Ghostly Psalms

Ghostly Psalms

Music of sacred and industrial spaces
Philip Blackburn
The Choir of Clare College Cambridge
Citizens of Duluth
Philip Blackburn
Ellen Fullman
Theresa Wong
Andy Lo
Wild Music Chorus
Maria Jette
Donald Engstrom
Carrie Henneman Shaw
Gary Verkade
Lars Sjostedt
Catalog Number: 

Cambridge, United Kingdom

Release Date: 
Feb 28, 2012
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

Some say that an artist’s output is necessarily autobiographical. This set of three substantial works by UK-Minnesotan Philip Blackburn does nothing to disprove that; they have his visionary DNA all over them. They show his deep concern for space, people, and ideas discovering each other through sounding and listening in the moment of performance. And what performances they are! From a city-wide organized industrial soundscape to a virtuoso Cambridge choir, from a brainwave-generated laptop solo to Ellen Fullman’s 80-foot long string instrument with cloistered nuns blowing on organ pipes, these live events are as audacious as they are unrepeatable: Community-based experimental music at its most raw and refined, fun and profound.

Blackburn’s Duluth Harbor Serenade is a giant soundscape composition for the entire sounding bodies of the busy port city on Lake Superior: bridge alarms, steam train whistles, boat and fog horns, bells, brakes, and sirens, not to mention a flash-mob band of dozens of local performers parading around with loud outdoor instruments. The site ultra-specific performance was heard over several miles, coordinated to celebrate the unique sonic signature of the place and re-orchestrate its elements into new textures and combinations.

Ghostly Psalms, a 50-minute live performance for large chorus, organ, and unusual instruments, is equally grand in scope, psychologically if not geographically. It transports the listener through stages of a dream, one that Blackburn had in 1982 that sprang from his days as a Cambridge chorister. Ruined abbeys, watery/windy streams of consciousness, and planetary motions feature prominently. The music is immersive and dense, intimate and cosmic, from vulnerably exposed solos to intensely orgasmic clusters.  It’s as much a trip as a journey. Once again, it fills space, only this time in your head.

Psychodrama is central to Gospel Jihad too; an a cappella work for two rival choirs, one distant and tranquil, the other spitting fire and brimstone based on beloved (yet vicious) gospel hymn texts. (Blackburn’s ancestors include hymn writers George Stebbins and Isaac Watts, so he felt his contribution to the tradition should offer another perspective.) The unresolved musical standoff (with choreography viewable on the Youtube version), stunningly performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, brings the disc to an end with an unearthly yelp.

Philip Blackburn studied composition with Kenneth Gaburo and has roots in the Oliveros, Partch, Brant, Ives, Ligeti experimental tradition (not to mention English Tudor music). After producing nearly 400 albums for the innova label, this is the first disc devoted to his own music. His work as an environmental sound artist has made plants, sewer-, and eco-systems audible, and has animated harbors, science museums, children’s festivals, parks, parking lots, and deserts with extra opportunities for community listening.



Gospel Jihad:
“Absolutely stunning.” – Youtube viewer
“Cultural Marxist drivel.” – Another Youtube viewer

Duluth Harbor Serenade:

“The man is a genius.” 
– Chamath Perera, Youtube viewer

“Love it! There’s some Pharaoh Sanders in there, and Sun Ra.  Awesome.” 
– Jack Perla, composer

“It really captures the scene there.” 
– Janika Vandervelde, composer

– Vaughn Ormseth, Performance Today

[Personally I really loved the Blackburn with its sort of planet as a gamelan vibe...] The liner notes tucked into the CD sleeve are a must-read, as they enhance the listening of each of these creations from acoustic alchemist Blackburn. 1 is a fabulous sound collage that really places you right in Duluth Harbor, MN, with its sounds of voices, alarm bells from bridges, church bells, carillons, steam engine whistles, joined with other intentional instruments (chain saws, drums, horns). The 9 parts of the Ghostly Psalms include an eerie requiem to a botanical system characterized by voice speaking in five languages, all punctuated by a conch trumpet (2), chant samples triggered by brain waves (3), organ duets (4, 6, 10), string bowing and plucking, breathing, bells, and human rhythmicon (9). The last track is a war of two choirs, one yelling the words, the other singing them gently. Enjoy this aural adventure that celebrates the coexistence of ambient sound and human creation. - Thurston, KFJC

"...very cool, moving, and characteristically weird. I can completely see how they scared the hell out of some kids--the first one (Jungle) has some especially creepy textures." - Mark Applebaum

"Really dug the music."- John Zorn

"In Philip Blackburn’s audible cosmos, the blurred recollection of foregone mental imagery and/or experiences represents a crucial factor; the compositional bulk of Ghostly Psalms is in fact typified by an oneiric temperament which belies the painstaking assemblage of constituents that characterizes them ... The result is comparable to a protracted hallucination, distinguishable traces emerging from the indefinite awareness of a somewhat mystical inscrutability." [FULL ARTICLE
Massimo Ricci 

" delineates the difference between "me" the listener and "it" the sound by erasing the difference between the two -- it makes me aware that perception itself is a creative act." – Gerald Busby

"[A]n impressive work that blurs the lines between composition, sampling, ambiance, and performance. The closest comparison I can think of is some of Ingram Marshall's music, but Blackburn's is much more variegated, a sort of sound analog to Joseph Cornell's boxes."
Steve Holtje 

"Ghostly Psalms would be best delivered by a 50-foot-tall orchestrion, plopped in the center of the city, not by CD. The exemplary recording and production give that impression anyway. From the opening herald of a conch shell onward, listeners will find the walls swelling outward … [W]onderfully disorienting, trancelike without dissolving into meditation … [T]he listening experience is decidedly organic, if blissfully overwhelming … [C]aptures what Blackburn does most compellingly—draw focus to the terrestrial music that surrounds us." [FULL ARTICLE]
Doyle Armbrust 

"[A] huge sound collage with all the ingredients of a weird dream: swirling stasis, ethereality, intimacy, intermittent intelligibility, non sequiturs, blurriness, repetition and so on. The eerie first Psalm, 'Jungle Litany', is impressive enough on its own, judging by scale, noise or imagination … [A]n unsettling, original work that builds to an intense, almost demonic final few seconds." [FULL ARTICLE

"Blackburn’s background as a Cambridge chorister, his associations with Henry Brant and Pauline Oliveros, and his work with the Harry Partch archive, might feel like a cultural divide too far. But his choral piece, Gospel Jihad, described as an “a cappella work for two rival choirs” and performed by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, suggests that’s our problem, not his. The piece evokes an Ivesian spirit as one choir plays it cool against the fervent, unhinged fire and brimstone message of hymnal texts. That Blackburn contrives an ‘anti’ end, where it’s all left hanging, tells its own story. Ghostly Psalms itself was begun in 1982 and only completed in 2010 as Blackburn finally pulled all its disparate sources together. Scored for large choir, organ, and ‘unusual instruments’ – including wind-powered fishing-line harps and Ellen Fullman’s 80 foot long string instrument ¬– is perhaps self-consciously trippy, but Blackburn reins in his apocalyptic collisions of material with intimate vocal refrains and meticulously organized instrumental interludes." 
Philip Clark 

"[E]llipsis 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." [FULL ARTICLE]
Jack Chuter 

"[A] wild journey through the dreamscape of a hyperimaginative chorister. Pipe organs vie for prominence with the ethereal overtones of Ellen Fullman's 80-foot-long Long-String instrument, which seems to be capable of every pitch on the spectrum. Fragments of choral music waft in and out of focus, sometimes in sharp shocks and at other times with languid grace ... All of this music confirms Blackburn as a startlingly original voice, one that encompasses all periods of music history in a uniquely engaging vision."
Marc Medwin

“[The] trippy, occasionally apocalyptic [Ghostly Psalms] knocks reality sideways. Intimate vocal soliloquies wrestle free from walls of sustained choral and string drones that morph and change with the (anti)logic of a dream’s unruly narrative.”
—Philip Clark

“Sublime field recordings on the industrial shores of Lake Superior precede a phantasmagoric nightmare-scape to combine in a sonically diverse and transportive record.” Best Opera & Classical Recordings 2012 [FULL ARTICLE]
Doyle Armbrust