Philip Blackburn is a fascinating composer (and also CEO of Innova) whose work can be seen as environmental art with sound. Like his mentor, Kenneth Gaburo, Blackburn has written or developed many sound installations, performance experiences and manipulations of the aural experience that are reminiscent of everything from Harry Partch to John Cage to Stockhausen. This is music that is nearly impossible to describe – and that many will not understand or like – but which, for me, is at least quite interesting and, in some cases, ethereal and fascinating.
A great example is the opening work, Duluth Harbor Serenade, in which Blackburn and a dozen or so collaborators went to the nearly empty shipyards on Lake Superior, Duluth, Minnesota to both record ambient sounds as well as create a spontaneous mélange of contributed sounds. The existing sounds include harbor buoys, bells, ship horns, train whistles, metal on metal machinery and the effect of the wind altering the many pre-existing timbres. The performance artists contributed vocalizations, wind instruments, small percussion and various “found” instruments. The net effect is really a kind of musical “happening” in a kind of retro-60s way but with an eerie contemporary strangeness.
Ghostly Psalms is similar in its impact as well as its origins. The title is taken from a collection of church psalms written in the vernacular language by Myles Coverdale in 1539. Blackburn takes the notion of the “vernacular” or that of local significance and carries his blend of vocal and small instrumental improvisations into several seemingly disparate locales. For example, Jungle Litany references several different languages that at one point or another were present in the tropical ecosystem in Belize (ie: Mayan, Creole, Latin, Spanish, etc) Performers intone the names of plants and other random vocalizations. Draw On, Sweet Night was performed in the Trinity Cathedral’s Wren Library. The title is an allusion to an English madrigal by Wilbye and performers intone selections from Hildegard von Bingen while also being wired to brain wave sensors in a manner I cannot explain. Roots of a Magic Square is, essentially, an organ duet based on a pitch and number matrix. The Shadow of My Shadow is a work for large scale string assembly played directly by performers as well as triggered by sympathetic vibrations. The remaining sections of this nearly hour long work – Non-Judgment Day is Nigh, Now, More or Less Than Never, Beyond and Above, Scratch I-Ching and Hymn to the Solar System – all have very similar philosophical and transcendental references that are fairly complex to understand. Performers throughout contribute to the sound through small ethnic and world percussion, vocalizations, organ, acoustical sources of many sorts and some electronics. Blackburn’s booklet notes are similarly fascinating but make for tough reading. They offer just enough information to – correctly – give the impression that this is music or sound experience created in a way like none other but not enough “nuts and bolts” info to fully understand how these sounds were produced and where and why. Ghostly Psalms as a large sonically meditative experience is strange and sometimes unsettling but not unpleasant.
The short small-scale choral work, Gospel Jihad, gets its quite provocative title from the composer’s realization on the very contemporary notion of a holy war. Two small choral ensembles intone or sing extracts from some traditional and “war-like” Christian hymns (“The Son of God Goes Forth to War”, as one example) The singers compete antiphonally with bits of actual hymns as well as shouting and demanding unsung snippets of text. Blackburn describes the two elements as “introvert and extrovert.” There is a commentary, to be sure, on the position that dissonant cultures take with respect to their gods that Blackburn intends. Just from a sound point of view, this is a short and somewhat disturbing experience that certainly creates interesting internal discussion.
Much of Philip Blackburn’s music sounds like a sound environment that the listener stumbles into or, perhaps, intrudes upon. There is a feeling of a strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening world into which we are suddenly immersed. Not all listeners will want to be immersed. I have always found music like this best – and most dramatically – experienced live; to walk through; to stand in various locations and absorb for a time. The recording is very good, it is spatial. I liked this for what it is – and did not dislike it because of what it is not. Blackburn is a very unique and, clearly intelligent, visionary artist. This is not casual listening. It is – however – deep listening with an open mind and acute hearing as pre-requisites.