REVIEW: Philip Blackburn's 'Music of Shadows'

By Jon Sobel on Jun 11, 2014 11:08 AM EDT

Airily metallic sonic landscapes undulate through the 27 minutes of environmental sound artist Philip Blackburn's slow-moving Dry Spell, dotted here and there with the voices of children playing. The composition had its genesis in the composer's Sewer Pipe Organ project, which sent sound (though not children) through St. Paul, Minnesota's storm drain system to emerge from a wide array of manholes. There's something terrifically appealing about making use of acoustic spaces normally hidden. It's like exploring a hitherto unmapped cave complex.

The piece is the first of a trio of works comprising Blackburn's new CD Music of Shadows on the American Composers Forum's Innova label. Pierced with controlled spears of brittle feedback and industrial thumps, and tumbling through what sounds like a vast network of metal barrels or enormous radiators, the slow respiration of the piece finally sighs away into the shadows, leaving ghostly echoes in one's head.

By contrast, the briefer but still substantial Still Points spatters in with anxious percussive sounds generated by a "virtual rhythmicon" and suggesting what might happen if college students dropped thousands of plastic balls from the ceiling of a marble palace. Where parts of Dry Spell had a aura of near-stillness and even relaxation, Still Points feels hyperactive in spite of its title, reminding me at times of David Byrne's music for The Catherine Wheel, minus the dance rhythms.

Its percussive opening evolves into pinwheels of synthesized tones with slowly developing patterns of insistent oscillation before smoothing into a more monotonous percussive closing section with a synthetic, again Byrne-like tonal conclusion. Though Still Points is the disc's shortest piece, it's the only one that felt to me as if it had overstayed its welcome.

The long, dirge-like The Long Day Closes incorporates processed choral and orchestral segments of Handel's famous Largo "Ombra mai fu" into a sweeping vista of hollow reverberations. The piece was inspired, the liner notes tell us, by a Colorado tuberculosis sanatorium of old, and originally composed as the soundtrack to a film on that subject. The piece works without visuals, though. It suggests sadness and the eternality of death, but without gloom--sad, not depressing; demonstrative, not paralyzed; and resolving into an almost celestial restatement of the Largo's theme at an exaggeratedly slow pace.

Long-playing environmental sound art can make for a notable community event, but when the related pieces of music are encapsulated in a recording like this it makes me wonder whether in our painfully fast-paced society music like this has a chance for wide appreciation. For to be appreciated it must be listened to at length and in full--bathed in, really. And do people even take baths any more? Do they have time?

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TagsPhilip Blackburn, modern classical, sound art, environmental sound art, Innova, American Composers Forum

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