Review: Philip Blackburn – Ghostly Psalms

I can imagine that to be in the presence of the “Duluth Harbor Serenade” recording session must have been a most surreal experience. While the harbor’s sonic fingerprint usually manifests over the course of a day – conducted by the ritualistic, day-to-day triggers upon which each sound resounds in the fulfilment of its duty – this piece condenses the location’s most distinctive sounds into a bustling eight minutes. Between 3:00pm and 3:08pm on Labour Day 2011, operators of these sounds were permitted to produce them as they pleased, while a flash mob of musicians paraded the streets and merged into the soundscape. The end result was like a scene-setting sequence from a Hollywood film; ellipsis squeezes out chronology and brings sonic identity into a single point, amounting to a chorus of noise that splashes out a mental image of its place of origin. The rapid-fire ring of bridge alarms quivers across the breathy calls of ship horns, pressurised expulsions of steam and the spluttering acceleration of motorised engines, while streams of weather blend in with the constant babble of conversation. There’s something beautiful about how this musical dilution arises in real time and without composer intervention. While the situation itself feels fantastical and out of proportion, there’s a warming authenticity that arises from the fact that the people of Duluth Harbor are the players at work, coaxing its breath cycle into being.

From here, this collection of works descends into dream, with time and location swirled into indistinction. The 50-minutes of “Ghostly Psalms” stems from an actual from an actual recurring anxiety dream from 1982, described by Philip Blackburn as follows:

“This memorable one…was about crawling uphill through a rocky desert with a crystalline trickle of clear water flowing uphill, entering a fortified mediaeval village (like Conques, perhaps) on the hilltop through a culvert, and walking into the abbey while voices played all around.”

This dream is sonically manifested as an eternally morphing combination of strings, voices, organs and other abstract unidentifiables; the listener is guided between them and caught awkwardly in the fluid formation and dissipation of its shadowy dream-shapes, as the familiar is bent out of recognition and thrust into the company of those sounds that are utterly alien in form. Blackburn’s justifications for choosing each textures, along with his interpretation of their effects, are laid out in full in the album’s accompanying booklet. Personally I find it easier to be consumed by the immediacy of the piece without Blackburn’s carefully assembled preconceptions – for the first listen at least, I found it beneficial to be left always questioning, but without the time to discover the answers nor even formulate the questions themselves. The piece is evocative of a dream-like logic (illogic, perhaps), through which objects and states are free to mutate without cause or consequence. Voices gather and babble into panicked ascents, string drones overhang like thin streaks of grey cloud, while faint ghosts of woodwind and brass make wispy entrances and disappear without leaving a trace nor imprint.

The five minutes of “Gospel Jihad” takes the collection to its conclusion, in a bizarre contrast of language. One choir strips sound of its rhythmic content, gliding in streams of gaseous harmony around the backdrop; up and across cathedral walls, circulating around wood-beamed ceilings. The other spits words and celebrates their harsh punctuations and emphases, with phrases shot out in yells so that they collide like reactive particles. The former feels cleansed and unified, while the latter is restless and in the process of deconstruction.

The sonic range covered across this selection of works is eclectic, and I find my emotional response to it to be equally so. Some of its material sends impulsive pangs of anxiety and excitement, while other sections skim across my surface without so much as a ripple so show for it. But such an inconsistency feels strangely appropriate for such a mercurial work; Ghostly Psalms is forever fading and emerging, with its only constant being its eternal state of transformation.