Phill Niblock Touch Three

[Touch; 2006]

Rating: 4.5/5

For listeners who are only interested in modern compositional works insofar as
they bear upon rock and pop forms, Phill Niblock's oeuvre might seem at first
overly academic. Known for incorporating visual elements in many of his pieces,
Niblock has been pegged by many as an instillation artist. Performance and
recorded product — pop's two most potent manifestations — have always seemed
ancillary to his purposes. Rock also provides fewer inroads to Niblock's body of
work than it does to the music of his fellow minimalists. While he was just as
innovative during the 1960s as Tony Conrad, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley,
Niblock didn't jam with members of The Velvet Underground or set a template for
experimental rock. Although he has worked with Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo,
his music was not as instrumental in shaping Sonic Youth's sound as the guitar
ensembles of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham did, so his influence on No Wave and
1980s NYC avant-rock is often ignored. And while Jim O'Rourke cited Niblock's
work as a key precedent to his 1997 solo guitar foray Happy Days, the
'90s were much kinder to the legacies of composers like Pauline Oliveros and
Charlemagne Palestine, whose works were reissued by labels like Dexter's Cigar
and Table of the Elements.

During the 2000s, however, Niblock has made a strong case for his own importance
and relevance, continuing to cultivate his overtone-rich, microtone-heavy
compositional techniques on a series of albums for Touch. As the title states,
this is the composer's third release for the label, and this ambitious project
casts Niblock's new music as the most compelling of any by the first generation
minimalists around today. The sheer size of Touch Three — nine pieces
occupying three discs and two-hundred-plus minutes — is enough to qualify it as
an Event, but it's of course the sublime music that makes this recording worth

With the exception of "Sax Mix," a piece for three saxophones, each work
features just one instrument. According to Niblock, each piece consists of only
"a few tones ... a simple chord, perhaps," but this sparse palette yields rich
results, as the composer multitracks each tone and pitchshifts each track as to
create an entrancing microtonal gradient. Each sound is three-dimensional, an
exercise in subtle difference in which Western notions of musical time and space
collapse and droning stasis suddenly becomes ripe with possibility. Even the
instruments' inherent qualities seem to disintegrate: it becomes difficult to
distinguish guitar from saxophone from recorder, Niblock's textures are so
alien. Like Rafael Toral's Wavefield or Keith Fullerton Whitman's
, changes occur without our knowing it; our intuition tells us
these pieces are in constant motion, but our ears can't identify just where the
shifts happen.

And it's this investment in intuition — in gut response, visceral impact —
that's most surprising about Touch Three. Far from "touching," "warm," or
even "human," this is still very immediate music. Like In C or Music
for Airports
, it demands an immediate response, and asks to be accepted or
rejected without careful consideration. If thinking about avant-garde art as
something to be immediately embraced or ignored rather than pondered and probed
for meanings seems counterintuitive or sophomoric, let's not forget one of
Gertrude Stein's more relatively lucid maxims: "Enjoying is understanding."
Loving or hating come before knowing with certain works, and this seems to be
one of them. And when music solicits these sorts of intuitive responses, it
deserves to find an audience beyond big city gallery spaces.

Disc 1

1. Harm
2. Sethwork
3. Lucid Sea

Disc 2

1. Parker's Altered Mood, aka, Owed to Bird
2. Zrost
3. Not Yet Titled

Disc 3.

1. Valence
2. Alto Tune
3. Sax Mix


Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

Most Read