JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/Review
The Line Of Best Fit / by Matt Poacher
Blackshawâ€™s releases to date have been studies in the possibilities of repetition and iteration; and despite the baroque flourishes and the obvious flair, his work belongs in the realms of the compositionialists and minimalists: Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass...
The Line Of Best Fit
James Blackshaw, Young God Records
James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game
17 June 2009 by Matt Poacher
In an interview in 2007 James Blackshaw stated that he ‘would really like to
make a piano based album, but in truth’ he was ‘just not able to’. Humility?
A throwing down of a gauntlet to himself? Whatever the reason for the
statement, The Glass Bead Game, his first for Michael Gira’s label Young
God, is evidence that Blackshaw emphatically is capable of making a
piano-based album. It’s also evidence that he is a capable arranger, as the
album is easily his densest in terms of instrumentation, featuring violins,
cellos, a harmonium and even some wordless vocals from the otherworldly
Despite the endless, and often misguided, references to the Takoma school of
finger picking (the now holy trinity of John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Leo
Kottke), Blackshaw’s releases to date have been studies in the possibilities
of repetition and iteration; and despite the baroque flourishes and the
obvious flair, his work belongs in the realms of the compositionialists and
minimalists: Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass. As such, his album
releases to date have been about small progressions and the pursuit of the
infinite inside the filigreed whorls of the finite. The Glass Bead Game,
then, isn’t so much a departure as the next logical step from Litany of
Echoes, and in truth, it was figured there in ‘Gate of Ivory’ and ‘Gate of
Horn’, that tracks that bookended that release.
So, after all that, what part does the piano play on The Glass Bead Game? In
truth, aside from the near all-consuming vortex of ‘Arc’, the 18-minute
track that closes the album – more of which later – the piano only features
on one other track, the delicate and plaintive ‘Fix’. And yet the album
feels piano-based; and Blackshaw has said as much in that even the guitar
pieces here were worked back to the guitar via the piano. I think it’s also
fair to say that Blackshaw’s guitar here sounds, on a purely sonic level, at
its most pianistic – full, deep and sonorous.
‘Bled’, the album’s second track is a case in point. It features a very
sombre central guitar figure, and sonically it reverberates as if the body
of the guitar were as deep and wide as a cathedral. I’ve always sensed a
monkish, devotional quality in Blackshaw’s work in this in many ways is an
apotheosis of this strand of his style. When the track breaks into a fierce,
galloping series of runs towards the middle of its 10-minute running time,
you sense a quest, almost a hunting down of some semblance of an idea.
Not for the first time with Blackshaw, this track (and ‘Arc’ always ‘Arc’…)
makes me wonder what, exactly, is he chasing? There is an undoubted quality
of labour to his work, of spiritual endurance and the title of the album,
taken from a book by Herman Hesse can’t be a casual reference. In that book,
intellectuals take to a mountain retreat and attempt to reach a higher plane
of knowledge through a monkish dedication to learning (that the main
character eventually turns away from this pursuit and returns to the world,
and eventually rather ambiguously commits suicide is noted but the point
still stands); The Cloud Of Unknowing, one of Blackshaw’s previous albums is
based on a text written by a Christian mystic in the 14th century, a text
once again concerned with a pursuit of spiritual knowledge through labour.
I’ll admit there is a danger of over-coding the mystical and ecstatic nature
of some of Blackshaw’s work but some artists demand more than a casual
response. And I think demand is the key here. What, with a track like ‘Arc’
are we being asked to endure, and why?
I’m sure I wont be the first person to weigh a review heavily towards ‘Arc’
the final track on The Glass Bead Game as it so dominates the album. You
could say that it makes the album a little top heavy, and that the rest of
the tracks are dragged into its spiralling centre. No matter.
It begins with a simple, beautiful piano figure behind which lays a soft bed
of strings. At the four-minute mark, there is a trademark Blackshaw pause
that gives way to a rolling, liquid wash of keys. Whereas his longer guitar
pieces have felt at times architectural, this has the quality of water – it
isn’t a piece you study for its interlocking shapes and geometries, it’s a
piece you take upon yourself, become immersed in. The track was captured in
one take and you can feel the strain as the song reaches its climax, hear
the density of the chords lessen as his hands start to lock up. Yet the
sound, if anything, becomes more layered as the strings increase in volume
and somewhere deep in the mix Blackwall’s vocals rise to meet the crescendo.
It’s a feat of mixing that the sound doesn’t become indefinable and clogged,
instead it peaks perfectly, and the pursuit complete fades into a single
bowed cello string. It isn’t often you can claim to be genuinely astonished
by a piece of music, but ‘Arc’ is all that and more. It’s a tough listen –
temporally and emotionally – but you feel as if you’ve taken part in
something indefinable, indefinable but important and pure.
Where Blackshaw goes from here is unclear. Some have got sniffy about the
‘prettification’ of his music as he moved away from dissonance but I think
whatever he releases is of such a standard we can trust him to always be
interesting and engaging, however small or large the progressions. Here’s to
the doo-wop record then…