British guitarist James Blackshaw debuted at the age of 23 with
Celeste (Celebrate Psi Phenomenon, 2004 - Tompkins Square, 2008), that contains a two-part fingerpicking-intense raga-folk improvisation for twelve-string acoustic guitar in the vein of
The exuberance of the first part, revealing the influence of
Scottish lullabies and Irish jigs, lays the foundation for
a wistful melody, distributed over a tinkling lattice of fast tones, that
represents the piece's zenith of pathos.
The second part opens with surreal, oneiric, warped and elongated sounds.
A more labored melody emerges that reflects a more neurotic mood, almost like
the mirror image of the serene and almost childish first part.
When the guitar resumes its breathless gallop through the imaginary skies
of Blackshaw's mind, it retains that unnerving quality as well as the
occasional counterpoint of cymbals.
Lost Prayers & Motionless Dances (Digitalis, 2004 - Tompkins Square, 2008)
is devoted to a 34-minute piece of droning ambience.
Here the guitarist sounds like a different artist. Instead of the virtuoso
display and the agile perambulation of Celeste, the lengthy
Lost Prayers And Motionless Dances
offers a stately and lugubrious Zen-like meditation.
It begins with a dilated melody played on an accordion-like harmonium
(almost reminiscent of Pauline Oliveros'
"deep listening" minimalism) that slowly decays to a single droning note.
Then the guitar begins interacting with the drone. The guitar's melody
sounds painful and indulges in raga-like detours. This manner basically splits
the melody into two melodies: an underlying constant trance-y pattern and
an unstable colloquial phrasing that periodically erupts into a
After 20 minutes, the piece dissolves into rattling and hissing noises.
The main melody and the harmonium return at the very end on a more emphatic
and almost symphonic register.
Lost Prayers And Motionless Dances is overall more cryptic than Celeste.
White Goddess (2005), one of the four Blackshaw compositions that
appeared on a split album, is even more
obviously non-Western in nature, sounding like a sufi hymn from the Middle
East, replete with piano and wordless chanting.
Sunshrine (Digitalis, 2005 - Tompkins Square, 2008) delivered another
lengthy masterpiece, the 26-minute Sunshrine, that marks a return to
the mood and technique of Celeste.
Bells set the tone for the guitar improvisation, that initially has the
shimmering and effervescent quality of Leo Kottke's country vignettes. Then the intricate and florid cascade of tones
continues, but it assumes a more and more pensive tone. The harmonium joins
briefly what has become a melancholy melody. Reemerging from this moment
of pessimism, the guitar launches into a vehement raga-like crescendo,
perhaps an affirmation of will and love of life in the face of existential
doubts. The bells return to close the piece, but this time they share the
stage with a distorted drone.
O True Believers (2006) was the first proper full-length and contained
four medium-length compositions.
Transient Life In Twilight alternates between a slow,
contemplative and gentle shuffle and a country & western gallop.
The album's tour de force, the 18-minute Elk With Jade Eyes, sounds
unusually convoluted for his standards,
frequently shifting gear and mood for the first seven minutes,
before being joined by the harmonium and the Indian lute tanpura for
a sort of psychedelic raga that ends in a surreal duet of tampura and
The brief O True Believers is, instead, an unusually straightforward (and loud)
hymn played on guitar, harmonium, xylophone and percussion.
The Cloud of Unknowing (Tompkins Square, 2007) is one of his most varied
The Cloud of Unknowing is a transcendent Fahey-ian eleven-minute guitar solo but its shimmering cascades of notes sculpt a dense wavering tapestry that
is uniquely his. Ditto for the primal energy released by the shorter
The guitar sounds like a harpsichord in the slower raga-tinged beginning of
Stained Glass Windows, but then Blackshaw weaves together techniques
of rapid pattern iteration and modulated melodies. After ten minutes the
music decays into five minutes of pure dissonance.
The strings and xylophone of Running to the Ghost
and the musique concrete of Cloud Collapses are less successful detours.
Brethren of the Free Spirit is a collaboration between
James Blackshaw on guitar and Josef Van Wissem on lute from the Netherlands.
The mini-album All Things are from Him through Him and in Him
(audioMER, 2008) runs the gamut
from the dissonant sonata of
How The Unencumbered Soul Advises that One Not Refuse the Calls of a Good Spirit
to the minimalist rhapsody
All Things are from Him through Him and in Him.
The Brethren of the Free Spirit then released
The Wolf Also Shall Dwell With The Lamb (Important Records, 2008).
Litany Of Echoes (Tompkins Square, 2008) contained two
solo-piano pieces inspired by minimalist repetition of the 1970s and a piece in which the guitar is juxtaposed against violin and viola.
Continuing along the path of diversification,
The Glass Bead Game (Young God, 2009) introduced more experiments.
To start with, Cross challenges the stream of consciousness of the guitar
with neoclassical strings and operatic vocalizing.
Fix is even more neoclassical in nature: a simple duet of piano and
Bled is typical of the confused sonatas of this period, when
the guitarist might be under the influence of his virtuoso skills rather than
using them for artistic purposes.
The 19-minute Arc is an atmospheric concerto for lounge piano and
strings in which the guitarist tries to play the piano as if it were a guitar.
The results of these experiments are mixed.
The eight-movement All Is Falling (Young God, 2010) is a mixed blessing.
Part 1 is a tepid essay in piano minimalism that a pupil of
Steve Reich could compose.
Part 4 is a more interesting variation on the concept because it
integrates raga overtones (and it uses the guitar instead of the piano).
Part 7 is a twelve-minute minimalist concerto that adds the strings to
piano and guitar. Now it is no longer just a case of
Steve Reich's gradual increase in complexity
of pattern and orchestration but also of
Philip Glass-ian cascading melodies and
rhythms. Alas, the whole thing (and its coda of wailing dissonance)
sounds hopelessly amateurish and dejavu.
The redeeming piece is Part 2: a slow, elegant Renaissance madrigal for electric guitar and strings.
Part 8 is also a lot more interesting than the minimalist pieces:
here the patterns are distorted drones (fat and mournful keyboard tones)
that get combined and recombined to create an effect of refraction.
Holly (Important, 2011) contains two dreamy pieces.
Love Is the Plan, The Plan Is Death (2012), mostly played on a nylon
six-string guitar that restricts his textural expansiveness, looks like
a more pensive work than usual, but the guitar playing is rather plain and
repetitive, and the piano playing is as unassuming as usual, insinuating the
doubt that this be simply a whimsical detour. There is no magnum opus.
The piano elegy
The Snows Are Melted the Snows Are Gone is the prettiest of the pieces,
and it is telling that it is not a guitar piece.
Vibraphone, electronic organ and Genevieve Beaulieu's vocals add very little of note.
The Watchers (Important, 2013) was a collaboration with pianist Lubomyr Melnyk of october 2008.
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