Friday, March 6, 2009

Plenum: James Blackshaw-- Cloud of Unknowing

[This is a re-post. I was trying to fix some embarrassing typos (thanks Jim L.) and I inadvertently lost the entire post.]

Recently I was in the local vitamin store that happened to playing some new-age music. I wondered how it came to be that the sound for contemporary spirituality is devoid of feeling and complexity? What I heard in that store has more in common with Muzak than with the Krautrock and experimental music that originally inspired it.

TodayI was reading this site, which I find to be a good corrective to what I spend a lot my time thinking about. But skepticism equals atheism these days, and I was struck by something the site's author said, which I have been noticing a lot lately in this kind of discussion. There is a tendency on the part of many atheists to see belief in a higher power as a desire for easy answers to hard questions, or that to believe is to find "solace." I am sure this is true for many, and listening to the music in the vitamin store, I would say this might be true for new age believers even more. There is a kind of emphasis on serenity and peacefulness, but I find these things a very small part of what it means to believe in God or to have some semblance of a religious or spiritual life.

And so the music becomes not a reflection of the lived spiritual life, which is often frought with doubt, struggle, suffering, and yes, moments of insight, stillness, serendipity, and meaning. The music I heard seemed to offer some kind of perfect spiritual vision, not much different than the the kind of heaven promised by certain Christian groups. (It leads me to believe that even non-traditional Western religious practice that incorporates Eastern mysticm and even some occult practices is guilty of its own kind of literalism and evangelising.)

Is there music that can touch upon a spiritual vision that can take into account those moments of peace and reflectiveness without being saccharine and disingenuous? Well, there is James Blackshaw.

Blackshaw is an unnervingly young guitarist with ties to the folk underground. But rather than resting upon Fahey and American acoustic music, he seems more influenced by medieval strings. His album Cloud of Unknowing on Tompkins Square Records works over some of the ideas that can be heard in the sacred minimalism of Arvo Pärt (see earlier post) but layers it with a kind of Steve Reich-level of complexity that takes that shadow of longing and turns it into light. This is the kind of serenity I long for, a serentiy that is active, moveable, and noble.

--James Blackshaw: Returning to the Ghost

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