TO:69 – Phill Niblock “Touch Three”

Track list:

1. Harm
2. Sethwork
3. Lucid Sea

1. Parker’s Altered Mood, AKA, Owed To Bird
2. Zrost
3. Not Yet Titled

1. Valence
2. Alto Tune
3. Sax Mix


Chicago Reader Year End List (USA):

Niblock’s vast expanses of sound are like seascapes, both unchanging and endlessly variable. On this three-CD set, the latest document of the septuagenarian’s extraordinary late-career creative burst, massed guitars sound like bowed telephone lines and gorgeous layers of saxophones move as slowly as the day’s last rays of sunlight fading from the underside of a bank of clouds.

Dusted Year End List 2006 (USA):

Phill Niblock’s Touch Three was not only his heftiest release yet (three discs) but contained some of the master minimalist’s most engaging work yet. The variety of sources results in a far more diverse collection of drones than one might expect, even from Niblock. Digesting all three discs in succession is a mighty task, but I found this music in the stereo almost constantly when it came out, and Touch Three seems to have finally caught the ears of casual listeners, hopefully bringing Niblock in from the fringes of wider minimalist appeal. For my money, there’s not a better dronesmith working today, in terms of concept or final product, and Touch Three is exhibit A as to why.

Dusted (USA):

Phill Niblock’s music is a bit like the ocean, always the same and always changing. On the face of things, not much happens. Eight of Touch Three’s nine pieces were created by taking computer recordings of single tones on an individual instrument, editing out the breathing spaces and initial attacks, which he then assembles into 20-minute-long multi-tracked expanses. The only variation in the material comes from the minimal differences in how a musician plays the same note and some subtle ProTools pitch-shifting. But just like the sea rewards your gaze with endless patterns and variations, the microtones that arise from those tiny differences create fields rich with activity. Tones clash and multiply, creating aural effects analogous to heat lightning and mirages. Or you could think of a color field painting in which the tiny differences between brush strokes and gradual changes in the ambient light enable you to lose yourself in a monolithic block of red or black. Niblock’s music shimmers, flashes and shines. Hear it the way it’s supposed to be heard, played very loudly through many speakers in a space that interacts with the sounds, and it evokes a state of mental calm; play it less loudly on your home stereo and it still strikes a deep emotional chord.

If you acquire a taste for this stuff, it’s hard to get enough, and the septuagenarian composer has obliged his audience with a late-career burst of activity. This triple CD is his sixth since the start of the decade, but also the fourth to be marred by an avoidable production error. Two of the tracks on disc one are reversed; the true running order, according to a note on Niblock’s website, is “Sethwork,” “Lucid Sea,” and “Harm.” That minor annoyance aside, Touch Three is magnificent. “Sethwork” is an excellent introduction to Niblock’s method. He gradually introduces Seth Josel’s e-bowed acoustic guitar notes until they coalesce in a complex chord that sounds more like a church organ rumbling over a quartet of bowed psalteries. Tiny hums and rumbles rise in and out of a surface streaked by rippling whistles and whines. At first, the appearance and disappearance of Lucia Mense’s individual recorder tracks on “Lucid Sea” is easier to mark, but in short order a deep turbine-like swell of overtones starts resonating with your diaphragm. Niblock’s music capitalizes on a trick of physics – sound two notes in close proximity and their interaction creates a third – but there is nothing tricky about the full-body buzz that it produces.

And so the album goes, giving trumpet, strings and saxophones their due. “Sax Mix” ends the album like a big slice of double fudge cake after a rich dinner. Niblock mixed three existing saxophone pieces together, and the effect is like being caught inside one orchestral chord, or maybe sitting underneath massed squadrons of propeller-driven airplanes; the sound’s cumulative density is overwhelming and deliciously too, too much. When can I have some more? [Bill Meyer]

Baltimore CITY Newspaper (USA):

Like the gradual ascent of his compositions, Phill Niblock’s releases for England’s Touch label have slowly gotten bigger and bigger. Touch Three, which follows 2001’s hourlong Touch Works and 2003’s two-hour Touch Food, offers nine 20-minute pieces stretched across three bulging discs. Because Niblock’s method is so consistent—he almost always records single notes played by individual musicians, then layers the results into massive walls of sound—and the results are so solid, it’s tempting to say that one Niblock release is enough. For anyone uninterested in finding minute details and nearly imperceptible changes inside monolithic drones, one may actually be too many.

But for those whose appetites are whet by that description, the music of this 72-year-old master keeps delivering surprises. Whether he’s turning Julia Eckhardt’s viola into a horror film score on “Valence,” morphing the test-tone shrillness of Martin Zrost’s soprano sax into soothing waves on “Zrost,” or filtering Lucia Mense’s recorders through darkened moods on “Lucid Sea,” Niblock repeatedly defies both expectation and logic. Touch Three’s biggest curve ball is “Parker’s Altered Mood, aka, Owed to Bird.” Here, saxophonist Ulrich Kreiger plays a glacially paced version of Charlie Parker’s “Mood” six times, and Niblock piles those iterations into a chiming symphony of microtones. Such novel ideas suggest Niblock has enough tricks left in his bag to fill whatever kind of multi-CD follow-ups Touch inevitably has planned. [Marc Masters]

Paris Transatlantic (web):

This triple CD set starts right where 2003’s Touch Food left off, adding another chapter to the recorded history of dronemeister Niblock, the guru of outrageous auricular membrane excitation. Static minimalism has never sounded so full of movement. Disc one opens with Seth Josel’s eBowed acoustic guitars, and on Sethwork the tiny acoustic imperfections deriving from adjacent resonating strings are perceptible in the harmonic cloud generated by the superimposition of tones typical of the composer’s method. The second track – contrary to what’s erroneously printed on the CD itself – is Lucid Sea, featuring the alien wooden flute-like sounds of Lucia Mense’s recorders, a gradual oceanic drift from octave consonance towards serious microtonal vibrational skull massage. The powerful low frequencies of Arne Deforce’s cello on Harm trigger the kind of irregular oscillation of acoustic beats which is clearly perceptible even at volume levels lower than Niblock recommends. It’s simply sublime, a celestial bagpipe weeping for a dying forest, another milestone in this man’s oeuvre. For Parker’s Altered Mood, aka, Owed To Bird, which opens the second CD, the composer asked German saxophonist Ulrich Krieger to choose a Charlie Parker theme to build the piece on, and the resulting take on “Mood” (six superimposed recordings of the first thirteen notes of the theme) is Touch Three’s most luminous and meditative offering: think Jon Gibson and Dickie Landry’s lines in Glass’ Music With Changing Parts played into the wind, all slippery quarter tones and phantom harmonics. When you hear music like this, a different light shines on reality. Another saxophonist, Austrian Martin Zrost, lends his name to Zrost, in which the interference patterns of his soprano, though perhaps a little easier on the ears than some of the other pieces on offer here, still leave you feeling like you’re standing on the quayside waving goodbye to your loved ones as they sail off to battle, warships blasting their horns as they pull away from the shore. Impressive stuff, and it needs all the space of a large room to be fully appreciated, especially after 16 minutes or so, when those giant helicopters zoom in. Franz Hautzinger plays trumpet on Not Yet Titled, which starts out with a “normal” intervallic layering of tones until something happens halfway through, an enormous swarm of bees invade the living room to dispel whatever false sense of security you’ve been lulled into, aided and abetted by a squadron of Lambrettas and an orchestra of didjeridoos (both non-existent, of course). Valence, featuring Julia Eckhardt’s viola, begins the third disc by returning to the principles of spectral staticity that always seem to correspond perfectly to Niblock’s choice of string instruments. Its complex mosaic of contiguous tones forms a background for intense reflection, a harmonic utopia whose ever so slightly different voices can be singled out even in the ebb and flow of timbres. It falls once more to Krieger to bring proceedings to a close with two further pieces. Alto Tune, like several other Niblock works, begins in consonance before shifting into slow mutations of the imagination (I hear looped segments of a Christmas carol sung by indefinable children’s voices), while Sax Mix, whose mathematical complexity is worthy of Benoit Mandelbrot, is performed on alto, tenor and baritone saxes, meshing old and new materials (it’s a 75-track mix of three existing sax pieces, Ten Auras, Sea Jelly Yellow and Alto Tune itself) into a single harmonic monster whose distance from conventional reed music is directly proportional to the mesmerizing effect it produces. Complexity leads to freedom from every useless aspect of sound organization. No bullshit indeed. [Massimo Ricci]

Gaz-Eta (USA):

The liner notes to Phill Niblock’s latest grand oeuvre start off like this. “These nine pieces were made from March 2003 to January 2005. They were all made (except “Sax Mix”) by recording a single instrument with a single microphone. The recordings were direct to the computer/hard disk, most of them using my Powerbook G4, Protools, an M-box and an external firewire drive. The resulting mono sound files were edited to remove breathing spaces, leaving the natural decay of the tone, and the attack of the subsequent iteration of the same tone. Each note was represented by several repetitions, perhaps ten for each tone, of about 15 seconds duration each. Each piece uses a few tones. A simple chord, perhaps. Additional microtonal intervals were produced in Protools using pitch shift. The pieces were assembled in multitracks, usually either 24 or 32 tracks. The recording environment varied from a simple apartment in Berlin (Ulrich Krieger’s) to a very large hall used for symphony orchestra performances and recordings, with a sizable audience space (Deutschland Radio, Cologne). The recordings were generally done quite closely miked. One hears only the sound of the instrument. There is no electronic manipulation in the recording, the editing of the tones, or in the mix. The only changes to the recorded tones are the pitch shifts to create microtones. The microtones are doing the work.” Over the course of almost 2 1/2 hour span, 70 year old Niblock reclaims his position as one minimalist composer the world has long overlooked. Not only are the pieces on this 3 CD set enrapturing, they’re also ideal in drilling a near perfect tone into your brain. Persistently stubborn in his approach, Niblock approached each piece as a newborn. Each one is different in its appearance and each one has something entirely new to offer. “Sethwork” for instance is a longish tone-world [all pieces are in the realm of the 20 minute mark] that features Seth Josel on acoustic unamplified guitars that are played with an e-bow.
Throughout the piece’s 22 minute length, a single tone is initiated that is gently drawn out to its natural conclusion. So it goes through “Lucid Sea”, where recorders are utilized by Lucia Mense. Caressing, still atmosphere once again emerges and is kept boiling at low heat. In fact, nothing on the project indicates any sort of explosion or upheaval in mood. Named after the player, “Zrost” features soprano saxophonist Martin Zrost who just bought a new soprano, which Niblock decided to record. Once again, smoothed out tones are prevalent and atmosphere is thick as a fog. One of the stand-out pieces is “Not Yet Titled”, featuring the talents of the quarter-tone trumpeter Franz Hautzinger. A microphone was placed inside of the bell of the trumpet and “outside” sources – sounds of birds and planes – were left as is. Though there is a distinct trumpet sound that comes through, overall the piece feels more like a cheap synth solo. This is the beauty of the whole enterprise – making individual instruments either retain their own sense of identity or making this identity nonexistent. Oddly enough, Niblock reconciles the two well. As on “Valence”, where Julia Eckhardt’s instrument resembles an alp horn rather than the viola that she’s actually playing. At the end of this enormous opus, I was left with my jaw hanging from my mouth. Rarely have I heard something that stunned me so quickly and affected me to such an extent. More demanding than “Touch Works for Hurdy Gurdy and Voice” this is an album that demands absolute concentration and a firm, patient ear. Firmly positioned in the here and now of contemporary music, Niblock’s “Touch Three” is a new paradigm by which future minimal works will be judged. [Tom Sekowski]

Allmusic (USA):

Although his name should be uttered in the same breath with such pioneers as Riley, Young, Reich, and Glass (aka The Four Horsemen of the Minimalists), Phill Niblock has been largely overlooked by the history books as a pioneer of the minimalist sound that emerged in the late ’60s. Thankfully, strides have been made in recent years to correct this situation, and leading the way has been U.K. imprint Touch. This ambitious three-disc set was recorded from 2003-2005. The compositions were recorded direct to disc using one solo instrument and a single microphone, and then edited to remove the breathing spaces, leaving only the pure tone from the musician and its resonance. The drones were then mildly manipulated using digital editing to produce small microtones of sound, resulting in changes that unfold at a painfully slow pace. Like some of Niblock’s earlier works, there’s very little here in terms of rhythm or melody, and the traces of either that do exist are the result of extremely minute changes that creep up if passive listening is employed. Not exactly adventurous listening for those needing constant stimulation, but in an age of immediate access and instant gratification, it’s nice to hear something that makes patience an ally. [Rob Theakston]

Brainwashed (USA):

Tom Johnson summed up Niblock with “No melodies, no harmonies, no rhythm, no bullshit” and Touch Three lives up to this great statement. On all three discs there is contempt for anything resembling traditional music yet it is nonetheless entirely musical. It’s hard to describe but that’s what I’m here for. Each track hovers around the 20 minute mark and all have one thing in common: they feel like something huge is going to break but they never deliver. Instead the music is like eating a piece of chocolate very slowly, allowing it to melt without chewing it. In the end it is far more satisfying and rewarding than the easy hit.

Each piece is composed of several recordings of a single instrument edited together to create a constant roar. The pieces utilising stringed instruments like “Harm” and “Valence” are the easiest to get into. This is probably because I’m used to hearing cellos, violas and guitars looped into drones. “Sethwork” adds an unusual twist in acoustic guitar playing with the utilisation of an ebow, a device more commonly associated with the electric guitar. On an acoustic guitar it lacks its distinctive tone and takes on a more resonant quality. It is not just the sound of the sustained notes that are used: the sounds of the ebow hitting off the vibrating strings give a creaking effect that is unsettling.

One instrument which I never thought I’d hear used to create a powerful, droning force is the recorder. This instrument brings back memories of learning how to play nursery rhymes in primary school. This clashes with the recorders on “Lucid Sea” which are as far away from those nursery rhymes as possible. Here they are layered to form a hulking mass, far denser than I expected. The recorders sound more like a pipe organ. I’m always impressed by pieces like this that make me re-evaluate my feelings about certain instruments, especially ones that I normally dislike.

The pieces incorporating saxophones are tougher to digest. “Alto Tune” at first seems thinner than the other pieces on Touch Three. It still holds the distinctive Niblock uncompromising fullness but it takes time to get going. As more and more layers are introduced, the piece becomes gentler even though it is louder. The different tones add up to what sounds like an accordion orchestra. The other two saxophone pieces, “Zrost” and “Sax Mix,” are both slow burners (relatively speaking, Niblock seems to measure time in eras, not minutes) but build up to give similar results to “Alto Tune.” “Sax Mix” in particular sounds impressive as Ulrich Krieger plays alto, tenor and baritone sax which provides a wider palette for Niblock to use.

Three discs of drones could easily end up being unnecessary and tedious but this album is a monument to what a great drone should be. Niblock has constructed solid and richly textured slabs of sound that get better with volume. Turning up the volume knob reveals more of the fine detail of music, the little effects that are the result of the sound waves interacting in the room. Touch Three is a very strong release and shows that Niblock is still far from past it. [John Kealy]

Foxy Digitalis (USA):

Similar to Duchamp’s Fountain, this effort from minimalist composer Phil Niblock is a fine emblem of today’s hyper-reality. The two are akin insofar as they both halt all possible representation, and imply a fierce counter-transference of the object onto itself. As such, everything in “Touch Three” is fully realized, and the resulting sounds are not so much the play of a form as they are the realization of a programme. Niblock achieves this movement by taking a single instrument and a single microphone to create and capture a sole tone, which is then multiplied by several representations that attack and extend the piece. After being recorded directly to computer, the subsequent mono sound files undergo editing procedures that remove any blemishes or gaps, leaving a pure, simple tone to unwind at a pace that hovers around the horizon of perception.

Not surprisingly, these full-bodied, ominous drones, which are devoid of any shadow whatsoever, weigh rather heavily on the listener, nearly to the point of being unbearable. Over three discs, so many miniscule sonic events proliferate like algae, and these unadorned compositions quickly push into an audacious expansion that is altogether startling. Couple this with the already despondent timbres of many of the pieces, and it begins to become apparent that this album will be a surprisingly emotional, at times exhausting, experience. From the first disc, ¨Harm¨¨, which utilizes Arne Deforce’s cello, is a pressing example of this matter. High, reedy chords are lifted from Deforce’s cello and layered over each other, creating rich smears of sound that are disrupted only by a faint pattering of microtones. As the piece ages, while never entirely separating themselves from their ancestors, the tones seem to ascend into sharper, higher stratospheres, further crystalizing the weary mood of before.

For other works, the trumpet of Franz Hautzinger, along with the alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone of Ulrich Kreiger are made the center of attention. Each sketches similarly dreary, all-encompassing clouds of sound that succeed in purging anyone who passes through their wake of any and all prior moods, thoughts, and wishes. Indeed, asides from being an apt reflection of the postmodern condition, the gift of “Touch Three” is its ability to act as something of a cleanser – wiping away one’s memory, and swiftly throwing one into a ready-made world that is foreign yet strangely familiar. [Max Schaefer]

SentireAscoltare (Italy):

Se, a margine di un discorso tra il serio ed il faceto, mi si chiedesse di indicare un referente mondano per la musica che Pitagora credeva emessa dalle sfere celesti, non avrei grosse difficoltà nel fare il nome di Phill Niblock. Touch Three è un altro monumento di musica assoluta e purissima, o meglio il monumento, dato che si compone di ben nove composizioni scritte tra il marzo del 2003 e il settembre del 2005, ripartite in tre diversi cd.
Il principio della scrittura di Phill Niblock resta inalterato: la sua è una ricerca ostinata e incessante sulla purezza dei singoli toni estrapolati da un singolo strumento per volta e reiterati con un gradualismo che – a differenza di Steve Reich e del minimalismo di scuola – si fa quasi impercettibile. Monoliti di suono statico, ma al contempo dotato di un intrinseco cromatismo svelato dal progressivo accumulo di strati sonori uguali, eppure diversi. Phasing dilatato sino all’inafferrabile in un processo dialettico che restituisce quei monoliti nella loro infrangibile purezza, ma arricchiti di articolazioni interne da scorgere con infinita pazienza. Minimalismo? Va bene, se il termine aiuta a rischiarare più di quanto fatto sinora la materia di cui si sta parlando, ma se Reich è 256 Colours di Gerhard Richter, allora Niblock è Night Sea di Agnes Martin.

Gli strumenti utilizzati da Niblock per le nove composizioni sono chitarra (Sethwork), sassofono (Parker’s Altered Mood, Zrost, Alto Tune e Sax Mix), tromba (Not Yet Titled), violoncello (Harm), viola (Valence) e recorders (Lucid Sea). Il modus operandi quello di una volta: il suono di ogni singolo strumento viene registrato con un unico microfono e riversato direttamente su disco tramite un’interfaccia protools. E’ solo in questo momento che interviene il compositore, la sua inesausta ricerca d’infinito: il suono che ne risulta è lontano eoni dalla fonte materica da cui è stato emesso. E’ il suono puro cui aspiravano i teorici della musique concrète, o forse è il suono delle sfere celesti. (8.0/10) [Vincenzo Santarcangelo]