Here’s a welcome oxymoron: Touch Three is a monumental work of minimalism, colossal in scope, yet Zen-clear in method and microscopic in detail. Clocking in at over three hours, Phill Niblock’s newest extracts every ounce of possibility from his distinctive technique. That being: record simple chords or note progressions from a single instrument (in most cases), clip the breath breaks, multi-track ad infinitum (we’re dealing with 24 to 32 on these discs), and manipulate the microtones. The resultant innard-oscillating drones pulse with the alien and the familiar, preserving the distinctive timbre of the sources while stretching and stacking them beyond human capacity.
If the process sounds simple, perhaps it is. Beyond the basic edits and some Pro Tools pitch shifting, the recordings are replayed untouched. Niblock is less concerned with musicianship than with pure tonal properties, and his work is as much an investigation of acoustics as performance. And therein lies its brilliance. While most musicians rearrange notes as if they were the fundamental building blocks of music, Niblock explores the notes themselves. Akin to particle physics, Niblock’s microtonal world bears musical traces that defy conventional classification, sometimes defy detection, and are as often illusory products of perception and observation as real musical developments.
His aural space fluctuates between harmony and dissonance in a two-dimensional time matrix. The synchronic and diachronic communicate with each other constantly, creating a sensation of time as field—a refutation of the linearity threading our lives—and thus producing the “suspension of time” so often credited to drone. Yet all of this takes place within an atomic tonal unit that is somehow stable enough to anchor sonatas.
Before theory gets the best of sound, one must mention the humanity of Niblock’s work. Touch Three documents the intersection of performer, instrument, and environment at its most intimate. No tone exists out of context. Breath creates the distinctive temporal patterns of each piece, the dramatic crescendos at the onset of notes, and the soft, sad decay of their offset. The performers are never forgotten in Niblock’s pieces, nor are their surroundings. Niblock’s music operates on such a minute scale that the performance space itself matters. The vault of an apartment roof, the humidity of summer, the echoes of an empty hall—these features permeate Touch Three. While performance space is usually seen as a means of optimizing sound, Niblock’s spaces have a dynamic effect on the music itself. Given the great reverence he affords the musical act, the digital nature of the album is something of an irony. But while the music ultimately comes from a laptop, the computer is no more than a necessary tool to expose the complexities inherent in living space.
Now we’re down near the end, and not a single word has been spilled on the tracks themselves. But none are needed. The memory of a single tone from a saxophone, cello, recorder, trumpet, viola, and e-bowed guitar suffices for introduction. Further exposition would waste time at best, and at worst impose interpretation. For despite its near-physical solidity, Touch Three is populated by chimerical moments that elude reductive analysis. The epiphenomena of listening cannot be validated in print.