James Blackshaw / The Glass Bead Game / Review / by parallelliott

James Blackshaw compels his listener to become a detective. His music forces us to do something that we are seldom forced to do: stop, think, and investigate.,8899

James Blackshaw
The Glass Bead Game
[Young God; 2009]


by parallelliott

James Blackshaw compels his listener to become a detective. His music forces
us to do something that we are seldom forced to do: stop, think, and
investigate. Many turn to instrumental music so that it can function as
non-threatening background sound for whatever seemingly more important task
they are performing. Similar to the oppressive alignment that gradually
occurs between the monotonous movements of the factory gears or keyboard
strokes and the once vibrant human body, many listen to instrumental music
because it is so compatible with “paying the bills” or “doing homework” or
“falling asleep” or “zoning out.” Blackshaw’s music has no such utility. In
fact, it radically resists being put to such a conservative use. If one
attempts to listen to The Glass Bead Game, or any Blackshaw album, while
paying the bills, they will almost instantly notice their mind, at the
demand of the music, wandering away from the chore. Eventually, the listener
will find him or herself gazing out of a window, at the trees and off into
the sky, perhaps unlocking it to discover a breeze. Next, the listener will
be standing outdoors, walking, looking around in wonder, anticipating
whatever might come next.

It is as if Blackshaw’s music simultaneously awakens within us both the will
to search and the thing that we are searching for. It awakens something,
whether it is something once animated and now extinguished, or a dormant
capacity that has yet to flourish. There is both longing and anticipation
for something previously hidden that steps out, and the newness of its
disclosure results in us going out into the world at first to find it. It
ignites some sort of veiled core that resists everydayness. The listener is
thrust into a deep contemplation that aims at the something that is the
object of the search. For clues, one might turn first to the song titles,
which, as on all of Blackshaw’s albums, refer to Christian iconography as
well as pre-Christian and Far Eastern spirituality and esotericism. One
might embark upon a hermeneutical journey, attaching new value to the
mystifying sounds of Blackshaw’s worlds through a textual investigation of
his many references. With this newest album, the good listener will
ultimately find him or herself thumbing through Hesse’s text in search of a
connection between the story of Magister Ludi and this new musical
companion. Blackshaw does not allow us to passively consume his musical
explorations, but demands that we go probing through them just as he does.

“Cross,” The Glass Bead Game’s first track, is unquestionably epic. But it
is markedly different from the celebratory, epic-feeling of the title track
from 2006’s O True Believers, which seems to be welcoming a hero home,
perhaps back into the stable arms of belief. “Cross,” on the other hand,
holds an epic-sadness that might be sending our hero off into some great
unknown or into an uncertain journey that occurs after one faces the cross.
Lavinia Blackwall’s vocals add an entirely new dimension to Blackshaw’s
already robust aesthetic. One is pleasantly reminded of Steve Reich’s Music
for 18 Musicians, unveiling a new spirit bursting forth from within
Blackshaw’s compositional approach. With “Bled,” Blackshaw returns to his
furious 12-string palindromatic picking structures, offering up a gift,
perhaps, as a sign of generosity or as the inevitable consequence of the

The only time a piano has appeared throughout Blackshaw’s discography was to
open and close 2008’s Litany of Echoes. The piano returns on “Fix,” which,
more so than anything else Blackshaw has done, could very well be a
companion piece to a specific scene in some dusty text, blowing into it a
new life. The listener might stumble upon the moment in Hesse’s book or
imagine and act it out for him or herself. “Key” exemplifies Blackshaw’s
ethos when it is understood as an endless searching and opening up of new
sound-spaces. The repetitive playfulness of the string-dances might lead us
to think that the key is not a particular key, but one that holds some sort
of always-present power to open up multiple, possibly infinite, doors, thus
promising a never-ending process of discovery. The album closes with the
almost 20-minute long “Arc,” which, only minutes behind the title track from
2005’s Sunshrine, seems to be Blackshaw’s longest composition so far. “Arc”
begins with a gradual, growing piano movement that intensifies around the
four-minute mark and continues to build. The arc structure constantly
ascends and descends, following the multiple transitions, the permanent back
and forth, between materiality and spirit.

With The Glass Bead Game, Blackshaw has broadened his aesthetic to
incorporate many new, challenging, and enjoyable sounds. Blackwall’s vocals;
Joolie Wood’s violin, clarinet, and flute; and John Conteras’ cello add much
complexity and richness to Blackshaw’s ever-deepening, escalating vision.
While the center of Blackshaw’s compositions will likely always be guitar,
he has shown with this album that he can write music for several different
instruments and do so incredibly well. We should not be too surprised if, in
the future, Blackshaw constructs his own chamber or symphony orchestra. With
The Glass Bead Game, there is reason to think that this is the direction his
musical explorations could take him.