[17 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s tough to say much about Touch Five, avant-garde composer Phill Niblock’s latest entry into the Touch label catalog. It’s an album that, on the surface, appears to be all about the process rather than the outcome. The outcome itself is quite large: five tracks over two CDs, lasting a little more than two hours. And what happens in these long stretches? They remain long stretches, that’s what happens. This is not a criticism. This is a design. Niblock enjoys playing with the microtonal properties of different instruments, such as the cello, the elctric harp, and the guitar quartet for the better part of half an hour. In the early days of his career, Phill Niblock would manipulate tape to produce these eerie drones. Nowadays, ProTools has provided him with a sort of shortcut to the land of microtones.
The first CD only has two pieces, “FeedCorn Ear” and “A Cage of Stars”. “FeedCorn Ear”, an anagram of the cellist’s name who performs this work (Arne Deforce) is 30 minutes long and explores the overtones found on one note of the cello. It’s difficult to pinpoint at which time the sound of the cello actually “opens up” to let the ghostly tones hover in the room. But the one note that you heard at the start of the piece is already light years behind the one you hear at the 2:00 mark. “FeedCorn Ear” intermittently rises and falls, sounding like a full string ensemble the majority of the time. “A Cage of Stars” is a 28:22 piece featuring Rhodri Davies on the electric harp. I do not know from where he gets the power to sustain for this; he may be using an e-bow or an amplification device. A quick Google search shows me a picture of him pointing an oscillating fan at his harp as it’s lying on the floor, so I guess it could be anything. The growth of “A Cage of Stars” is much more gradual than what you hear on “Feed Ear Corn”. Some of the more surprising overtones don’t come out of the woodwork until you’re over a third of the way into the piece.
The second CD is dedicated to one piece, “Two Lips”, though it is performed by three different ensembles. The Zwerm Guitar Quartet records the first take, the Dither Guitar Quartet goes next and the Coh Da (Ad Hoc, backwards) Guitar Quartet gets the last slot. “Two Lips” is the synthesis of two scores played simultaneously. The music is divided into an A score and a B score. Each of these quartets are split in half. Two musicians arbitrarily get the A score, the other two get the B score. Just like the two pieces on the first disc, these are drone pieces meant to last just over 22 minutes. The difference in overtones produced by these three guitar quartets is a pleasant surprise. It truly shows just how temperamental an instrument the guitar can be. Call them fraternal triplets because even though it’s the same piece being played on the same number of guitars, they sure as hell are not identical.
Overtones are strange things. Through pure circumstance, they carve their own path away from the trunk of sound. They form new branches as an identity completely independent of the note that has been rung. It’s almost as if they creep in from another musical dimension. Touch Five is immersed in that dimension, should you choose to indulge in a darker sense of “Om”.