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Phill Niblock, "Touch Strings"

cover imageOn his fourth release for the venerable label, Niblock has produced three large scale compositions, based entirely around the use of stringed instruments.  In the process, he brings out the most subtle of harmonics and creates an unraveling tapestry of microscopic change in layers of sound.  And a slight Band of Susans reunion.



Phill Niblock

Spread across two discs, the three compositions here were all conceived and recorded between 2007 and 2008, realized with a slew of different players.  "Stosspeng," which comprises the entirely of the first disc, features Band of Susans founders Susan Stenger and Robert Poss working together on both guitar and ebow’d bass.  Each were recorded in a specific channel and limited to specific pitch groups, Poss with E, Stenger with F#, and both shared F.  The result is, unsurprisingly, a slow drift of guitar tone that is far more sparse or subtle than most guitar based minimalist compositions. 

The piece continues to be a serpentine composition between Stenger’s higher register tones and Poss’ lower frequency approach.  The two become locked a constant struggle between the lighter and darker tones, pushing the sound between ambient, spacey shimmers and more sinister, rumbling swells.  The composition premiered at a show that also featured KTL and Throbbing Gristle, so the mood is fitting to be among those artists, though the sound is far more pure and meditative than would be expected from the aforementioned artists.

Disc two opens with "Poure," the 23 minute piece for cello (played by Arne Deforce).  Rather than a single session, the track is the total of 32 different layers of playing, all in the notes of A and D, but of varying octaves, and just slightly off on tuning.  With only subtle adjustments via Protools, a world of instrumentation can be heard just from the harmonics produced from the layering of tracks.  Sounds of trumpets, bagpipes, and church organ all appear from the strings of the cello.

The final piece, "One Large Rose," expands the instrumental repertoire to include piano, violin, and acoustic bass guitar, to weave a more complex and multifaceted, yet consistently minimalist composition.  The performers of this track, the Nelly Boyd Ensemble, played 4 takes of 46 minutes each, the results of which were layered together, but otherwise unedited.

Again, more sounds than are actually present can be heard in this wall of drone, resembling didgeridoo and other strings that as a whole feels similar to "Poure," but with a heavier sonic palette.  The most obvious addition is the lower register piano, but the piece overall has a more sinister quality to it, introducing dark, gutteral passages and bassy flatulent sounds to the otherwise gliding strings.  As "Stosspeng" recalled a struggle between light and dark, "One Large Rose" is a contrast between chaos and order, oscillating between drifts of sound that are relatively peaceful, and hellish choruses of unadulterated noise.

Touch Strings is an excellent example for anyone who thinks "drone" is simply repetition.  While conceptually there are intentional limitations put both on the performers and the composition, the interplay of the instruments produces sounds that rival the most complex pieces out there.



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