VA: The Garden of Forking Paths

Curated by guitarist extraordinaire James Blackshaw, The Garden of Forking Paths is an exceptional recording of solo settings performed by cellist Helena Espeval, Dutch lute player Jozef van Wissem, Japanese koto virtuoso Chieko Mori, and, of course, Blackshaw himself. While the instruments' string-based dimension is the uniting thread, each one not only sounds unique but brings with it strong geographical and cultural associations. The five compositions feel equally rooted in Eastern and Western traditions with classical, folk, and blues elements surfacing throughout.

Koto virtuoso Chieko Mori opens the album with “Spiral Wave,” a multi-layered, languorous flow of plucked and strummed patterns that cascade hypnotically, their Eastern twang sometimes suggesting a drunken sway. Though the koto's bluesy twang remains, the closing “Tokyo Light” projects a more peaceful mood that's suggestive of trickling rivulets separating and re-uniting within a forest stream. Blackshaw's own “The Broken Hourglass” provides a stunning display of his 12-string acoustic guitar prowess but also a remarkable illustration of how he transmutes that technique into a complete compositional conception. During the piece's ten mesmerizing minutes, stately fields of finger-picking ebb and flow as they travel across hills and valleys. Arguably the boldest track, “Home of Shadows and Whirlwinds” finds Esper's Espvall pushing the cello to its sonic limit. The instrument wails as it's mercilessly attacked by the violent scrape of Espvall's bow. The meditation acts as an extended raga-like exploration where melismatic lines wrap themselves around the Eastern drone that moans at the piece's center. Josef van Wissem's fourteen-minute “The Mirror of Eternal Light” unspools in multiple parts, the first ponderous and relatively static in character as ascending motifs are plucked repeatedly for five minutes; the denser second moves more rapidly with bass notes providing a solid thematic anchor for intricate picking, while the tranquil third arrests the flow for an extended and spacious period of strums.

It's telling that these ten-minute pieces pass by so quickly; they do so because the compositions and the playing are so engrossing that each setting seems to end quickly—and that despite the fact that only one instrument appears in each piece. The Garden of Forking Paths is haunting music of remarkable depth and sensitivity that resonates long after the recording ends. Music this special is encountered far too seldom in this era of musical glut.

April 2008