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Monday, March 5, 2012

Philip Blackburn, Ghostly Psalms


Philip Blackburn composes music that hangs together with a kind of natural ambient discursiveness. His new CD Ghostly Psalms (Innova 246) is a triumvirate of works with the long 10 part title work sandwiched between the relatively brief "Duluth Harbor Serenade" and the concluding "Gospel Jihad".

The opening work collages the sounds of the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota: church bells, boats, horns, sirens, etc. with additional musical instruments. It's a soundscape that evokes as it unveils a panorama of the everyday pitched and unpitched sounds inherent in the world of the harbor. Blackburn has a keen ear for the musical nature of the environment and realizes its combinatory qualities in very appealing sonant ways.

"Ghostly Psalms" uses various vocal ensembles, musical instruments and their ambient transformations onto the soundstage for a kind of narrative musical prose that increasingly foregrounds long tones and sound envelopes produced by bowed cymbals, organ, voices, recorders and their acoustic-digital enhancements along with a more exotic component of unusual instruments (from what I hear) and unconventional articulations.

It gives me the uncanny feeling of hearing medieval through baroque sacred music in a kind of haunted dreamscape, where there are floating worlds of sonic residues, once a part of a musical whole but now destined to float through space, still ethereal yet disjointed, separated in their demise from their original home, wandering the aural spaceways in search a resting place. This of course is a personal interpretation. But regardless of what the music may associate to you and resonate with you personally, it is eloquent and linear in a very original way and it lays out in your listening present with dramatic impact.

"Gospel Jihad" winds up the program with a short work for the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, acting as a crowd of voices, blocking out otherwordly clusters of chordal tones, popping, whistling and clicking, mumbling, shouting and rustling in reverberant space. It is a religious Tower of Babel that seems to be depicted, something we may well be experiencing in today's world. It is movingly done.

The cumulative effect is coherent, discursive, and complex in ways that allow repeated listenings to reveal the whole little-by-little, with connections becoming more apparent and complexes of sounds unveiling new and richer musical meanings the more one listens. These are some of the most compelling soundscapes I've heard in a long time. It is new music that has learned from the past 100 years of aural experimentation and creates finished works that use the vocabulary of sound color in masterfully expressive ways. Very recommended.

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