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Phill Niblock

Touch Strings

(Touch; US: 27 Oct 2009; UK: 2 Nov 2009)

This double CD from minimalist composer Phill Niblock presents three pieces recorded between 2007 and 2008 that focus on the microtonal exploration of various stringed instruments playing closely related pitches, which are then mixed together to form extended drones. “Stosspeng”, the longest piece at one hour, consists of two guitarists (former Band of Susans members Susan Stenger and Robert Poss) playing the tones E, F, and F# in various combinations and octaves; the source material is then edited and combined in ProTools by Niblock. The 23-minute “Poure” is constructed from cellist Arne Deforce playing the notes A and D in various octaves, reworked again in ProTools. “One Large Rose”, for cello, piano strings, violin, and acoustic bass guitar, is performed by the Nelly Boyd Ensemble from a score by Niblock in four 46-minute takes, which are then superimposed.


The result in each case is an emphasis on microtonal difference and the fascinating subtleties of layered sound. Superimposing various takes serves to reorient notions of difference; there is a flattening out of the source material, but any potential homogenization is countered by the myriad differences which come to light in the focused listening that this music demands. Like a Rothko painting, there are both differences between the patches of sound, and less obvious differences within the patches themselves. The music can be calm one minute and violently dissonant the next, but it is impossible to locate quite where the change took place.


As Stenger points out in her liner note, Niblock’s music only works via sustained listening, for musicians and audience alike. Listeners become aware of gradual shifts in the ambience of these pieces, which constantly vary according to the volume they are played at, the position from which they are heard, the nature of any accompanying activities (though really this music demands that you do nothing else but listen), and the amount of additional ambient noise in the listening environment. It is not that such factors are not relevant to other types of music, but Niblock’s drones refine our awareness of the spatio-temporal aspects of listening. As in recent work by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and the forthcoming book from musician and critic David Toop, listening is a process of becoming, a gradual awareness of the resonance of the world. There is a moment of incredible clarity, of a recognition of deep listening, that comes not only during the process of this music’s unfolding and refolding, but perhaps above all at its culmination, when the bliss of silence suddenly reappears, only to be filled with the noise of the world “outside”.

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Richard Elliott is a writer, university teacher, and journal editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of the book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (2010), as well as articles and reviews covering a wide variety of popular music genres. Richard is currently working on a co-authored book on ritual, remembrance, and recorded sound.


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