Best of 2021: Recordings by Philip Blackburn and Chris Campbell


Philip Blackburn

Justinian Intonations

Neuma CD


Chris Campbell


Innova LP



Both Philip Blackburn and Chris Campbell are poly-artists, sitting astride composition and sound art and working with homemade (or, in the case of Blackburn, also Partch made) instruments. In 2021, Blackburn’s Justinian Intonations and Campbell’s Orison topped the currently crowded field of ambient classical, providing long form pieces that encourage contemplative listening. It is frustrating that some quarters have tagged them with a “New Age” label, as their work is more intricate and, frankly, interesting than what is generally given that genre designation. 


A sound prayer and meditation in seven parts, Campbell says of Orison that it is his version of sitting. The music is contemplative but also collaborative, made by a mixed instrumental ensemble of fourteen musicians that features some of contemporary classical’s heavy hitters. There are stretches of drone, but also places of activity, melodic patterns, instrumental solos, outbursts of percussion, swelling crescendos, and glissandos. Use of instrumental layering creates beguiling sounds deftly orchestrated. The move through a number of demeanors sparks interest without ever diminishing the contemplative aspects of the work. Orison is a dazzling, refreshing, and distinctively individual composition.


Blackburn’s Justinian Intonations begins with “Out Beyond,” a five-minute opener featuring the wide-ranging vocalist Ryland Angel singing a translation of Rumi in scalar passages, a conch shell solo, and ambient noise such as crunching footsteps. The title work is based on the reverberation times in two ancient cisterns in Europe. A simple device – clapping in the spaces – yields information that is stretched out, spectrally analyzed, and tweaked for maximum overtone experience. The results create harmonically intricate drones that change a great deal over the course of the piece. Angel’s chanting is overdubbed in places to add a performative element to the proceedings. Like Orison, Blackburn’s music is simultaneously meditative and animated, rewarding patient and close listening with an abundance of beautiful, unreproducible sounds. 


  • Christian Carey