Phill Niblock ~ Music for Organ

Phill Niblock has a penchant for anagrams, as this record makes clear with the names of its two compositions, “Unmounted / Muted Noun” and “Nagro (aka Organ)”. In the same spirit, I note that Music for Organ might be rendered “a coursing form” – an apt description of this music. The sounds flow and accumulate like a steady, impassable river. Since they seem not to be constrained by any traditional formal progression, the structure of these pieces is itself a coursing flux.

Niblock is a stalwart of minimalist composition, active since the 1960s. His trademark approach is to record continuous tones from an instrument, then layer up adjacent microtones to create billowing clouds of sound, which soon turn to raging storms. This used to be achieved on tape, by getting the musician(s) to retune to exact pitches, sometimes specified in hertz. Niblock’s compositional task was layering up the tones to reach the final product. In recent years, Niblock makes greater use of digital processing to adjust the pitch of the source material, layer after layer.

The closest Niblock has come to crossover success seems to be Touch Food (2003). This album is a good example of his style. Its ambient droning gradually gains intensity early in each track. Then a plateau emerges in the subtly shifting microtonal surface. It may sound sacrilegious, but it almost doesn’t matter what instrument is being played on many of Niblock’s compositions. The drawn-out, stratified tones are quite removed from usual instrumental practice. “Nagro (aka Organ)” is an example of this effect; some moments could easily be bagpipes, for example.

“Unmounted / Muted Noun” alters Niblick’s usual sound. It is irrefutably a pipe organ composition from the first moment. (Specifically, both tracks feature Hampus Lindwall playing the organ of Collégiale Sainte-Waudru, Mons, Belgium.) The tremulous cadences of church music get stretched into a gorgeous twenty-four minutes. Since the pipe organ has a particular aptitude for emitting and reshaping multiple tones at once, it’s not clear where the capacities of the instrument end and Niblock’s layering begins. To complicate matters, both tracks on the album feature pre-recorded tape in addition to the live organ. However the variables come together, the result for “Unmounted” is more monolithically and satisfyingly noisy than any other Niblock composition I know of.

The remit of this review is to provide A Closer Listen. However, Niblock’s work does not willingly reward such careful attention. This composer’s raison d’etre is to explore the visceral impact of sound. He advises that his compositions be played very loud, their vibrations filling the space and affecting the listener physically more than emotionally or intellectually. I’m not entirely convinced by that rhetoric. However, I do know this record packs a powerful droning punch. (Samuel Rogers)

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