Thursday, September 24th, 2020
For nearly 30 years Philip Blackburn has been unwavering in his dedication to the work of the American Composers Forum (ACF). His work has enabled hundreds of artists to receive incomparable support, guidance, and pathways for creating and sharing their music with audiences of curious listeners of which Philip is definitely one. This is evident in the playlist he has curated and shared with us highlighting some of his favorite projects during his tenure. Philip now embraces a new future in which he will continue to put those curious ears to good use in his work at the Neuma Records.
Philip’s tenure began in 1991 at what was then the Minnesota Composers Forum with initial duties as Composer Advocate (subsequently Director of Artist Services, Senior Program Director, and innova Director) included overseeing and managing our commissioning and fellowship programs funded by the Jerome and McKnight Foundations. For twenty years he expanded the welcome mat to a wide variety of creative musicians, advised them on the application processes, identified a diverse range of nationally-recognized panelists, and administered the peer review and feedback processes. He also developed new prorams such as the McKnight Visiting Composer Program, the Minnesota Emerging Composer Award, the Sonic Circuits International Festival of Electronic Music, Late Night in Gallery 8 at the Walker Art Center, FaithPartners, and Subito small-grant program.
In the late 1990s he piloted a series of community residency programs that led to the NEA-funded, Continental Harmony millennium project with composers creating new works for communities in all fifty states. Philip traveled the nation recording interviews with thought leaders about the future of music and released them as a podcast series, Measure for Measure.
His travels took him abroad too. In 1993 the Forum was asked by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture to establish international dialog; the first musical détente between the two countries since the war. Philip was sent for four months to research, teach, meet with musicians, make recordings, and explore possibilities for future engagements. This led to the World of Vietnamese Music Festival in 1996 that brought together the Vietnamese musical diaspora from around the world to discuss their common musical origins. As an ethnomusicologist he authored the musical sections of the Rough Guides to Vietnam. From Hanoi to Havana, Montreal to Canberra, Sofia to Stanford, Philip has represented ACF and its mission of helping artists connect.
Bamboofest (2001) was a month-long event that he produced in the Twin Cities with myriad community partners, showcasing the many cultural uses of bamboo around the world. With music, dance, calligraphy, sculpture, and many other artforms, the festival was inherently multicultural, multidisciplinary, and inclusive; thousands attended.
But it is perhaps Philip’s work with the Forum’s innova Recordings label [alongside the stellar team of Chris Campbell and Tim Igel] that he has been most associated. He took it over in 1993 as a semi-dormant entity, developed a uniquely artist-friendly business model, and grew it into what Naxos Distribution has called, “the premier label for American new music.” Expanding the catalog with original research and publications of works by Harry Partch (which earned him an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award), Henry Brant, and Eleanor Hovda, as well as field recordings from Vietnam and Belize, the catalog now includes more than 650 albums from a wide range of contemporary artists. Philip prepared each one for publication, designed many of them, presented Innova festivals in New York, Minnesota, and the Bay Area, and brought the label to international attention. Thousands of composers and performers are found in the catalog — some obscure, some famous — all curated for their visionary musical creations. The label was awarded a million-dollar endowment from the McKnight Foundation to boost its services. It received the Laurel Leaf Award from the American Composers Alliance in 2012 “for its excellent support of the full range of contemporary American music,” and two innova releases won Grammy Awards in 2019 and 2020.
As an environmental sound artist, teacher, public artist, and experimental composer, Philip’s own work explores ways of listening to place. He enjoys serving a range of visionary creative artists and helping them reach their publishing goals: “I look forward to bringing my appetite for new musical thoughts, admiration for those who make them, and knowledge of the industry into the service of the newly-revived Neuma label, building on its impressive legacy dating back to 1988. My time at ACF has been rewarding in so many ways and has brought me into contact with generations of devoted musicmakers. I hope to continue such connections for years to come.”
One of the perks of being at ACF and innova is the chance to hear what you creative types are up to, musicwise, and to see how we might be of assistance. While we couldn’t take on every project that came through our door, I hope we’ve added to the sum of interesting music out there. For almost three decades I served as midwife and worked to bring each recording into the world healthy and sound. While I love every album we put out, and meeting the artists behind the vision, some have an extra close personal connection. Here’s a few of those many lifetime highlights.
Harry Partch: Rose Petal jam
The first example is an outtake from Harry Partch’s documentary, The Dreamer That Remains. I spent 20 years working on the Partch archives and releasing the Enclosures series of videos, audio recordings, and hefty book. With this information now available, scholars and others can begin to assess Partch’s contributions to the world. I can’t pick only one of his works, but this recipe (that he learned from Yanko Varda) demonstrates the kind of intimacy I was after, and shows the man behind the music in a disturbingly inimitable way.
Eleanor Hovda: Jo Ha Kyu
Eleanor had worked at the Minnesota Composers Forum long before I came in 1991, and she had moved to Duluth, New York City, and Fayetteville by the time I tracked her down. Her techniques and vision – so natural for her gestural background in dance – were radical to the musical world. She sought to excavate sound, to reveal the ‘sound around the sound,’ and move it around through flows of energy. After her passing, I was honored to pull together The Eleanor Hovda Collection to make sure her spirit lives on.
Ai Hoa and Thai Hung: Offering Incense (Hat Chau Van Hue)
I played the part of musical ambassador in 1993-94 to initiate cultural dialog between Vietnam and the USA. While there I traveled the country meeting composers, teaching, and making field recordings, including this one from a temple near the old capital, Hue. This performance, a medium’s trance song, I found especially captivating (and hard to notate).
Henry Brant: Handbook for the Spatial Composer
What Charles Ives did once (in The Unanswered Question), Henry Brant did hundreds of times, composing astonishing works for spatially distributed musicians. After discovering a cassette of Northern Light Over the Twin Cities (for all the disparate musical ensembles at Macalester College), and working with the illustrious Teo Macero to remaster it, I was lucky enough to get to know Henry and put out nine albums of his archives. This is just one video from his living room that shows his maverick erudition and timeless charm.
Harley Gaber: in memoriam 2010
Harley Gaber had been a fellow student before my time with Kenneth Gaburo, and had gone off to make films, paintings, become a tennis pro and pool shark. Then he decided to return to music and, in between long philosophical phone conversations, produced his last two albums for innova before ending his life. A proto spectralist before the term existed, his searing textures that take their own sweet time to evolve, etch themselves into me again with each listen.
Robert Moran: Trinity Requiem
Getting hate mail at the Forum was rare so when Robert Moran sent me some in response to an orchestral opportunity I called him up and cheekily asked him to be a panelist. We’ve been pals ever since. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11 he had written a requiem for the Ground Zero church, as deceptively simple as it was directly moving. The front cover image was my bathroom skylight. To fill some time on the album I made a remix collage of that and others of his pieces, Requiem for a Requiem.
Juan Blanco: Cirkus Toccata
Admired by Che Guevara, Juan Blanco was the original pioneer of Cuban electroacoustic music. He’d take PA systems to the sugar fields to entertain the workers with his combinations of analog synthesizers, old-school tape manipulation, and traditional Afro Caribbean percussion. I met him in Havana on his 80th birthday and was pleased to be able to release his works to the wider world.
Lebeha Boys: Traditional Garifuna Music from Hopkins, Belize
I have a secret life in Belize where I built a house improvised out of concrete and wood. On an early trip to the coast I met with the local drumming school and heard the young kids drumming and dancing their hearts out on the beach with enthusiasm unmatched by any Suzuki school I know. Two innova albums and a few years later, some of them have gone onto stellar professional careers.
Philip Blackburn: Before Life and After; A Day Trip to the Underworld
My own compositional life has persisted behind the scenes all these years, focusing on site specific, environmental sound art; From wind-powered instruments to kinetic sculpture and massive scale community performances. Even the concert stage once in a while. Because many of these events are one-time, I document them and recycle them in new forms. Often with video. Here’s one of them; an audio piece (Dry Spell) that started out as something to play inside the sewer system of St. Paul, resonate in the storm drains, and emerge from the manhole covers. Then reconfigured as the soundtrack to a video shot in Umbria and Tuscany while I was a Civitella Ranieri Fellow. My pieces tend to be trippy and hallucinatory, best experienced before drifting asleep.
Spotify playlist related (but not identical) linked below:
Find more of Philip Blackburn’s music here.