blackburn ordo neuma

Philip Blackburn (b. 1962)
Ordo – works for mixed ensembles
rec. 2004-23, USA, Canada, Italy and Greece
Neuma Records 189 [2 CDs:138]

Philip Blackburn hasn’t featured on MusicWeb for a few years and I’m delighted his invigorating double album Ordo has landed on my lap for review. If readers haven’t encountered him before, Blackburn is the epitome of what it might once have been acceptable to label a Renaissance Man. He studied music during the early 1980s as a Choral Scholar at Clare College, Cambridge (his home town) where he ultimately gained his MA. He subsequently relocated to the USA and embarked upon a Ph D in composition at the University of Iowa. He became fascinated by the singular music of Harry Partch and compiled a highly regarded biography, or more accurately ‘A Partch Bio-Scrapbook’ of the legendary hobo/inventor/composer. Enclosure Three – Harry Partch won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, ran to 500 plus pages and was enthusiastically reviewed on these pages some seventeen years ago. (It commands a fair price these days!). At the time Blackburn was the proprietor of the Innova label, beloved by this reviewer as being the only one in history to treat the music of another mythic American maverick, Henry Brant, with the seriousness it truly merited by issuing the indispensable nine volume ‘Henry Brant Collection’. More recently Blackburn has become the president of Neuma Records, another outstanding new music label; the present double album is among its most recent issues.

Ordo constitutes a terrific introduction to Blackburn’s myriad compositional (and performance) preoccupations. The sheer variety of sounds contained within these thirteen pieces is bewildering. I would be pushing it to suggest that I find each of them convincing, but to my ears at least there are far more hits than misses, and repeatedly I encountered examples of his work which proved simultaneously novel, thought-provoking and touching.

The first two pieces on disc one feature the veena, a plucked Indian instrument with an attractive, resonant timbre, played in both cases by Nirmala Rajasekar. The first of these, Weft Sutra features a luminous backcloth of drone produced by a sextet of bowed electric guitars. In his notes Blackburn evokes a series of allusions to spun yarn and the process of creating textile. He extends the idea by revealing that the familiar Sanskrit word Sutra actually translates as string, or thread; Rajasekar draws an elaborate, seemingly improvised and potentially infinite line of hypnotic melody across the accompaniment. Weft Sutra is certainly an arresting opener. 

At just shy of twenty minutesOrdo, which lends its name to the whole project, is for me the real highlight of this collection. It is described by the composer as a ‘science friendly, evidence based, sacred funeral anthem for rational humanist mourners everywhere…’ and was written on the initiative of the counter-tenor Ryland Angel soon after Blackburn’s own parents both passed away in quick succession. If the title implies a nod toward Hildegard of Bingen, the music itself is also touched by her singular spirit. Ordo is a Latin setting (in Philip Blackburn’s own translation) of “Eulogy from a Physicist”, a remarkable text by a neuroscientist and stand-up comedian called Aaron Freeman, in which he muses in scientifically verifiable yet drily humorous terms about both life and death expending similar quantities of energy. The text, reprinted in the booklet in its original form and in Blackburn’s translation is witty, fascinating and warmly reassuring, it’s a script which is absolutely worthy of this riveting, moving setting. It is delivered with extraordinary grace and assurance by Ryland Angel over a sepulchral accompaniment blending Nirmala Rajasekar’s veena (she too was mourning the loss of her own father at the time of the recording) and Blackburn’s atmospheric electronics. 

The Song of the Earth is an attempt to blend a field recording of one of Blackburn’s outside windharps with a performed ‘transcription’ of these sounds, produced by Patti Cudd’s shimmering vibraphone. The piece just seems to flow – as though it’s already in the ether devoid of any need for human interference. To my ears this amounts to another twelve and a half minutes of pure bliss. I have played it repeatedly in the last few days – its distinctive flavour thus far shows no sign whatsoever of palling.

The Sound of a Going in the Tops of the Mulberry Trees for ensemble embodies a conceit every bit as convoluted as its strange title, tying together pre-Civil War Ohio and the so-called Underground Railroad (the secret routes used by African American slaves to seek liberation in free states) which crossed it with the curious mission of a certain ancestor of the composer, one Charles Cheney, who made a futile attempt to establish a mulberry plantation near Cincinnati which would feed the silkworms required for the family’s silk enterprise. Although Cheney’s plan failed he hung around to become heavily involved with the Railroad. Blackburn has considered the importance of sonic information to those who managed it (including his ancestor) and even carried out the musical equivalent of a geophysical survey by analysing these contexts and transcribing the sounds he encountered into a playable form– a task which seems more symbolic than practically evocative when one listens to the piece. The music stems from three clicks (taps on the window of a safehouse maybe?), as ghostly vocal hums, isolated flute notes and shards of violin melody coalesce in crepuscular, nervous material. A marimba and later a rather dislocated piano add to this uncertain atmosphere before the piece begins to pick up and drive forward in the manner of Charles Ives’ immortal Celestial Railroad. Some readers could be forgiven perhaps for thinking that Blackburn might be a little over-ambitious in trying to fuse so many historical, personal and sonic elements (in what proves to be a piece of just eleven minutes!) but his detailed description certainly made great sense to this critic when trying to catch the gist of these peculiar sounds.

Lilacs and Lightning is a delightfully strange little piano concerto which was intended as a piece for street pianists to attempt during an urban art project arranged by the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul) which involved decorated instruments being deployed in parks and public spaces. An accompaniment, recorded by the composer on a virtual rhythmicon (a theremin-type instrument pioneered by Henry Cowell), was available for intrepid punters to download onto their smartphones. It’s gorgeous – and fits perfectly with Blackburn’s deeply utilitarian energy and spirit. 

Albi is one of Blackburn’s student works, an impressive 22 minute single movement string quartet written in 1981 when he was still in his late teens. And yes, it is actually scored for a conventional string quartet! It’s another piece with a complicated background involving an antiquarian bookseller in Oxford who ended up working alongside Paul Sacher; it is a solid and remarkably assured piece full stop – allowances for its composer’s age are completely unnecessary. Its arc effortlessly incorporates the eight Rasa (moods)featured in Indian classical music, an unusual form which certainly anticipated some of Blackburn’s mature preoccupations. Notwithstanding this structure Albi struck me as an identifiably ‘English’ piece. The late quartets of Michael Tippett came to mind intermittently. It is played here by the Mank Quartet in a recording of its belated premiere at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. As is frequently the way with such circumstances playing and sound are a little rough and ready but not so much that they really detract from what is a most enjoyable piece, one which I would certainly like to encounter in a more amenable acoustic.

Kicking off the second disc is another early piece which the composer has spruced up for this album. A Cambridge Musickwas devised in 1987; it was intended as a work for four of his university mates who had formed a trio sonata group (the Cambridge Musick) which rapidly became expert as opposed to proficient, renowned among the university cognoscenti for their seemingly psychic mutual understanding. Blackburn’s strange piece was designed to show off this USP and designed (in the composer’s words) as a ‘composed rehearsal’ where the players are solely responding to cues (invisible, instinctive, intuitive and occasionally verbal) from each other, and basically oblivious to the audience who are entering the auditorium at the same time! Sadly the ensemble for whom the piece was intended never got round to playing it. Whilst A Cambridge Musick might resemble an attractive, whimsical concept on paper, neither the odd alluring sonority nor the disconcerting interruptions of an itinerant bass-drum really succeed in rendering the experiment worthy of repeated listening. In the note, Blackburn points out that two members of the original Cambridge Musick were called Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr. I wonder what happened to them? 

Over Again for percussion duo is Blackburn’s attempt to reimagine the kind of aesthetic procedures Harry Partch employed in hoboesque pieces such as US Highball and Barstow by marrying vernacular text to a musical commentary. in this case the words emerge in a remarkable recording of an American airman, one Warren Ward, describing the success of his all-but kamikaze mission to deliver ammunition to the Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy during the landings of June 1944. This had been previously used by Partch himself in a piece which has since been lost. Here it’s accompanied by an evocative and colourful pre-recorded score for two percussionists. This is cued by particular ‘triggers’ from the tape. This description barely does justice to a serious work Blackburn characterises as ‘…a ritual of tribute and remembrance…’, one rendered even more affecting armed with the knowledge that the young pilot telling the story would die in action just nine months later. If some of Blackburn’s experiments seem extreme (and one or two on this album do appear to this listener at least to be somewhat gratuitous) Over Again provides a powerful justification of his adventurous approach.

More Fools Than Wise is what Blackburn describes as a ’Cageian mash-up’ of two separate, already composed pieces. He has set the text of Orlando Gibbons evergreen madrigal The Silver Swan for solo soprano. The text is deconstructed syllabically (and rendered most vividly by Carrie Henneman Shaw). Whilst it is pretty incomprehensible for the listener without the printed lyric, with the text to hand the meaning comes to life in an extraordinarily counterintuitive way. This piece is enveloped by a field recording, Harbour Symphony, a document from 2004 in which Blackburn recorded the sounds of the horns of ships entering and leaving St John’s harbour in Newfoundland, where the composer happened to be attending a local new music festival.  I’m not sure how or why this particular mélange works but I find it to be peculiarly and unexpectedly moving, especially in the fade out where the ships disappear rather solemnly beyond an imagined horizon.

Sonata Homophobia employs a brilliant if complicated concept. The listener is bombarded with a collage of fragments of homophobic hate speech being telephoned into radio phone-ins of a right-wing, evangelistic, anti-woke kind, these are interrupted by the stylings of the broken flute of Zachery Meier who commissioned the work. He is blindfolded and wired up to an electroencephalogram whose sensor transmits this litany of nastiness whilst he reacts and attempts to reconstruct his instrument. As a riposte Meier recites a list of names of his gay friends and acquaintances who have attempted to take their own lives. He then embarks on a soothing and measured solo on his by now rebuilt instrument; this is cross-pollinated by a soft taped choral backcloth based upon Thomas Weelkes’ madrigal O Jonathan, woe is me. This effect is magical. 

Unearthing is another ‘mash-up’ of an original piece with the same name which involves the performer (of any instrument) listening via headphones to tapes of previous performances overlaid atop each other attempting to play what they hear – this ‘iteration’ of the work would also subsequently be added to the archive of previous performances (i.e. the tape) which will be fed into the ear of the next performer…..It’s combined here with Miss Crann and the Sense of Making Machines. It was written for Chris Mann (his name is a Spoonerism of the title) whose stream-of-consciousness vocal contribution is treated in some way – I’m afraid I can make neither head nor tail of Blackburn’s seemingly self-indulgent note here. Only the composer will know why these two sources are blended in this way; the whole thing sounds as my tepid attempt at a description might suggest – unlistenable. 

Stuck is a bit of fun (I think) involving tapes of folk calling into a radio phone-in about problems with their motors, blaring, car horns, the sounds of percussion and piano being trashed, and peculiar vocalisations. It went right over my head. By some considerable distance.

Closing proceedings is another blast from Blackburn’s past, a clarinet with piano work from 1985 entitled Air: Air, Canary, New Ground;this is apparentlya play on (or with?) words: he reveals in the note that at the time he was composing the piece he misread an inventory of harpsichord works as “Air can e’er renew ground”. Blackburn adopts a tripartite structure based upon a repeating ground bass of Purcellian character. In the first section the solo clarinet produces an inventory of brief canonic motifs – these resonant exhortations continue in the second section courtesy this time of the pianist, before a finale whereby the two players join forces to seek and occupy the new ground referred to in the title. It proves to be a credible, convincing piece, albeit one with a too-clever title; the over-resonance of the recording does little to soothe the listener. 

So thirteen different opuses, composed across the entire forty-plus year span of Philip Blackburn’s career provide a comprehensive overview of his music. His string quartet Albi suggests he had talent to burn from the outset. Indeed all the pieces on the first disc are indubitably accomplished – Blackburn is a true original with the happy knack of creating gems for any number of contexts and commissions, whilst being blessed with the technical skills to seamlessly incorporate elements from an extensive and uniquely exotic instrumentarium into his music. The two works involving the veena are especially impressive. There are certainly good, accessible things on the second disc, but here and there I found Blackburn’s uninhibited experimental zeal somehow dampening the impact of his finished product. In general performances and recording are very good. The first disc is exemplary in this regard, notwithstanding my caveats about the string quartet; sonics are more inconsistent on the second disc – this is perhaps to be expected at some point given the enormous variety of settings, studios and performers involved in the compilation of this set. 

The Neuma packaging however is first class and provides an object lesson for labels who wish to promote new music in serious, rather than gimmicky terms. Philip Blackburn’s own introductions to his music are quirky, detailed, frequently amusing and unfailingly helpful – I have greatly relied upon them throughout the production of this review. It rounds off a collection I can happily recommend to all-comers; I sincerely hope that Ordo provides Philip Blackburn’s diverse and frequently beautiful output with the exposure it surely merits.

Richard Hanlon

Availability: Neuma Records

1. Weft Sutra (2021-23) 7:35
Nirmala Rajasekar (veena); Philip Blackburn, Glen Whitehead, Michael Miller, Ryann Daisy Swimmer, Haley Olson, Jeff Johnson (bowed guitars)
rec UC-Colorado Springs and The Waves, Minneapolis 2021
2. Ordo (2023) 19:48
Nirmala Rajasekar (veena), Ryland Angel (voice) Philip Blackburn (instruments, electronics)
rec 2022-2023
3. The Song of the Earth (2017) 12:38
Patti Cudd (vibraphone), Philip Blackburn (windharps)
rec Studio Z, St Paul 2020
4. The Sound of a Going in the Tops of the Mulberry Trees (2021) 11:23
NO EXIT New Music Ensemble/Philip Blackburn
rec Studio Z, St Paul 2023
5. Lilacs and Lightning (2012) 4:34
Emanuele Arciuli (piano), Philip Blackburn (virtual rhythmicon)
rec Digressione Studio, Bari, Italy 2022
6. Albi (1981) 21:29
The Mänk Quartet
rec Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore 2018
1. A Cambridge Musick (1987) 13:41 
Galan Trio, Dimitris Kontouras (recorder), Dimitris Azorakas (bass drum)
rec Athens, Greece 2023
2. Over Again (2020) 9:47 
Quey Percussion Duo
rec University of Delaware 2023
3. More Fools Than Wise (2023) 6:22
(mash up’ of The Silver Swan (1982) Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano) with Harbour Symphony, for 8 ships horns (2003) (field recording, St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland) 
4. Sonata Homophobia (2014) 10:55
Zachary Meier (flute, neural activity), Philip Blackburn (electronics)
rec University of Minnesota, Duluth 2014
5. Unearthing (2023) 3:55
(‘mash up’ of Miss Crann and the Sense of Making Machines (2018) Chris Mann (voice) with Unearthing (1993) University of Minnesota Solo Improvisers/Alex Lubet)
rec University of Minnesota 2023
6. Stuck (2008) 2:32 
UCCS Creative Music Ensemble/Glen Whitehead
rec University of Colorado 2015
7. Air: Air, Canary, New Ground (1985) 13:56
Gunnar Owen Hirthe (clarinet), Nicholas Underhill (piano)
rec University of Minnesota, Duluth 2019