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    Philip Blackburn – Ghostly Psalms

    Philip Blackburn - Ghostly Psalms

    Philip Blackburn is a British-born, St. Paul, Minnesota-based composer who has been active since the 1980s, when he earned degrees at the Universities of Cambridge and Iowa. Best known as the director of Innova Recordings, for whom he most notably rescued Harry Partch’s long lost personal archives and released them as the Enclosure Series, Philip is also an environmental sound artist, which was a little-known fact–until now. After producing over 400 Innova albums for other composers, Philip has finally stuck his toe out into the spotlight with his official CD debut, Ghostly Psalms. And what a coming out party it is!

    Comprised of three works, each performed by a large ensemble, the album opens with “Duluth Harbor Serenade,” an eight-minute swath of really deep environmental ambience recorded at an outdoor festival in Duluth, Minnesota in 2008. Several instrumentalists employ such exotic sound-makers as semi-submerged chimes, oil drum gongs, peripatetic tam-tam, trombone, French horn, balloon bassoon, and Tibetan horn; as hundreds of festival goers also join in the fray of vivid city noises, which includes alarm bells, train whistles, church bells, buoys, foghorns, clock chimes, weedeaters, leafblowers and the like. The overall effect is that of a wide open sonic space, where anyone and everyone joins in the fun. The piece starts out very sparse, sounding a bit like Alvin Lucier’s Maritime Rites, then builds up to a dense traffic jam of snarling sound, only to fade out quickly to silence. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I heard those squeaky marbles from Francois Bayle’s Erosphere mixed in there somewhere.

    The centerpiece, which is also the title piece (but definitely not a codpiece), boasts a total runtime of 51 minutes, so it should not be surprising that it takes up the entirety of tracks two through 10, which all flow together with no discernible breaks. Composed over a period of three decades, this ex-chorister’s nightmare was ironically recorded all in one gush in 2010, as another large ensemble puffed out a minimal, acoustic atmosphere full of more exotic instruments. We’re talkin’ balloon flute, brainwave-controlled chorus, dan bau, sheng, khaen, virtual rhythmicon, wind harp, cello, handbells, icy organ drones, more of those dang squeaky marbles and even some overly breathy conch.

    The human voice shows up, too, as the group recites a list of 95 Belizean vascular plants in five different languages off in the distance, a soprano belts out a few lines and chanting crowds coalesce. An appearance by the always rich and resonant drones of Ellen Fullman’s long string instrument is a highlight, as are the virtual rhythmicon, which plods out a few humorous and homely melodies. An invigorating dissonant organ workout wraps it all up. Throughout the whole work, all sortsa billowing, strange dreamworlds waft by, each one a permutation of the last. Examining the problem of seemingly never-ending holy wars, “Gospel Jihad” presents itself as a short five-minute work for choir in which a bed of vocal drones gets spackled with a crowd of people shouting religious terms until it reaches a cacophonous climax of shrieking intensity. Overall, Ghostly Psalms is an excellent album, very well recorded and mastered, and all packed up with the Innova label’s usual spiffy graphic design that matches the music quite nicely. Bravo!

    Label: Innova Catalog Number: innova 246 Format: CD Packaging: Digi-Pak Tracks: 11 Total Time: 63:48 Country: United States Released: 2012 More: Corporeal, Innova, Official, PRX, Twitter, YouTube

    Text ©2012 Arcane Candy

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