In Philip Blackburn’s audible cosmos, the blurred recollection of foregone mental imagery and/or experiences represents a crucial factor; the compositional bulk of Ghostly Psalms is in fact typified by an oneiric temperament which belies the painstaking assemblage of constituents that characterizes them. This is especially manifest in the nine movements of the main opus, indeed derived from a complex dream that Blackburn had in 1982 which took almost three decades to set in adequate musical form. Hundreds of layered sources – instruments, voices and location recordings – generate sonic landscapes in which each listener can find points of entrance, associating individual evidences and memories to constantly morphing scenarios.
The result is comparable to a protracted hallucination, distinguishable traces emerging from the indefinite awareness of a somewhat mystical inscrutability. Orchestral elements such as Ellen Fullman’s long strings, organs, choirs, Asian reeds, diverse types of self-made apparata and voices – intelligible or not – become transitory guide lights of sorts across various stages of intellectual disarray, also enhanced by the composer’s liner notes replete with citations and references but absolutely ineffective in giving an idea of how the whole sounds. Translating dreams into words is an ever-impossible task but the music gets nearer, letting us perceive vivid glimpses of how another being attempts, to use Blackburn’s own narration, to parse the universe. Maybe Jean-Claude Eloy could be a helpful, if vague parallelism in terms of general sonority. A note of curiosity: while I was listening to this piece on the train, some of the harsher harmonic clusters escaping from my headphones caused a couple of idiots (male and female) to tap my shoulder and ask me to lessen the volume, something that not even Peter Brötzmann and Borbetomagus had managed to achieve until now. The unfortunates were promptly told to go where the sun never shines, should someone have any doubt.
Whereas the conclusive “Gospel Jihad”, based on two contrasting groups of singers (one performing more or less traditionally, the other literally spitting venom while dissecting “bellicose” incitements transcribed from old hymns) appears as “dramatic art” rather than “rendition of a score” – and, in truth, Blackburn’s best description is that of a man who “likes the acoustic coupling of sound and space” in the inner leaflet – the initial “Duluth Harbor Serenade” is perhaps the most immediately impressive work on offer here, inexplicably forgotten in the lone “authoritative” review read about this CD to date. Constructed as a titanic gathering of human and environmental activities explicated in circa eight minutes recorded on Labor Day’s Weekend of 2011, it’s an engrossing procession of noisy machines, tooting ship horns, lifting bridges and truck brakes mixed with Tibetan and French horns, gongs, “semi-submerged chimes” and too many additional phenomena to be listed in a writeup. The perfect snapshot of a place that, according to the instigator, “resounds with messages and signals, communication codes, and noises with meaning” which “reflect from the hills or are carried over open water depending on the wind direction”.