CD – 3 tracks
1. Hurdy Hurry
2. A Y U, AKA “As Yet Untitled”
3. A Y U, Live
Touching Extremes (web):
An excellent record – as usual – by the REAL father of the minimal structure. Forget La Monte Young or Philip Glass – the recent stuff, of course – and grab “Touch Works” (..and also all the rest of Phill’s CDs…) if you want to be charmed and hypnotized. The first piece is a superimposition of hurdy gurdies – courtesy of Jim O’Rourke – that leaves you breathless at the end. The rest is Tom Buckner and his baritone voice in all possible strokes, put together for your head to wonder “where am I?” (I gave its first try while walking to work and I almost lost my path – I mean it). You’ll be enormously satisfied when the record is over, you’ll play it again and again. Quintessential sound physics. [Massimo Ricci]
Sometimes you may wonder whether the music of composer and Experimental Intermedia director Phill Niblock ever changes. Yes, each piece consists of continual shifts within clusters of tones, intensified in performance by the acoustics of the space. Musicians and listeners can even create shifts by changing their position in the space. And, yes, he does use different instruments to build his pieces on. And the exact treatment they get differs for every piece. But the principle behind the process does not seem to have changed throughout the years. Niblock records samples of musicians producing tones at exact pitches, tuned only microtones apart. Intervals of 2 and 3 Hz are no exception. These samples he puts together in long strings and multiple layers of sound. Differences between individual compositions must arise from the procedure followed, and from the characteristics of the basic material. Niblock’s first CD used recordings of flutes, his second (both are on XI Records) had one piece for quintupled string quartet, and one for quartet, flutes, and assorted synthesized instruments. His latest, Touch Works, has one composition for hurdy gurdy, played by Jim O’Rourke, and two for Thomas Buckner’s voice. The sources are about as singular as you can get – Niblock has significantly scaled down in comparison with his second release, and yet the overall sound is far richer than what you’ll find on these earlier albums. This, I think, must be due mainly to the timbral complexity of the source material. The hurdy gurdy, a string instrument in which a resined wheel functions as a bow, has of itself a vigorous steely sound, which can get more edge with some extra pressure exerted on the crank. The human voice has a wide palette of timbres, and if anyone is expert at picking and choosing shades and hues from that array, it’s Tom Buckner. He even takes a step beyond that, condensing timbres to their partials. Niblock has extended the scope of the musicians further with a pitch shifter, adding lines that run one or two octaves below the originals. In conjunction these lines start a fierce and lively series of interactions. As always there is a ground base and its octaves, and tones close to them – tones of very diverse character. The piece for hurdy gurdy makes clear how different this music is from Niblock’s earlier work. Out of ominously dark pedal notes shimmering chords irradiate, painting bright sparkling edges on the grinding core. This paves the way for the As Yet Untitled pieces that feature Tom Buckner. The voice, in the middle register, is immediately recognizable as his. But deep down there is a steady roar. His voice hovers above it, multiplied to an almost monotone swarm. Almost, because there are individuals just up and down from that, making the unison come alive in shivering brilliance. The glassy whistles of his overtone singing take swift steps upwards, to remain on one level for some moments before ascending further, or diffracting into glorious chords, underpinned by the growling roar. Buckner’s first piece hardly prepares you for what follows – adding his voice in live improvisation to Niblock’s construction. It is the same music, but a totally new take on it, as if an old world is shone on by a new sun. There is a lushness, an undeniable sensuousness, an organic wildness to this music, which is a departure from the controlled austerity of Niblock’s XI albums. At some points the music sounds as if he has managed to match Tibetan monks with an angelic choir, although admittedly the entire mass of sound might just as well be some huge machine, with myriads of mysteries going on inside, such as helicopters chopping away at Doppler’s. After the first impact you might wish to wander deeper into this wilderness, have a more precise view of what is moving there. The detail is amazing – choruses, swarms and clusters can virtually be followed to their single constituents. Each on its own seems motionless, but in their various combinations they create complex ever shifting relationships. And, mind you, this description is based on listening over headphones. When I tried it on my speakers the entire room was replete with sound bouncing off walls and furniture, forming temporary nodes on different spots, and driving my neighbours to foaming madness. Phill Niblock’s music has changed, but it does remain true to itself. Being at once open and dense Touch Works is evidence of the vitality of his minimalism – if that term is at all appropriate here. [René van Peer]
The Sound Projector (UK):
Niblock is an American Minimalist of no small significance, yet also one with fairly low visibility – the record racks aren’t exactly over-flowing with his back catalogue, and perhaps this isn’t a bad thing in an age where we think we can ‘own’ anything and everything, simply by paying the asking price for it. And by that I mean that some things are so important they shouldn’t and cannot be offered for sale in the first place. The same ‘problem’ of availability afflicted Charlemagne Palestine for a while (although, obviously, he is currently enjoying a renaissance as regards his discography!), but with him it was due to personal misfortunes and the kind of inertia that can set back even the greatest minds. Phill Niblock, by contrast, has deliberately chosen to limit the number of releases, since what he prefers is live performances of his work. Specifically, what he prefers is a high-quality live playback of his tape-works (for most of his works are composed direct onto multi-track tape) under controlled conditions – the optimum situation being inside his own large loft apartment space in New York. Niblock knows a thing or two about playback, how in the live environment the presence of an audience will change the sound; and he understands only too well the limitations of home stereo
Even the best and most expensive systems, for him, don’t offer the fidelity, the right frequencies, or simply the sheer loud volume that his work demands. On the other hand, his home equipment boasts four speakers, scads of low-end, high-end and reliable response. If you’re fortunate enough, you’ll be invited to his home for a small private gathering and enjoy the full-on blast of one of his loud and long tape-work drones. How elitist is that? He is aware that it’s equally important to get the work out to people, so he doesn’t deny the possibility of releasing CDs for home consumption. Incidentally, his same reservations about equipment apply to most PA systems available throughout concert halls in the Western world – the only one that recently met his high standards was in a Cathedral in Eindhoven – so don’t feel too bad if you’re a frequenter of the Naim Audio website. The three long pieces here originated in a Niblock concert at Merkin Hall, New York, from 1999. He composed two new works for the occasion, one using a hurdy-gurdy and the other using the human voice. It is these tape works you will hear, plus a live version of the voice piece (called ‘AYU’, ie ‘As Yet Untitled’). The hurdy-gurdy piece was built out of samples of Jim O’Rourke playing that hand-cracked instrument, and the voice piece comes from the estimable baritone throat-singing of Thomas Bruckner. I’m not at home, and I’m playing these now on my sister’s small portable CD player and yet with the volume up loud they still sound great to me. One advantage here and now is the bare floorboards and the slight resonances I’m getting from bouncing the sound against a blank wall. For home use, I recommend using as high a volume as you can get without distortion, and perhaps even turning your speakers against the wall (surprisingly effective) for added bounce. In this excellent release, you get a packaged booklet with a sleeve note from Niblock, an interview with him from Tape Op magazine by Steve Silverstein, and a very good introduction to the man’s work by Kyle Gann which appeared in Village Voice. This should help you situate Niblock’s achievements within an apt framework; Gann sees him as an overlooked minimalist, and compares him favourably to La Monte Young, detailing the differences in their approaches (Niblock goes for a subtly-changing drone, and deals in exact frequencies, unlike Young who is noted for his insistence on an unchanging fundamental pitch, and tunings in Just Intonation). Niblock trained as a film-maker – he produced a high-contrast film of the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1960s – and may have more affinities with conceptual and visual art than most musicians. He’s had an influence on younger New Yorkers, among them Glenn Branca and Susan Stenger (of Band of Susans); the latter, as Paul Smith’s partner, undoubtedly helped to influence the release of the double CD A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock on Blast First. A superb record which has immediately joined Yoshi Wada, Dumitrescu, Ligeti, Riley, et many others in my personal canon of magnificent deep drone-works. This amazingly profound and stirring music which can’t fail to get into your bones immediately and affect you deeply. [Ed Pinsent]
The Wire (UK):
“The forgotten minimalist” is how Kyle Gann’s sleevenote describes 67 year old Phill Niblock. His music is largely unavailable on disc, and no recordings by him figured in Brian Duguid’s Early Minimalism Primer in The Wire 206. And he’s certainly neglected in the history books – neither Keith Potter’s recent ‘Four Musical Minimalists’, nor Michael Nyman’s classic ‘Experimental Music’, so much as mention him. Among the Big Four minimalists, he has closest affinities with the drone-based approach of La Monte Young, two years his junior. But he’s more listenable than Young, and it could be that history’s getting things wrong. Young may have been the ideas man, but Niblock’s the superior musical creator, as this compelling album bears out. Niblock trained as a film maker and always uses a visual component in his productions, which we’re obviously deprived of here. ‘Hurdy Hurry’ features samples of hurdy-gurdy playing by Jim O’Rourke. The harmonies gradually stabilise into a root-position chord then move back to instability – a very slow-mo version of ‘running the changes’ over nearly 20 minutes. The sound is massive, like a church organ at full power. Gann comments that the changes in the drones are almost imperceptibly slow, but compared to Young, you can hear them subtly but very perceptibly unfolding their frequencies. There are two versions of ‘AYU’ – ‘As Yet Untitled’ – featuring the throat-singing of Tom Buckner, a classically trained baritone who became involved in free Improv in the 60s, then worked ina trio with Roscoe Mitchell and Gerald Oshita. On the first ‘AYU’, Niblock creates a drone piece from samples of his singing. On the second, Buckner returned to the recording studio and, listening with headphones, three times recorded a line in and out of tune with his source version. Four channels of pitch shift were added, and the effect is like achoir of throat-singers. As on ‘Hurdy Hurry’ there’s a continuous, unbroken stream of sound, but with quivering, buzzing overtones. The effect of the interference patterns is hypnotic, even relaxing. This is a quite superb release. [Andy Hamilton]
All Music Guide (USA):
Sound artist/composer Phil Niblock does not record often. His music is best heard in live settings with adequate amplification. Only listeners with high-quality stereo systems and comprehensive neighbors will be able to fully experience Niblock’s slow-evolving microtonal pieces. Nevertheless, unless you live in New York City, a CD is your best chance to hear the man’s work at all. Touch Works, for Hurdy Gurdy and Voice presents two piece (one in two versions) created in October 1999. Hurdy Hurry (15 minutes) uses samples of a hurdy gurdy played by Jim O’Rourke. The whiny tones are duplicated and pitch shifted. The composer brings them closer, takes them apart, all very slowly. From the apparently static piece arise subtle modifications as one is invited to leave the macroscopic world to study microscopic details. Of course, that’s the case for all drone-based minimalist microtonal music, but Niblock’s long-standing mastery has rarely been equaled. AYU (aka As Yet Untitled) features samples of baritone Thomas Buckner (who commissioned the piece). His soft throat singing is sampled over 24 tracks. Only pitch shifts (up to two octaves) >were used as treatments. The resulting piece has some qualities of Tibetan meditative chants. The listener often gets the illusion that the voice(s) turns into a cello or even a hurdy gurdy (blame that on the previous piece). For AYU, Live, Buckner went back into the studio and sang over the previous version while four channels of pitch shift were added. He repeated the exercise twice, thus adding 15 more tracks. The second version is better, richer and somehow more entertaining than the first. [Francois Couture]
Like other significant early minimalists, Phill Niblock has been consistently overshadowed by the Big Three of Glass, Reich, and Riley. There are some practical reasons for this: Niblock’s massive drone works, with exact attention to pitch, were never intended to be condensed into tidy CDs. Niblock’s work must be heard in very specific environments — played back through multiple high-end speakers at a near-deafening volume.
Still, Niblock’s music has trickled out in generally accessible formats over the years. Several years ago, while unearthing every esoteric slice of early minimalism I could find, I stumbled upon the vinyl-only Niblock for Celli/Celli Plays Niblock (India Navigation, 1984). My home-audio equipment wasn’t even close to being up to Niblock’s snuff, and the street-sound ambience bleeding into my rickety apartment probably didn’t help much either. Still, it was a transcendent experience. Niblock’s drone music was the first to punch me right in the nose and re-orient my ears to silence.
The latest advancements in digital audio, from both production and playback standpoints, haven’t made it any more acceptable to play Niblock’s work on the living-room hi-fi. But they have made it easier for Niblock to construct his massive pieces. He assembled Touch Works in two weeks, despite having his concept down for the better part of a year.
Touch Works is probably as close as you’ll come to the full Niblock experience on CD. A hurdy gurdy piece, constructed from recordings of Jim O’Rourke’s playing, is softly monolithic and very earthy. But the gems here are the two recordings of “As Yet Untitled” for Thomas Buckner’s baritone voice. The AYU recordings (one for 24 tracks of voice, the other for 39) are full of the aural hallucinations that make this kind of minimalism so magical. Somehow, with no deliberate ornamentation, “AYU” slowly reveals what sounds like a phalanx of melodic bagpipes, a choir of cellos.
If you choose to investigate the work of this remarkable composer do yourself a favor: toss aside the headphones and play it back on the best possible stereo equipment you can find. Position yourself squarely between your speakers and as far away from distractions as possible. And don’t turn the stereo off until the CD stops.
Tandem News (Canada):
I first heard the experimental music of Phill Niblock behind an interview with Brian Eno (on the From Brussels With Love compilation, 1979). That piece, “A Third Trombone,” featured a trombone playing the two parts of a third chord with all the breath pauses edited out. That put your earÕs focus on the harmonics active between the two notes of the chord. Without rhythm or melody you begin to hear subtle microtonal changes in pitch, which take on a movement and life of their own (harmonic beating). Since the 1960s, Niblock has written, performed and hosted such drone music at his foundationÕs New York loft space, Experimental Intermedia, often in conjunction with slides and film (his first creative discipline). This new CD features two such works commissioned as part of Merkin HallÕs Interpretations series in October 1999. “Hurdy Hurry” is played by Jim OÕRourke on hurdy gurdy (a mechanical stringed instrument in which the sound is produced by a resined wheel turned by a crank, and pitched by keys) and “AYU” is a multitracked voice piece sung in the style of Tuvan/Tibetan throat singing by Thomas Buckner. Niblock now uses computer sound mixing software, allowing for even richer, multilayered acoustic phenomenon than his previous recordings. [Chris Twomey]
Phill Niblock is a drone specialist. Everything he composes pursues the same drone idea but he varies the textures drastically by utilising different musical instruments. His pieces are supremely mind altering, and this release on the continually engaging and intriguing Touch art label is the most hallucinogenic dense and intense recording I’ve heard from him, or anyone else for that matter. The CD opens with ‘Hurdy Hurry’, a stunning hurdy gurdy piece constructed from samples of Jim O’Rourke’s playing, recorded in New York at Robert Poss’ studio (Band of Susans). This medieval stringed instrument played by cranking a resined wheel seems tailor made for droning, and O’Rourke has been known to drone on himself a bit in ages past. This makes his own early droneworks ‘Remove The Need’ and ‘Disengage’ seem like mere practice, but that practice has certainly paid off handsomely. At a cursory listen ‘Hurdy Hurry’ might seem like fifteen of continuous drone, but Niblock weaves together held tones with exact mathematical relationships to each other, and there is a constant slow evolution and almost imperceptibly gradual increase in mass as the piece unfurls. It continues with two different versions of what could be Niblock’s masterwork, a vocal piece ‘AYU’. The letters A, Y and U are hummed by baritone Thomas Buckner and arranged into a continually shifting corridor of sampled sound twenty four voices thick. The second version adds a live throat singing performance from Buckner, pitch shifted one and two octaves down and multiplied fifteen times over. Imagine massed temples of Buddhist monks humming universal nirvana alphabet keys condensed by a sampler into the digital cyberlanes. Niblock is described as ‘the forgotten minimalist’ in the extensive and illuminating sleevenotes, which include an interview discussing his sound reproduction techniques. After hearing this, it’s all the others that’ll be more likely to slip from memory. [Graeme Rowland]
Other Music (USA):
The first time I heard music by Phill Niblock was, I think, in 1980 or 1981. I bought a cassette ‘From Brussels With Love’ and there was an interview with Brian Eno while in the background there was playing ‘Nothing To Look At’ LP by Phill Niblock. I heard the entire interview without trying to pay much attention to Eno’s babbling, but trying to concentrate on the music. My interest was aroused at that time for minimal music, and I vaguely picked up the name Niblock somewhere. Years later I got the original LP. Niblock’s output has been quite small and underrated, at least that’s why I think. He isn’t as known as the famous minimalist twins, as obscure as the guru, or digging the archives as others. If Niblock gives us something it’s new work. This new CD has three recent works. In the past, Niblock used multi-track equipment to layer pieces of say a flute, or a cello. By cutting out the attack, one contious soundstream emerged. At first hearing maybe static, but at close hearing constantely moving. Especially when played loud, music fills your room and by moving through your space, frequencies change. Much a like Alvin Lucier, but using traditional instruments. The days of analogue multi-track and tape splicing are gone, as Niblock uses Pro-Tools and samples now. The first piece is made with gurdy hurdy samples played by Jim O’Rourke. These are then layered over 24 Pro-Tool tracks, some changes in octaves and a beautiful tapestry unfolds. The other two pieces are like twins. The first uses a vocal samples in pretty much the same fashion and has a quasi religous tone to it. In the third piece, this is repeated but added is singing in real time (and spread over an additional 15 tracks). I think Niblock has succesfully adapted new recording techniques to arrive at what he is good at. His own unique minimal drone music, free of melody and rhythm. Unlike many other Touch releases, this comes with a highly interesting booklet in which Niblock tells us about the ins and outs of his recording technique. Great release!!! [Frans de Waard, VITAL]
A bold new work of computer-enhanced minimalism. Utilizing samples of Jim O’Rourke playing the hurdy-gurdy and vocal samples and live throat singing from Thomas Buckner, Niblock has constructed three lengthy and remarkable pieces of drone and overtones that spiral into layers of ever-increasing richness and complexity.
re:mote induction (UK):
Touch Works is a 3 track release by Phil Niblock on Touch composed using hurdy gurdy and voice. The first track is Hurdy Hurry which at 15 minutes is the shortest, the other two tracks are AYU and AYU Live. AYU standing for “as yet untitled”, which I guess is ambiguous enough to suggest they could be different tracks – however I think they are two versions of the same piece. Given that, AYU takes up a fair slab of this release at 40 minutes. Regardless I have tended to listen to this album in one sitting and with that it starts to come across as one long piece. The sound becomes a long drone, which mixes the tones of both “instruments” giving the piece its texture. In the right mood this a strong drone release, which should appeal to those into that style. Otherwise it is too constant, with not enough variation to challenge the listener or maintain interest. Touch Works is meditative at best, repetitive at worst.
Sound artist/composer Phil Niblock does not record often. His music is best heard in live settings with adequate amplification. Only listeners with high-quality stereo systems and comprehensive neighbors will be able to fully experience Niblock’s slow-evolving microtonal pieces. Nevertheless, unless you live in New York City, a CD is your best chance to hear the man’s work at all. Touch Works: For Hurdy Gurdy and Voice presents two pieces (one in two versions) created in October 1999. “Hurdy Hurry” (15 minutes) uses samples of a hurdy gurdy played by Jim O’Rourke. The whiny tones are duplicated and pitch shifted. The composer brings them closer, takes them apart, all very slowly. From the apparently static piece arise subtle modifications as one is invited to leave the macroscopic world to study microscopic details. Of course, that’s the case for all drone-based minimalist microtonal music, but Niblock’s long-standing mastery has rarely been equaled. “AYU” (aka “As Yet Untitled”) features samples of baritone Thomas Buckner (who commissioned the piece). His soft throat singing is sampled over 24 tracks. Only pitch shifts (up to two octaves) were used as treatments. The resulting piece has some qualities of Tibetan meditative chants. The listener often gets the illusion that the voice(s) turns into a cello or even a hurdy gurdy (blame that on the previous piece). For “AYU, Live,” Buckner went back into the studio and sang over the previous version while four channels of pitch shift were added. He repeated the exercise twice, thus adding 15 more tracks. The second version is better, richer, and somehow more entertaining than the first. [Francois Couture]
Sound to Noise 23 (USA):
More than most, Phill Niblock’s music celebrates sound as a physical force. He constructs his pieces by first recording musicians playing a handful of sustained pitches, then using whatever multi-track technology is at hand (this record was done with Protools on a Mac) to arrange them into slowly evolving, closely woven walls of sound. “Touch Works'” three compositions are among the 67 year old composer’s best to date. One, “Hurdy Hurry,” was assembled from a few brief samples of Jim O’Rourke playing the hurdy gurdy, a crank-operated medieval string instrument. They were brief out of necessity. Prior to the recording, O’Rourke had loaned out his instrument. When he retrieved it, a chunk missing from the instrument’s wheel. Niblock used a pitch shifter to boost some of the tones up an octave or two, but otherwise he didn’t alter them. Over the course of fifteen minutes they build from one bright drone punctuated by the squeaking ghost of that broken wheel into a massive, swelling buzz that just begs to be played at sternum vibrating volume. To complete Niblock’s music you should do just that; at high volume the closely packed pitches generate masses of overtones that change according to the size and shape of the room in which they’re heard, rendering each piece infinitely variable. The other two tracks are versions of “A Y U” (“As Yet Untitled”), which is constructed from layers of throat singing provided by vocalist Thomas Buckner. On the>first, which is all Niblock’s work, relatively low notes punch through strata of higher sustained pitches. The second combines Niblock’s version with three takes of Buckner singing along, each time putting his voice >through the pitch-shifter to simultaneously generate five discreet signals. The effect is as enveloping and undeniable as a Himalayan white-out, and every time I play it I feel like I’m on the roof of the world. [Bill Meyer]