Born in 1981 in London, James Blackshaw is an astounding12-string guitar player who is able to get more sound out of one instrument than previously thought imaginable. After picking up the 12-string for the first time at the ripe old age of 21, he left his punk band for a career in orchestral-style guitar playing. With seven studio albums (plus one on the way) and numerous contributions to compilations, Blackshaw is becoming as prolific as he is proficient.
Blackshaw’s music requires patience. Highly repetitive and looping, his songs are often several minutes in before they truly begin to take shape and move forward. His long-form composition delivers tracks that are more like movements in a larger symphony than they are songs to be quickly consumed. Most albums have only a handful of tracks clocking in around ten minutes each. While the tracks stand well on their own, when listened to as an album, it is clear that they are meant to be heard as part of a larger whole. The songs inform and interpret one another.
After browsing the album titles of his studio releases, it should not be a surprise that Blackshaw has been quoted as saying “I do have an interest in religion and theology and, for lack of a better word, spirituality and metaphysics.” Lost Prayers and Motionless Dances (2004), O True Believers (2006), The Cloud of Unknowing (2007), and Litany of Echoes (2008) each create soundscapes that evoke introspection and contemplation. Reviewer Elliott Sharp writes,
[The 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…. The listener is thrust into a deep contemplation that aims at the something that is the object of the search.
Blackshaw creates space for contemplative experiences to unfold.
Blackshaw’s 2009 release, The Glass Bead Game, borrows its title from German author Hermann Hesse’s 1943 book of the same name. Set centuries in the future, the Glass Bead Game that is played in the book requires an understanding of music, mathematics and cultural history. The game proceeds by “players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.” This description could easily be used to describe Blackshaw’s creation as well. There is a clear invitation to explore Hesse’s text in conversation with this new musical offering. The mulit-layered game becomes metaphor for his music and his music a metaphor for the game.
The absence of lyrics in Blackshaw’s music (Lavinia Blackwall does add vocals sounds on “The Glass Bead Game,” but they are not words) allows the listener to supply the story. Whether it is love or loss, hope or defeat, Blackshaw’s music not only creates a soundtrack for contemplation and exploration, it actually guides and encourages it. While lyrics can create connections between artists and listeners, they can also be obstacles. (This is why I don’t listen to popular country music—having neither a tractor nor a dog, half the songs miss me!) James Blackshaw, with the use of ten fingers and twelve strings, creates open space for wonder that is truly a gift to his listeners. Your chance to be among them is February 5 at the Ladies Literary Club.
- Eric Kuiper