James Blackshaw

Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat

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Director Louis Feuillade's 1913 five-part silent film serial Fantômas is one of the most beloved entries in French cinema. Centering on the antihero of the title, each film commences with a recap of the previous film, is divided into multiple chapters, and usually ends with suspense. The films were based on novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre (they ended up writing 32 in all) -- further episodes were adapted by French filmmakers later in the 20th century, but none are as well-made or beloved as Feuillade's. Composer Yann Tiersen was invited to curate performed scores to accompany the screening of these films, in celebration of their centenary. He did one and chose Tim Hecker, Loney Dear, Amiina, and James Blackshaw for the rest. Blackshaw's was for the final film, Le Faux Magistrat. The performance took place on Halloween. Though he has established his reputation as an acoustic guitarist, it is his skill as a composer that is foremost here. Playing nylon-string guitar and piano, he is accompanied by electro-acoustic composer and sound installation artist Duane Pitre; drummer and sound designer Simon Scott (of Slowdive); and Charlotte Glasson on violin, reeds, winds, and vibraphone. Seventy-five minutes in length, one section seamlessly flows into the next. This ambitious affair is introduced by a brooding piano in "Pt. 1," later joined by repetitive, almost minimalist violin and sonic effects in a slow, suspenseful waltz. Tom-toms, lower-register piano lines, and a wailing alto saxophone add a jazz noir feel to "Pt. 2." On "Pt. 4," Blackshaw pairs his guitar with a bassline and skeletal but noisy ambience. When the strings and brushed snare and vibes enter, the piece suggests harmonic extension, but though there is drama, it remains thematically tethered. The sublime interplay between flute and guitar on "Pt. 7" gives way to a unsettling, near rockist dissonance comprising electronics, bass, vibes, and drums in the subsequent section. The chiming E-Bow guitar on "Pt. 11" is underscored by processional drumming, middle-register piano, and tempered feedback. The elliptical strings that commence "Pt. 12" are gradually adorned with wonderfully unsettling sound design, creating a tension that is eventually replaced by an increased tempo, percussive aggression, minor-key modalism, and a snaky near-wailing alto in "Pt. 13." It suggests a cliffhanger for a finale, but concludes with a crash, followed by a near whisper. On 2009's Glass Bead Game, we heard bits and pieces that suggested Blackshaw was capable of a more expansive work, but nothing that hinted at the exquisite juxtaposition of tension, texture, tone, and harmonic color that Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat delivers.

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