Constantinople Reverb / Cipher Letters

Philip Blackburn is a composer who was born in Cambridge UK and has found a successful career in the USA, where he was director of the Innova Recordings label for a while (masterminding the excellent Harry Partch reissue series), and now works for Neuma Records. He previously produced Ghostly Psalms and Music Of Shadows for Innova. His work has a strong connection to the environment, and besides holding concerts in auditoriums and art galleries, he likes to do it outdoors in forests and state fairs.

For today’s record, Justinian Intonations (NEUMA RECORDS Neuma 127), the location happens to have been water cisterns from the ancient civilisation of Constantinople (now Istanbul), for which he had to travel beneath the surface of the earth and start recording his sounds. Actually it might not be the sounds that have priority as much as the process; obviously he liked the highly reverberant space, but he started out with simply clapping his hands and recording the sound as an “acoustic test tone”. What was important for him was the work done later in the studio, specifically a very advanced form of time-stretching, where he could really examine the resonating frequencies in some detail. So entranced was he with the long-form results that he has published a 50:16 minute piece of this title, which occupies most of the CD. Lest you think it’s not much more than slow-moving digital crunchery on offer, we also have the voice of Ryland Angel added to the mix. I’m not 100% sure if Ryland Angel actually sang in the sewers at the time, but somehow it would be nice to think that he did. The crystal-clear voice of this English counter-tenor singer is so ethereal that there’s no doubt he deserves that shorter opening track where he can shine, but even so it’s strangely moving to hear his disembodied tones shimmering around the main piece, invoking Byzantine water spirits.

The composer invites us to lose ourselves in the reverberating music, and also in the sense of ancient history that he hopes to convey, often with a fervour bordering on the mystical. When we’re informed about “subaquatic carvings and statues of Medusa … never meant for human eyes”, I feel we’re only a paragraph away from a chapter by H.P. Lovecraft.

From same label, a solo album by Pamela Z called A Secret Code (NEUMA RECORDS Neuma 143). This performance / multi-media artist from San Francisco uses her voice with lots of live processing, loops, and samples – and video elements too, if you see her live on stage. Her approach is to use many styles – spoken word, popular song form, something resembling opera, and much processing to build up a virtual infinite chorus of herself, singing impossible harmonies. I like it best when things get slightly crazy, and the loop/repeat button is stuck on hold so that vowels and phonemes are cut off and scrambled, producing a stream of stuttering gibberish rushing past at tremendous speed. At other times, she is capable of overloading the track with so much layered verbal information that it’s hard to process, and meaning itself starts to break down. Less keen, personally, on the lengthy diatribes and lecture-styled text pieces which are laden with significance and intoned rather solemnly; on these, she emerges as a poor cousin of Laurie Anderson or Robert Ashley. Even so, a nice varied listen across these 10 tracks, with plenty of aural surprises.

Both the above from 17 May 2021.