James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game (2009)
Had Ira Gitler not encountered John Coltrane and heard James Blackshaw instead, he might have used his famous "sheets of sound" to describe the guitarist's music. Blackshaw uses his twelve-string guitar to create giant waves of chords that repeat motifs, creating a harmonious and meditative music that is like new age music for the intelligentsia. New age has such a negative stigma that I hesitate to use that word in describing what Blackshaw does, but there's no denying that that's the musical category where he would be lumped in.
Blackshaw began as a guitarist in punk bands and cites John Fahey as an influence (what self-respecting acoustic guitarist doesn't?), yet The Glass Bead Game bears none of the qualities of either, except for a certain audaciousness associated with the former and a tunefulness associated with the latter. Blackshaw is after something spiritual here; these songs are long meditations filled with repeated motifs that are strung together as they develop from one another. Many of these songs are quite lengthy, with "Arc" approaching 19 minutes, yet all of them seem to be exactly the right length. The effect is quite calming and compelling; Blackshaw has succeeded in creating a listening experience and not just instrumental background music.
For his previous releases Blackshaw stuck to solo guitar. Now he includes piano, strings, vocals, and winds as part of the background to mesmerizing effect. The vocals on "Cross" are ethereal and beautiful, and the strings provide a bedrock for the chiming guitar to float upon. On two tracks Blackshaw eschews the guitar altogether for piano, creating the same shimmering chords that he creates on the previous tracks.
The Glass Bead Game probably takes its name from a little read novel by Herman Hesse. The CD, however, deserved more than that neglect.
Track Listing: Cross; Bled; Fix; Key; Arc.
Personnel: James Blackshaw: guitar, piano; Joolie Wood: violin, clarinet, flute; John Contreras: cello; Lavinia Blackwall: vocals.