James Blackshaw/The Glass Bead Game/Review / by Ron Schepper

The Glass Bead Game ultimately registers as an uplifting and moving recording that's hypnotic and emotionally-charged. If all this sounds like gushing, consider it well-deserved. Music-making of this high caliber deserves nothing less.

James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game
Young God Records

Josef Van Wissem: It Is All That Is Made

By Ron Schepper


Simpatico collaborators James Blackshaw and Jozef Van Wissem follow their
sophomore Brethren of the Free Spirit release The Wolf Also Shall Dwell With
The Lamb with solo releases that find the two pursuing equally satisfying
though divergent paths. With instrumentation limited to thirteen course
Baroque and ten course Renaissance lute, Van Wissem's It Is All That Is Made
perpetuates the stripped-down approach of the shared release while
Blackshaw's semi-orchestral The Glass Bead Game (the title presumably
inspired by the Herman Hesse novel) opts for a comparatively more dazzling
and kaleidoscopic sound-world.

Though Van Wissem is said to cut and paste classical pieces and weave
electronics and processed field recordings into his recordings, It Is All
That Is Made doesn't noticeably incorporate such strategies. If electronic
sound manipulation is present, it's imperceptible, as the lutenist opts to
stay faithful to the instrument's natural timbre and resonance. The release
does, however, evidence his propensity for voicing themes forward and then
backward and, in so doing, creating music that eschews traditional dramatic
development for even-keeled pieces that remain at a stable level of
intensity. The palindromes and mirrored structures that Van Wissem subtly
incorporates into his work lend the material a circular feel which easily
induces entrancement. That effect is intensified when pieces such as “It Is
All that Is Made” and “In You Dwells the Light which Never Sets” combine
rising-and-falling step-like patterns with picking. Such subtle
sleight-of-hand enables Van Wissem to bridge two idioms—seventeenth-century
lute literature and modern folk music—that, on the surface at least, seem
only distantly related. The lilting “Darkness Falls Upon the Face of the
Deep” and haunting “How Long Will It Go On after You Have Gone” unfold in a
slow series of strums, the pregnant pauses into which the notes bleed as
much a part of the piece as the notes themselves. Interestingly, the ten-
and thirteen-string lutes Van Wissem plays enable him to approximate
Brethren of the Free Spirit's multi-layered sound by playing ostinato and
melodic patterns simultaneously. Words such as serene, austere, and timeless
naturally come to mind while listening to It Is All That Is Made.

Blackshaw's follow-up to last year's Litany of Echoes transposes his
spellbinding guitar playing style to expansive arrangements for piano
(played by Blackshaw), strings, and vocals. He's undoubtedly a 12-string
virtuoso yet never succumbs to grandstanding or self-indulgence, and the
album's sequencing is well-considered too, alternating as it does between
guitar, piano, and expanded group settings. In certain moments, The Glass
Bead Game suggests he's been listening to Philip Glass's early output in his
spare time, with the vocals in the opening track, for example, reminiscent
of the solfège singing in Einstein On The Beach. Elsewhere, the rolling
piano clusters flowing through “Arc” recall Glass's “Mad Rush,” and traces
of Michael Nyman and Terry Riley sometimes emerge too.

Blackshaw's sparkling acoustic guitar picking gracefully glides through
“Cross,” the composition's graceful character deepened by the strings of
cellist John Contreras and violinist Joolie Wood and the wordless vocals of
Lavinia Blackwall—a beautiful and stirring start to a recording that's never
less than mesmerizing. Blackshaw's 12-string chimes so brightly during
“Bled” the instrument begins to resemble a harpsichord, and the piece's
eleven-minute running time affords him ample opportunity to dig deep into
the meditative sections that frame the intricate clusters galloping through
the middle. The exquisite piano-and-strings setting “Fix” is so romantic in
spirit, it argues implicitly for Blackshaw as a soundtrack composer
candidate for some future Jane Austen adaptation. It's the nineteen-minute
“Arc” which stands out most of all, however. With Blackshaw on piano and
augmented by strings, the piece opens with a stately intro and then ascends
to a majestic plane where surging piano waves merge with strings to form a
cloud-like mass of sonorous beauty. Heard at maximum volume, the listener
willingly surrenders to the lure of the music's ecstatic design. The Glass
Bead Game ultimately registers as an uplifting and moving recording that's
hypnotic and emotionally-charged. If all this sounds like gushing, consider
it well-deserved. Music-making of this high caliber deserves nothing less.

June 2009