JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/ReviewHis 12-string guitar playing, plucking, picking sets the wind blowing and the sunlight swirling, in our heads.
The Glass Bead Game
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.