfolding in the medium-to-low frequency regions).

Interestingly, throughout the live rendition the guitarists make sure to minutely adjust the pitch and alter the mood “from calm and relatively consonant to thin and delicate to wildly dissonant and colossal” (to quote Stenger’s words). This is an example of Niblock’s trademark regulated emancipation – a representation may be modified to some extent, but the massive impact of the original notion is always there. “Stosspeng” definitely belongs to the realm of his better intuitions, privileging composure to dissension in extremely convincing fashion.

The second CD is opened by “Poure”, written for Arne Deforce’s cello. He’s already a protagonist in Touch Three’s “Harm”, among this composer’s most spectacular episodes ever. Here, Niblock returns to the method of calibrated sine tones (to which the musician tunes) and an oscilloscope alimented both by sine and microphone tones. Starting from the notes A and D he proceeded to choose pitches that were either slightly flat or sharp in relation to the fundamentals, until he amassed about 32 tracks of material. The result consists of 23 minutes and 30 seconds of disquieting suspension, encompassing indeterminate tonal centres, jarring “in your face” contrasts of upper partials, and an atypically pervasive sense of menace during the thickest superimpositions. A diverse study of space and, perhaps, the listener’s reaction to difficulty – needless to say, the brain generates virtual counterpoints of its own by the dozen – “Poure” is also a surprising shift towards areas of accumulated pulses, which establish anxiety rather than placidity in spite of being attenuated by customarily magnificent resonant mass.

“One Large Rose” closes the program in style by interconnecting old and new traits and contiguous areas of research. A revision of an earlier score for triple orchestra, “Three Orchids,” it was taped by Hamburg’s Nelly Boyd Ensemble, a collective specializing in “American classical avant-garde,” which in the past performed works by Cage, Feldman, Lucier, Riley, Stockhausen and Tenney. The instrumentation features cello (Robert Engelbrecht), piano strummed with nylon strings (Jan Feddersen), violin (Peter Imig), and acoustic bass strummed with nylon strings or e-Bow (Jens Roehm).

The players are allowed to tackle one of ten existing parts, each translation sounding differently depending on its relationship to the alternative. Niblock recorded four takes and layered the ensuing twenty tracks, superimposing altered microtonal contents in accordance to the execution of a selected part. The mathematical complexity of the concept is nothing for this group, which – in another variation on a notorious Niblockian canon of extreme post-production – played the item in real time, 46 minutes without editing. This is a remarkable achievement for such a physically difficult act. The overall result is sublime, a paradigmatic collision between a heightened state of awareness and the distress caused by uncompromising dissonance. The piano’s gaping snarl is frequently heard at the forefront, affirming its ascendancy in full harmonic rumbling, vaguely echoing a former milestone, “Pan Fried 70” (Touch Food, 2003). The immense jangle originating from these layers recalls a huge didgeridoo-tamboura hybrid, yet signifying Indian mantras or aboriginal reverberations lie quite far away.

To gain an accurate idea of what happens, the enquiring reviewer did the unthinkable – thrice, no less – by listening to the track via headphones (anathema!). While the power of gargantuan vibration is obviously lost in excluding the speakers, and despite persistently buzzing membranes once the session ends, it is uniquely fascinating to enjoy the music as it is being lived and breathed. The attack and decay of the notes, mentally visualizing the effort applied by the performers in a precise moment, all make “One Large Rose” the most visceral Niblock music on record to date – and also one of the most humanistic.

~ Massimo Ricci

Discussion

9 comments for “Phill Niblock - Touch Strings

  1. “the Indiana dronemeister”

    he was born there, but he’s lived in NYC since 1958, pretty sure that qualifies him as a New Yorker.

    Posted by jon abbey | October 20, 2009, 3:08 am
  2. ” . . . generating the sort of anticipation that precedes almost every major artistic statement.” I’m sorry, but no. Artists sort of tend to anticipate the anticipation, if they’re any good. Since I’m posting on a Niblock thread, just let me say how much I love the Movement of People Working DVD. I wouldn’t listen to his music otherwise, to be honest, but the films give credibility and warmth to his compositions where aurally I would have suspected rather rigid exercises.

    Posted by Wombatz | October 20, 2009, 3:42 am
  3. Oh wait, that maybe sounds bad. I didn’t mean to suggest he needs any cred, but that as somebody far far from the smouldering hills of Indiana (supposing) or the New York lofts, the films made me connect instantly.

    Posted by Wombatz | October 20, 2009, 3:51 am
  4. W - the editor can take part of the blame re: major artistic statements and trying to consolidate some highly complex verbiage. Max is a philosopher for our times!

    Posted by clifford | October 20, 2009, 9:24 am
  5. The philosopher here says that he completely stands behind the original idea. Were all artists forced to break new grounds only to “anticipate the anticipations” every time, nearly all of them would be considered as failed artists.

    Are you telling me that Phill Niblock, Eliane Radigue, Keith Rowe, Evan Parker are not great artists only because one knows, more or less, what to expect from a record to another? Hilarious. And “rigid exercises” is enough for me to stop talking right now.

    Jon - Phill grew up and studied in Indiana; 1933 to 1958 is a reasonable time span for telling that he’s from there.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 20, 2009, 1:28 pm
  6. Oh, you meant your own anticipation. Now that changes everything. I’m sure that the thrill you personally feel for an impending work of art exactly equals its worth by objective standards. I was under the misapprehension you were postulating a theory that artworks of special merit were somehow electrifying the ether to notify the general public that everyone was about to be blown away. My bad. (Seriously, though, I don’t think art should cater to the happy few, nor does it, and it’s not the philosopher in you that I called out, but the mystic.)

    Yes, I find it tough to listen to Niblock’s music on its own. Still I love it with the films. Since he put both together himself, I must say I can think of better reasons for being exasperated with me, don’t you think.

    Cheers, Lutz

    Posted by Wombatz | October 20, 2009, 4:32 pm
  7. “it’s not the philosopher in you that I called out, but the mystic”

    Ha! Good one.

    “being exasperated with me”

    Definitely not, Lutz - I’m the most detached person you’ll ever meet, believe me. Perhaps, after so many years of reading around everywhere, “resigned” is a better definition of how I feel.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 20, 2009, 11:22 pm
  8. Only scored my copy yesterday, and have only had enough time to listen to CD 1 (at reasonably low volume - i.e. the walls weren’t shaking), but it looks good so far. Nice to see notes by my pal Bob Gilmore (who also interviewed Phill for PT as you know http://www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/interviews/niblock.html ).
    If you like the Movement Of People Working films, Wombatz, go and see PN live next time he hits your town (it’s only a matter a time - he’s seems to tour more than James Brown): he shows those movies as a backdrop every time. Awesome.

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 21, 2009, 12:03 am
  9. Good morning Dan!

    Yeah, curiously “Stosspeng” works very well at low volume, too.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 21, 2009, 12:10 am

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