Manuella Blackburn: Petites étincelles

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, Tempo, no. 73:228, April 1, 2019

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.

The listening experience is like a trip into Blackburn’s Sonic Chocolate Factory…