Phill Niblock
Touch Five
UK TOUCH TO:91 2 x CD (2013)

Double CD by Phill Niblock, erstwhile and active doyen of New York Minimalism, also exemplified by Tony Conrad, La Monte Young et al. His fifth for Touch, cunningly indicated in the title ‘Touch Five’. Two CDs worth of his layered microtone experiments. I say that like you know that’s a big part of what he does as a composer, which you might – I did, too – however I hadn’t actually heard any work apart from a small section of a soundtrack from ‘People Working’ on the internet. I only really had a vague verbal description in mind.

Knowing about Niblock’s work, though, what he uses to make his music, descriptions of the forms it takes and how it is put together, isn’t enough. None of this ‘knowledge’ is any substitute for the SOUND of the work. The sound as it comes from the speakers is the thing, not a recollection of it, or a mental approximation it, either of which is vague rather than the waves, the vagaries of interacting oscillations themselves. This is true of most music (some of course doesn’t live up to imagination or descriptions) but the sound is the primary thing in most cases, of course, it’s just that in Niblock’s music the sound itself extends itself between and beyond the particularities and limitations of the verbal. Within those gaps there is liberated space.

So, the first, and maybe last, thing to note is this music’s thereness, its thingness. Specificity, particularity, magnitude, dispersal…. an illustration of the relative inexactitude of words, which can stay fixed when the thing described is a flux, a wave, a shifting kaleidoscope of myriad interactions sourced from humble individual sources. Niblock refers to his musical ‘language’ –it could be described as a trans-verbal musical language communicating subtleties and shades peculiar to its own methods and means.

A cello. A guitar quartet. An electric harp. Rasp, bite. Wood and metal qualities recorded simply, layered and layered and transmitted to effect a ‘transparency’ of sound and a concurrent immersiveness. The constructed nature, the process is integral, the artifice, which serves only to highlight the ‘natural’ timbre and grain of the instrumental source material and to explode them dimensionally. Niblock’s pieces exist on their terms, are constructed for reproduction involving electricity and loud speakers, extending the possibilities of performance, augmenting ‘reality’ to paradoxically exist and pertain to and be of ‘reality’ vigorously and naturally. Sound as thing. Thingness.

This thingness is rooted in physical connections, physical, raw, sounds. In his films of people working basic media like video captures the repetitive, co-ordinated movements of manipulation and muscle fibres. Yet those fibres of different tensile strength and different nerve impulses contractions and extensions bunch together as muscles and combine to make a movement larger than individual strands with a different shape and meaning. This is everyday. My hands type. A guitar string is plucked. This connection to the basic and fundamental is perhaps a connection Niblock would like to make.

Vibrations as simple and/or complex as the thrum of his Yamaha motorcycle in the 60s 1 (mental musical motorbike corpus, partial components: Keith Hudson’s S90 Skank, Flower Travelling Band naked and iconic astride their hogs, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s invocation to the Harley Davidson.) Down to earth, sacral areas, mooladhara connected to leather saddle vibrating over asphalt. Minimal Motorbike Music. Horse hair vibrating over string. E bow agitating metal strings. Metal wires oscillating over pick ups. Speaker cones pushing air particles.

Engine, Car, Aeroplane, Mechanical Travel; Overtones and drones. The music isn’t, however, an analogue of any man-made environmental auditory phenomena, a description of the world, it is an artistic construction with the presence of a physical phenomenon themselves, one which flows between such distinctions as ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. Niblock refers to ‘clouds’ of microtones when talking about his work. That simple word also works for me as an indication of the particular ways in which these pieces hang in time and space. Morton Feldman used duration and, in his most a-characteristic piano phase, hung limpid streaks and pebbles cast into still pond reflections teasing chromatic droplets into negative space. Now imagine that negative space IS Phill Niblock’s music, its Genetic becoming, what was has faded away and what was not has faded into presence. What was black and still and emptiness now subtly glowing with smouldering presence or luminescent colour, what was quiet now loud (Niblock usually specifies playback at a high volume) a vapour of intimate instrumental particles massed into clouds of sound where the individual is multiplied and montaged until it becomes familiar and other at once, fractal, unified.

Note (from the first) this presence, immediate and graspable. It grasps the listener and the listener is able to grasp it, perhaps in a mutual clasp of hands – in solidarity with the workers of the world?-, perhaps a hand on a throttle, on a bow, gripping a wrench. Not the ancient Egyptian ‘clutch’ of death, this is rather a grasp which is a handhold on a ladder planted in the earth, a rung, a wooden pole ascending into the sky of Pythagorean harmonics and telecommunication. A grasp which ends up not encompassing the sound, but with the sound – slipping as it does through the interstices of staves and notes, through open fingers, through open ears, away from verbal taxonomies and lists – encompassing the listener, passing through atomic spaces like Solar photons passing through the outstretched hand. Grains of sand and sound. When cellist Arne Deforce describes the piece he contributes to, FeedCorn Ear, as ‘expansive, celestial and full of light’ this certainly rings true. Chimes with. Strikes a chord. (Sonic, auditory imagery).

Organic, processed, individual, ensemble, solo, unison, artificial, primal, physical, abstract, instrumental, diffused, acoustic, electric, performed, montaged, constructed, natural. Dualities, or words which suggest duality as such are of no use apart from to vaguely gesture to the existence of the work in the ‘cloud’ between, above, below and beyond words and notes on a page (abstractions). Multiplicity is key: the music gains dimensions exponentially as it gains overdubbed layer, each one adding microtones, ghosting harmonics, overtones, frequency beating. The pieces presented on these discs actualise a sonic architecture at once complex, nuanced and as elegantly simple as a wave and its constituent particles and interacting forces. Long form overall sweep as well as micro-events within that larger movement/shape/event/object/phenomenon in time and space.

The composition which is the basis for the 3 pieces documented on the second CD takes place between the standard equal tempered A and F Sharp – 3 semitones – but between that are inserted 10 subdivisions of each semitone, meaning 30 potential notes between the standard three and incalculable new shades when the composition is realised. The potential responses to the equally tempered scale (emotional response based on tradition, familiarity, conditioning and learning) are bypassed by the dividing of such canonical tones into smaller, more unfamiliar elements. Small increments and held tones bypass melodic or gestural pre-eminence in the music and smaller sonic features, more often experienced as incidental to a performance, are foregrounded; again, slipping away, evading, inverting, everting, re-invigorating. Timbres fluctuate between different layered takes. Mass intervallic interaction occurs as microtones shift incrementally, expanding, exploding the scale through constellations of tiny doorways into new glorious colours. One minute near unison pitches resembles banks and banks of minutely de-tuned electronic oscillators, the next an accidental brush against a string or a twanging attack reveals traces of human agency that add grain to the sound, flecks and dust that flicker in the transparent immanence of the precise overtones. Further information about the compositions and deceptively simply methods of realisation is described in the plain speaking liner notes.

So, ways and means 2, tools: open, plain. Nature, open and plain. And yet… Who really knows the depths of the simplest thing, the simplest musical element? The elemental? Blake famously wrote of ‘seeing the universe in a grain of sand’. A grain of sand with all its dimensional pathways, imaginative allusions expanded, multiplied and multiplied until a grain becomes a beach. How many possibilities, how many differences between these grains each labelled ‘sand’? Who can describe a cloud? Who can mystify a cloud more than the implications inherent in the fact of there being such things as ‘clouds’ in the first place? Who can demystify a cloud, or de mist-ify a cloud, for that matter (vapour)? Who can grasp the totality of a cloud or what it is? Who can physically hold onto a cloud? Or watch it as it unfurls just too slowly for the human mind to register the movement as a continuous process? That there are such things as clouds of sounds, an actualized one condensed from the vapour of process and idea, yet indicating the sublime in the simplicity and depth of its nature. And its construction.

‘An electronic tuner may be useful’ says Niblock, deadpan, to the contributing instrumentalists to some of these pieces and any potential performers. This rigorous attention to alternative tuning (just as in, well, just intonation. Not to mention the complex attention to tuning many non-‘Western’ tuning systems) and insistence on the avoidance of glissandi to move between the specified microtones ensures clarity and simplicity of conception is translated into startling clarity and depth of effect.
The bottom, base, line, (chakra) is that your primary and foremost experience is the thrill of a collective of individual sounds, sounds made by people, in an exciting combination. Not manipulated or processed in any other way than through overdubbing. In this way the single ‘natural’ performance is montaged and magnified, timestreams blurred and exploded, the base and heights connected simultaneously. The word ‘drone’ may be used to describe the spread and bloom of these tone-fields within their extended duration. However the pieces’ inherent multiplicity (within a unity), drama (the drama of an extending, extended, amplified, vibrating field of sound, of a single string oscillating in space multiplied and split in a sonic prism), invention (not as an instrumentalist, an effect of the ego-less rainbow refraction of tonal spectrum) richness of sonic world (unity) and character (multiplicity – see the beginning of this sentence for further thoughts on that…) defy any potential linguistic reductionism implicit in the word ‘drone’ (often de-based, re-based becomes – re-sacr-alised – re-alised). That is, debased only if you understand ‘drone’ as an abstraction, a word only, not as the total experience of the vibration of microtones, of molecules, of a 2-stroke Yamaha motorcycle, of the universe, of physical waves of sound on the eardrums, the interior of a motor vehicle on a cross continental trip, a CD player and a loudspeaker. 3

Plain speaking: a string set into motion vibrates.

Niblock, on the evidence of the interview cited and the liner notes, makes no particular claims for his music, as with his films it speaks of existence, rather than transcendence in the sense of something removed from the conditions of life in the now. It is concerned with transcendence in the sense of moving from shackled perception to full-spectrum experience; it transcends those limits (artistic, compositional, perceptual) by, (paradoxically?) introducing different rules, rules that are more precise than previous rules, subdivided, extended. It is aware of shackles, conditions, different conditions, of people and the way they move in the world, of sound and how it moves. There is paradox. Paradox of one and many at the same time. Different times, performances, fluctuating tempi in illusory stasis. Systems. (Echoes of Blake again ‘I must create my own system…,’ of course, though, this isn’t a new system… ) Maximal effect through ‘minimal’ approach. Paradox is a condition of multi-dimensionality, of realisation. Of existence. Exit, and of course, by those rules, entrance as well. These pieces partake of and exude a quality of realisation and multi-valent multi-dimensionality. Thingness. Simultaneous palpability and intangibility. Depth and richness.

There is a Gordian knot embedded in the verbal at the limits of its functionality, the limit that approaches the paradox; however, as we know words and categories crack and break under strain and, space is provided, the future leaks out, or in this case, the present, presence. To be in the presence, to be present, is a good thing. There are fine sounds presented here. Arrange to be present simultaneously (CD is a good method. There’s two here, remember) if you haven’t before – I was glad I was able to.

  1. See interview in Personal best #3 for more info.
  2. An echo which is just a reminder that the name of the piece is not the piece itself, as it were.
  3. Approaches a totality of effect through massed notes, volume, slipping between musical and perceptual border guards the sound in flux is able to agitate our non-verbal responses. An effect, ‘boiling through the scales’ Henry Flynt hears in C C henix’s 1970s Just Intonation work ‘The Electric Harpsichord’, a partial genesis of which is ascribable to her work with La Monte Young, Terry Riley and through them exposure to Pandit Pran Nath. An interesting exercise to compare and contrast and discern shared concerns origins and difference…

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