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.