The listening experience is like a trip into Blackburn’s Sonic Chocolate Factory… — Tempo, UK
- Liverpool Hope University
- Label: empreintes DIGITALes
- IMED 17147 / 2017
- UCC 771028214723
- Total duration: 46:44
- 125 mm × 125 mm × 10 mm
- Label: empreintes DIGITALes
- IMED 17147_NUM / 2017
- UCC 771028214785
- Total duration: 46:44
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In the press
True to its title, Manuella Blackburn’s latest collection of works, Petites étincelles, is a dazzlingly sparkling album. The listening experience is like a trip into Blackburn’s Sonic Chocolate Factory where the listener receives a Golden-Ticket guided tour into the inner playground of a sitar, a tall glass of fizzy drink with large floating ice cubes, an old Kodak Brownie camera, a ticking clock, and a slide down the strings of a sarod into a warm pool haloed in light at its exit.
The album features five acousmatic works composed between 2012 and 2017; each exploring a musical language that explores the expressive potential in microscopic sounds. Often, her work features everyday sounds created by everyday objects such as clocks and cameras, and Blackburn’s utilisation of the ‘sound objects’ is direct, referential and highly recognisable. In contrast with the treatment of the objet sonore in early acousmatic music, where each individual sound is heard ‘as itself’, thus dissociating it from the source of production, Blackburn’s approach is often mimetic and uses these sound entities as entry points through which she invents new musical vignettes, imagining the secret lives of objects and mobilising the inanimate to become the protagonists in her musical storytelling.
The collection presents two aspects of Blackburn’s work as a composer: an interest in coalescing musical elements from micro-level organisations, and research into the sourcing and employment of musical sounds from the other cultures: in this case traditional Indian instruments.
The works Ice Breaker, Snap Happy and Time Will Tell form a series that deals with sounds from an everyday, domestic setting. Ice Breaker for example, opens with a bell-like pulsation juxtaposed with the fizzing of a fresh soda. These tiny sounds are assembled into a dreamy texture that, when accompanied by the quickly moving ice crackling and chirping air bubbles, creates an atmosphere akin to an electronically synthesised ocean-scape. An affirming moment arrives at around 30-second mark in the form of a swirling ice cube in a glass, defining and (re)contextualising the previously heard sounds into a narrative with specific subjects in focus.
Aside from the assembly of materials through the process of building micromontages – the extraction of short, pointillistic grains of sound from recorded files and the rearrangement thereof in time – the presence of clear pitch and harmonic materials in Blackburn’s work appears to be the other driving force behind her musical trajectory. For instance, starting from around 5’32”, the ice cubes plunging into the glass continue to reverberate, but are now transformed into gently oscillating chords, transferring the rhythmic energy and gesture of the recorded sound into a musical one expressed through pitch contour and harmonic motion. This approach to combining recognisable sound sources and musical elements inevitably contributes to an overall cinematic listening experience – the audience constructs the visual elements using its imagination, and the music serves as the intermediate bridge, functioning both diegetically and as an reinforcement to the imagery. Overall, it is a delightful experience to imagine oneself becoming an ice cube, floating in a pool shaped like a tall transparent container, surrounded by jet streams of crisp bubbles in carbonated water – refreshing and best served ice cold, with a loved one.
The two works that bookend the album – Javaari and New Shruti – are partially a result of Blackburn’s involvement in the Instruments INDIA project, a sound archive established in 2015 for educational and compositional use of traditional Indian musical instruments. Despite using a similar methodology in the treatment of these recorded sounds, the two works are presented with significantly different musical and aesthetic, priorities. If the other three works focus on furthering Blackburn’s personal interest in the assemblage of small sounds en masse, here the composer’s intention to establish a new paradigm for cross-cultural sounds use is clearly felt.
In Javaari, the timbral possibilities of the sitar are explored in four episodes, each focusing on a different intensity in the ‘explicit cultural sound use’. The piece begins with a collage of short, bouncy sounds derived from elements such as plucked strings and strikes on the tabla, and this first episode lays the scene: a bountiful tapestry made up of pointillistic and colourful objects that are foreign in nature, but are reconstructed through common practices in electroacoustic music. The recognisable sound of the sitar enters at 3’50” with its iconic pitch bend, despite sounding like a glitching hologram, jittering and struggling to be perceived fully, in order to progress forward. The sitar gradually gains momentum from the rhythmically pulsating environment, shifting from being somewhat stuck in the foreground, to finally come to a long-awaited epiphany at 6’10”.
Overall, the piece examines the possibilities in positioning and arrangement of iconic sounds that come with their own historical and cultural association. As acousmatic music exists purely in the auditory modality, the challenge posits in the synthesisation and expansion of these significant extra-musical elements with the ideology of Western art music. Debates about ownership of material and a contemporary version of musical exoticism will likely always be part of the discussion concerning current-day crosscultural collaborations. However, Blackburn’s sensitivity in showcasing each of these foreign entities through preserving, developing and expanding their unique idiosyncrasies, results in two highly polished and engaging works that turn a crossing of cultural boundaries into an encounter that is mutual and understanding, exemplifying an enjoyable intercultural listening in acousmatic music.
Last heard from English composer Manuella Blackburn with 2012’s Formes audibles, apparently her debut release, where Stuart Marshall was very taken with her “fresh and authentic… manner of articulation.” Today’s excellent release on the same label is Petites étincelles (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 17147), and surveys five works dated from 2012 to 2017, each one evidence of a very sensitive and intelligent approach to sound manipulation and highly respectful of the source objects she’s captured them from.
Take Javaari, based on samples from sitar playing. She’s homing in on particular details of the physical instrument (the bridge, the buzzing sound of the strings), and creating a kaleidoscopic arrangement to highlight these aspects that interest her. This is based on her understanding of the culture of the instruments and the musicians that play it, even if the results are so heavily re-ordered to sound like no sitar music ever heard before. It’s a bold coup to create such a radical reinvention of Indian music, yet without once departing from its core truths.
Ice breaker, derived from the sound of ice cubes dropping into water, is likewise founded on a firm understanding of physics and what actually happens, scientifically speaking, for the ice to create that cracking and popping effect. Starting from these basic facts, Blackburn is very clear about what sound she wants to capture, what phenomenon she wishes to demonstrate. The overlays of bubbling and fizzy liquids are used to underscore this fact, and are not simply there for decoration. Net result, one of the most “realistic” sound-portraits of ice and water yet to be heard; which takes some doing, given how over-used this trope has been in the field of electroacoustic composition.
Then there’s Snap happy, the most recent piece on this set, created from the sounds of cameras. One of Blackburn’s interests is in “the miniature”, by which she means small sounds and events which are barely perceptible; she doesn’t boast about the power of her microphones or the technology needed to capture such things, but she does discourse like an expert about different makes of vintage cameras, in one compacted paragraph of notes. The old Kodak Brownie from the 1940s had “much heavier clicks and clunks” than more recent cameras, and she seems to be very conversant with these internal mechanisms. You get the feeling she could understand any given device by opening it up and examining it, probing with inquisitive fingers. She likes the way old cameras used mechanics to wind on the film, and these sounds feature heavily here. This piece also muses on the way that modern digital cameras use sound effects to mimic these old sounds, even though there’s no need for them to do so (Come to that, why don’t word-processors imitate the sounds of a typewriter?).
Also here, Time will tell, derived from clocks and continuing the theme of miniatures, Newtonian mechanics, and interest in common domestic objects; and New Shruti, another composition starting from knowledge of classical Indian music and this time exploring the shruti box / tampura. Here, as throughout the entire album, Manuella Blackburn’s skills in assembling microscopic fragments of sound into a coherent whole are evidence of her genius; there’s craft and skill in her mosaics, but also much instinct, and the aim is to create beautiful music rather than simply demonstrate digital techniques. Blackburn seems to have a profound understanding of things, of objects; is able to apprehend their inner workings with precision and accuracy; and this skill may in turn help her to decode other signs, to understand something about the workings of the world. A truly excellent set which I recommend.
Manuella Blackburn es una compositora de música electroacústica especializada la creación de música acusmática. Sin embargo, también ha compuesto para instrumentos y electrónica, improvisaciones para orquestas de laptops y música para danza.
Manuella estudió música en la Universidad de Manchester y cuando terminó cursó un Master en Composición Electroacústica con David Berezan. Más tarde se convirtió en miembro del Manchester Theater in Sound (MANTIS) en 2006 y completó un doctorado en la Universidad de Manchester con Ricardo Climent en 2010.
Javaari es el término dado a ese puente del sitar donde las cuerdas melódicas y comprensivas corren y crean el sonido. El término también se refiere al tono único producido por el sitar. Esta pieza explora los fascinantes timbres que se originan en este instrumento y presta especial atención a las hermosas curvas de tono que se arquean más y más como si de finas vocales se tratase. El trabajo está estructurado en cuatro episodios, cada uno explorando una intensidad diferente de uso de sonido cultural explícito: a menudo el material de sitar está en primer plano y, a veces, retrocede o se filtra intermitentemente.
Esta pieza, Javaari se realizó en el Centro Internacional de Compositores Visby de Suecia y en el Liverpool Hope University del Reino Unido).
Este trabajo acusmático de Manuella Blackburn es el primero de una serie de piezas compuestas en colaboración con Milapfest con sede en la Liverpool Hope University. El de duración por un año, tiene como objetivo examinar la traducción y la transferencia de la música cultural a la música electroacústica y está financiado por el Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Dass sogar aus ernsthaft neutönender, akusmatisch elektroakustischer Musikproduktion so etwas wie Pop-Appeal herausklingen darf, dafür stehen die verspielten Kompositionen der Britin Manuella Blackburn. Petites étincelles (empreintes DIGITALes) versammelt fünf ihrer jüngeren Klangcollagen, die sich einerseits auf nichtwestliche Instrumente (wie die Shruti-Box) und Traditionen (wie Gamelan und indische Ragas) beziehen, aber genauso auch auf nichtmusikalische Klänge von Küchenspülen zu Standuhren. Für Blackburn haben noch die profansten Dinge ein Eigenleben. Überaus vitale und gutgelaunte Poltergeister klappern durch ihre Stücke. Hochauflösende Einzelbilder überdrehter Spieluhren im Zustand des Explodierens.
The term “acousmatic” belongs to the category of verbal devices generalizing studio-conceived opuses that are difficult to brand. With empreintes DIGITALes, though, no question will arise about the trueness of that definition, the Canadian imprint having in fact released the finest materials coming from that area for countless years now.
London’s Manuella Blackburn is an electroacoustic composer and senior lecturer at Liverpool’s Hope University, her resume including prizes and acknowledgements beyond her young age. Petites étincelles presents five pieces sharing several traits, Blackburn’s main intent being the depiction of wide prospects from what she calls “barely there” sounds in a sort of “backward reductionism” process. The collection is informed by a soft-spoken complexity helping the listener to pay attention to both the logical attributes of the sequences of events and the meaningful micro-structures shaping up the textural evolution.
All of the above can be summarized in another shopworn, but still effective adjective: “ear-pleasing”. In truth, locating segments where what is heard results as less than hospitable is quite hard. Even the inexperienced could use this album as a useful starting point to increase their conversancy with such a creative domain. Sources range from Indian instruments to the ice floating in a glass of water, from clock mechanisms to camera shutters. Blackburn’s compositional skills magnify those transitory occurrences into elegantly structured music lacking the frigidity of a mere accumulation of sonic typologies. In that regard, she sweetens the concreteness of the original matters with profound electronics, perceived here as inherent harmonic auras complementing the sharpness of melodic cells and organic periodicities.
“Maturity” can rhyme with “accessibility” in rare occasions. This is one of them, and also a reminder of the hypocrisy of establishment-driven “gender equality”, a prepaid renown always preferred to genuine talent when it comes to covering female artists. This world needs more Blackburns than St Vincents.
These collages are like the obsessions that infiltrate dreams. Imagine, for example, that you have an epiphany about the beauty of photography. You spend the daytime taking photos or diving deep into the literature on lenses, shutter speeds, photographic film and aperture. And so sleep becomes an overspill for these incessant, excitable thoughts, twisted by the liberal logic of dreams. Shutters flutter outward like a startled bird flock, mechanisms whirr on either side… these sounds slosh from left to right, mimicking the movements of animals or draw bridges or hurricanes, conjuring an imaginary universe in which they exist as the only available building block. On Snap happy, the third track on Petites étincelles, cameras are everywhere. The compositions of Manuella Blackburn feel vital and thoroughly alive, imbued with her fascination for these noises and their charming twitches and intricacies, frenetic with the desire to drench the senses in more than can realistically be absorbed simultaneously.
Yet this is not chaos. I may be overwhelmed at points, yet even the most spectacular of eruptions feels adherent to a common direction. The pieces inflate to fill the entire stereo space with acoustic resonances, then fade into a light rain of ticking minute hands, then reduce to vertical spindles of plucked string, then stretch into tufts of ambient mist. At any given moment, the kinetic energy feels extreme. Spilling, tumbling, exploding. Time will tell often sounds like a cluster of grandfather clocks spontaneously combusting, with springs hurled through space; Ice breaker drowns me in tides of carbonated liquid, blinded by bubbles and the splashes of a thousand ice cubes. Yet to view these pieces from an aerial perspective would be to witness the narrative that assuredly tugs the bedlam forward, left, right, up, down. Even amidst the rapture of sonic obsession, Blackburn never loses sight of the overall shape, and just how the whirl of life can be perceived as grander arcs of age and steady change, so these collages allude to the prescient, symbiotic understanding that exists between the sounds that hurtle past each other.