Music Reviews

Artist: Philip Blackburn (@)
Title: Music of Shadows
Format: CD
Label: innova Recordings (@)
Rated: *****
Chances are pretty good that you've never heard of Philip Blackburn unless you have a familiarity with certain New Music classical avant garde academic circles. His credentials are impressive there and he also runs the innova Recordings label. Blackburn is a composer/environmental sound-artist with numerous previous compositions to his credit, and on 'Music of Shadows' you will get quite an earful of what he's capable of. The album is comprised of three lengthy pieces - "Dry Spell" (27:00), "Still Points" (17:39), and "The Long Day Closes" (26:00). On "Dry Spell" Blackburn employs Studio Z Chorus, homemade instruments (door harp, snake charmer, bowed psaltery, percussion), and field recordings (from St. Paul, Havana). It may help you understand the source of the sounds you're hearing in this piece, but won't even give a clue as to what it sounds like. It was composed for playback inside the St. Paul sewer system near the Mississippi River. Imagine a hot day, very hot; searing sustained waves of heat waft over you. There are the environmental sounds of a neighborhood- children at play, barking dog,and other ambient sounds, but this heat is overwhelming. Scrapes crunches of activity which could be interpreted as industrial effects and noise, but still these ringing heat drones resound in your ears. The pitch and intensity of the drones change as the piece moves forward. About 2/3 of the way through the intensity lessens, the pitch lowers and a somewhat calmer atmosphere prevails. That's the simple description (and a lot is left out) but what Blackburn is doing here is creating an environment unlike which any other you've heard. It's only an exercise in fortitude though if you don't have a cool beverage in hand, perhaps leaving you "partched".

"Stillpoint" is radically different. For this Blackburn employs Virtual Rhythmicon, an instrument you're probably unfamiliar with. Conceived and built in 1931 by Leon Theremin and Henry Cowell, the Rhythmicon was a musical keyboard instrument. Each key played a repeated tone, proportional in pitch and rhythm to the overtone series (the second key played twice as high and twice as fast as the first key. The third key played three times higher, etc.). The virtual one (made by Nick Didkovsky, of Dr. Nerve fame, in 2003) does all that and more, just without the whirring optical disc mechanism inside the wooden cabinet. The piece begins with a pitched, rapid tapping sound to which more pitched tapping sounds are added forming chordal layers, then a steady beat beneath. It's multi-percussive and polyrhythmic nearly developing into a groove with melodic aspects that occasionally turn dissonant. At times reminiscent of an old style alarm clock when certain higher notes play very fast and close together. At a point just past the four minute mark, accordionesque tones are introduced with the beat and rhythmic tapping still in tow, then eventually just the beat with the swirling of accordionesque tones which morph over and over with a longer envelope. For some reason this reminds me a little of something on Kraftwerk's 'Ralf and Florian' album without the krautrock aspect. There is a fascinating cornucopia of rhythmic impulse here, nearly hypnotic and constantly changing although the basis remains the same. At about 12:40 a light harmonic drone is introduced becoming more abrasive toward the end. Although the piece was interesting, I found it a bit overly long.

Finally, "The Long Day Closes" incorporates processed choral and orchestral segments of Handel's classic Largo "Ombra mai fu", from the University of Colorado VAPA/The Sun Palace chorus and instrumentalists, featuring Bob Paredes on clarinet. Imagine Robert Rich doing a drone piece sourced from classical music, and this might be what it sounds like. Every instrument and instrumental section, including the choral produces elongated, sustained drones that change over time throughout the piece, with some elements featured over others throughout its course. There is a false ending just before the 20 minute mark where it fade to silence briefly then returns again for its finale. The piece's source may be Largo, but this is beyond even Larghissimo, a place where no tempo exists. Musically, there is no resemblance to Handel's "Ombra mai fu" whatsoever, but that's what makes it interesting.

Philip Blackburn's 'Music of Shadows' won't please everyone, not even hard core ambient enthusiasts, but for those who appreciate ambient and experimental music with depth and dimension, it is an engaging and challenging listen.

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