James Blackshaw compels his listener to become a detective. His music forces us to do something that we are seldom forced to do: stop, think, and investigate. Many turn to instrumental music so that it can function as non-threatening background sound for whatever seemingly more important task they are performing. Similar to the oppressive alignment that gradually occurs between the monotonous movements of the factory gears or keyboard strokes and the once vibrant human body, many listen to instrumental music because it is so compatible with “paying the bills” or “doing homework” or “falling asleep” or “zoning out.” Blackshaw’s music has no such utility. In fact, it radically resists being put to such a conservative use. If one attempts to listen to The Glass Bead Game, or any Blackshaw album, while paying the bills, they will almost instantly notice their mind, at the demand of the music, wandering away from the chore. Eventually, the listener will find him or herself gazing out of a window, at the trees and off into the sky, perhaps unlocking it to discover a breeze. Next, the listener will be standing outdoors, walking, looking around in wonder, anticipating whatever might come next.
It is as if Blackshaw’s music simultaneously awakens within us both the will to search and the thing that we are searching for. It awakens something, whether it is something once animated and now extinguished, or a dormant capacity that has yet to flourish. There is both longing and anticipation for something previously hidden that steps out, and the newness of its disclosure results in us going out into the world at first to find it. It ignites some sort of veiled core that resists everydayness. The listener is thrust into a deep contemplation that aims at the something that is the object of the search. For clues, one might turn first to the song titles, which, as on all of Blackshaw’s albums, refer to Christian iconography as well as pre-Christian and Far Eastern spirituality and esotericism. One might embark upon a hermeneutical journey, attaching new value to the mystifying sounds of Blackshaw’s worlds through a textual investigation of his many references. With this newest album, the good listener will ultimately find him or herself thumbing through Hesse’s text in search of a connection between the story of Magister Ludi and this new musical companion. Blackshaw does not allow us to passively consume his musical explorations, but demands that we go probing through them just as he does.
“Cross,” The Glass Bead Game’s first track, is unquestionably epic. But it is markedly different from the celebratory, epic-feeling of the title track from 2006’s O True Believers, which seems to be welcoming a hero home, perhaps back into the stable arms of belief. “Cross,” on the other hand, holds an epic-sadness that might be sending our hero off into some great unknown or into an uncertain journey that occurs after one faces the cross. Lavinia Blackwall’s vocals add an entirely new dimension to Blackshaw’s already robust aesthetic. One is pleasantly reminded of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, unveiling a new spirit bursting forth from within Blackshaw’s compositional approach. With “Bled,” Blackshaw returns to his furious 12-string palindromatic picking structures, offering up a gift, perhaps, as a sign of generosity or as the inevitable consequence of the cross.
The only time a piano has appeared throughout Blackshaw’s discography was to open and close 2008’s Litany of Echoes. The piano returns on “Fix,” which, more so than anything else Blackshaw has done, could very well be a companion piece to a specific scene in some dusty text, blowing into it a new life. The listener might stumble upon the moment in Hesse’s book or imagine and act it out for him or herself. “Key” exemplifies Blackshaw’s ethos when it is understood as an endless searching and opening up of new sound-spaces. The repetitive playfulness of the string-dances might lead us to think that the key is not a particular key, but one that holds some sort of always-present power to open up multiple, possibly infinite, doors, thus promising a never-ending process of discovery. The album closes with the almost 20-minute long “Arc,” which, only minutes behind the title track from 2005’s Sunshrine, seems to be Blackshaw’s longest composition so far. “Arc” begins with a gradual, growing piano movement that intensifies around the four-minute mark and continues to build. The arc structure constantly ascends and descends, following the multiple transitions, the permanent back and forth, between materiality and spirit.
With The Glass Bead Game, Blackshaw has broadened his aesthetic to incorporate many new, challenging, and enjoyable sounds. Blackwall’s vocals; Joolie Wood’s violin, clarinet, and flute; and John Conteras’ cello add much complexity and richness to Blackshaw’s ever-deepening, escalating vision. While the center of Blackshaw’s compositions will likely always be guitar, he has shown with this album that he can write music for several different instruments and do so incredibly well. We should not be too surprised if, in the future, Blackshaw constructs his own chamber or symphony orchestra. With The Glass Bead Game, there is reason to think that this is the direction his musical explorations could take him.