James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game
Young God Records

Josef Van Wissem: It Is All That Is Made

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