Someone (I can’t remember who) once criticized Erik Satie’s music for being too literary. Evidently, this someone was certain that it is doubtlessly a bad thing for music to be literary. We are talking, here, about music without words and if music without words is literary that is because it makes us insert ourselves into a narrative. Not a full-blown story, but a brief series of connected images. I close my eyes when listening to the Gymnopédies and, for instance, have a brief but resonant vision of floating on a softly flowing river and watching the passing scenery reflected on the water’s surface. Perhaps, what rankled Satie’s critic was the openness of such music, that located in its hazy register the listener (and every listener differently) was bound to imagine something else with each repeated listen. Rather than guide the listener to a specific experience intended by the composer, it unlocks an endless stream of possibilities.
James Blackshaw’s music is definitely “literary” in this way, sometimes overwhelmingly so. It goes to some pretty mythical, mystical places and doesn’t so much take the listener along for the ride as drop him or her on the top of a mountain with jaw-dropping views in all directions and minds him to wander where he will. His 12-string guitar playing, plucking, picking sets the wind blowing and the sunlight swirling, in our heads. It doesn’t suggest a narrative as much as suggest contexts, strange though unmistakably familiar, where we can’t help but imagine ourselves doing and seeing.
The Glass Bead Game is my favorite of Blackshaw’s records to date. He has, building from his previous record, Litany of Echoes, continued to incorporate more instrumentation into the compositions, extending his palette as well as his ability to evoke with the well-situated, serendipitous detail. We have five monosyllabic song titles, from start to finish: “Cross,” “Bled,” “Fix,” “Key,” “Arc”.
Things start off as they end—stunning. “Cross” layers Blackshaw’s meandering guitar with subtly aching strings and really takes off when Lavinia Blackwell’s (Directing Hand) voice gets added to the mix. These passages, where her voice glides just above the surface, get at something nebulous and hypnotizing, difficult to articulate but impossible to miss. It flows toward the moments when a storm begins to clear and things glow with a hallucinogenic lucidity, mystery residing in their most simple contours.
“Arc,” the closer, is an almost 19-minute epic. Beginning with a simple piano figure and some lithely droning strings, it proceeds to flood the canvas with a whirling tapestry of sounds. The tone of distant melancholy, of the past that hasn’t passed, with which it engages us, is swallowed in enveloping waves of entwined instrumentation. Things merge and become expressive of something which could not be expressed in any other way. Terry Riley and his journeys toward the musical ecstatic are brought to mind.
The three tracks in between are solid, but inevitably lie in the shadows of the stratospheric peaks which bound them. They form a valley of sorts. But without them “Arc” would not have the same dramatic effect. It is awe-inspiring on its own, but in the context of the album, as its final epiphanic chapter, it becomes something even greater. The strength of Blackshaw’s music, though, is also, perhaps, it’s weakness. Its earnestness is sometimes too much to handle, too big for the bric-a-brac of daily life. There is no mistaking the aspiration toward the spiritual, toward another plane of knowing. Its capacity to move a listener is undeniable, but some may find it a bit too heavy, even overwrought. Myself, I have no such problem with the music of James Blackshaw. The possibility of altitude sickness accompanies all those who climb mountains and, in the end, it only makes the view from the top that much sweeter.
John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
Terry Riley – A Rainbow in Curved Air
Mountains – Choral