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Blacklight Braille - Songs for the Longhaired Suns (1995)

Blacklight Braille is a large, amorphous “fringe rock” collective from Cincinnati, Ohio. They experiment with a wide variety of idioms, including rock, folk, jazz and Arthurian poetry. Thomas H. Owen Knight and Douglas Smith are the guiding lights of Blacklight Braille although there are usually up to ten musicians on the recordings who play a variety of traditional and non-traditional instruments.


The Joseph H. Patt Interview
(This interview first appeared in Clifton Magazine in the Winter of 1993. The text is from the original article. The images of the band have been added.- Tom Wulf, Blackmoon Webweaver)

Cincinnati's founding fathers of alternative rock are also Cincinnati's best kept secret. Joseph H. Patt talks to Blacklight Braille.

The percussionists of Blacklight Braille set themselves up in a circle. Congas, cowbell, and assorted hand drums march forth to the listener's ears and shower down in rhythmic melodic drops. Piano and harmonica join the sound orgy, creating a surrea l and intriguing musical assonance-

Juba this and Juba that.
Juba killed a yellow Cat.

chants Blacklight Braille lyricist and conceptual artist, Thomas H. Owen Knight.

This is fringe rock as created by Cincinnati-based Blacklight Braille. Sitting on his porch, sixtyish Owen Knight discusses Blacklight Braile and the term fringe rock over a few glasses of blackberry wine.

He describes fringe rock as "Music created by rock musicians, yet not quite meeting the classical definition of rock' n' roll. It differs to the degree that it might be said to fall within in entirely different location, fringe rock. When we started, we were doing a music that was so far out on the fringe that the beauties were cryptic or hidden." "It is highly improvisational music created with the available technology, and it searches for new and different musical instruments and sounds," adds Doug Smith, musical visionary and co-pmducer of Blackight Braille. "You can't dance to it, but it does have elements of rock music."

Knight and Smith are the guiding lights of Blacklight Braille although there are usually up to ten musicians on the recordings who play a mind-boggling variety of traditional and non-traditional instruments. Aside from the standard rock set up of drums, bass, and guitar there are assorted brass, woodwinds, and elaborate synthesi zers. Beyond that, even, Blacklight Braille makes use of "instruments' that most people wouldn't normally include in their definition of music: aluminum pots, glass bowls, new-year's noisemaker, tortoise shell, bones, lawn mower, and metal saw.

Knight sits on the porch, musing on, the past. He remembers the young girl whose father once played the saw in the Grand Ole Opry and how this introduced him to the saw as a musical instrument when he was a child in Rockville, Maryland.

"She was a very pretty girl," he recalls. It is memories of these that help to inspire him; memories of the Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British and Appalachian folk songs he sang with his grandmother: as a child in the late 1920s and early '1930s.

"It is the area of the Scotland Highlands that Tom (Owen) celebrates with his voice," says Smith. 'The 6/8 meter dance tunes. The Druid is definitely in him."

It could be said that to trace the origins of Blacklight Braille one must go back to Knight's childhood when he sing these songs. One could also go back to the 1950s when Smith was a child making tape recordings of his voice, which he would eventually use in an electronic music performance at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1980. But to find the ultimate origin of Blacklight Braille one must consider the origins of rock n' roll which, according to Knight, date to the ancient past of the Africans, Native Americans, and to more recent past of the Appalachians and their music.

Smith recalls his first meeting with Knight at the aforementioned CAC performance in 1980. "He tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would like to help him with some music he was writing. "He was a real mystery to me, so 'I asked around about him and some people told me he was a poet, and they told me about Bitter Blood Street Theatre."

Bitter Blood Street Theatre was a local psychedelic rock outfit of the late 60s and early 70s that incorporated the 'Theater of the Absurd' into their live performances. These live performances took place in what could be called the underground scene aro und town, but they often performed in some unusual Settings like the Friar's Club, St.Bartholomew and La Salle high schools, Xavier University, and the amphitheatre in Eden Park. Knight was a member of Bitter Blood along with Richard Von Nida (guitar), Wi ll 'Keb Jar' Wood (bass), Luther Lindenschmidt (percussion), and Patrick McMahon (flute, harmonica. saxophone, keyboards, and percussion). These musicians not only performed as Bitter Blood, bur they also went on to form the core of Blacklight Braille.

Blacklight Braille might not exist today if Bitter Blood's history had been written differently. In 1973 Columbia records approached Bitter Blood and wanted to sign them up as 'a masked theatre band.' Other so-called "masked theatre bands, such as Alice Cooper and KISS, were forming throughout the country. According to local legend, Alice Cooper lived for a time in Cincinnati in the Clifton area. It is possible they were influenced by Bitter Blood. Knight says that Bitter Blood used masks in one perfo rmance that looked strangely similar to the characters that KISS would later paint on their faces. Knight speculates these details as a sort of spiritual coincidence in a world and time when the creativity of individuals reverberates throughout the unive rse influencing others.

The Columbia executive who was to sign Bitter Blood was fired the very same day the signing was to take place and the deal fell through. Knightt sees this as a major contributing factor to the breakup of Bitter Blood Blood Street Theatre. In 1975, the band released a single independently and then split up. From the surviving demo, tapes (some were destroyed in a fire at the Fifth Floor Recording Studio), Knight assembled two volumes of Bitter Blood's material on vinyl in 1978.

In the early 70s, while Bitter Blood was at its peak. Smith was performing the very first electronic music recitals at CCM. He jokes that his electronic recitals were very well-recieved, but were not well understood. Smith occasionally coll aborated with avant-garde musicians such as Laurie Anderson. He was also a student at CCM and a touring pianist and musical director, as well as operating an electronic music boutique in Clifton. Due to his, cIassical background, he had never considered himself a rock musician; it was his work in electronic music that drew him to Blacklight Braille. Yet he did not leave behind his classical influence when he started working with Knight in 1980.

Knight is drawn to the sounds of the past as well. "I utilize traditional material," he explains, "putting it in my own words and form." Knight recites or chants lyrics rather than actually singing them. For him they contain the spirit of the past, revised and incorporated into the music in such a way that they have a unique new meaning. "In my original songs, I'm trying for my own version of folk material, such as the 'Greet the Fool' album which is basically constructed around the ancient celebrations of the Yule." When Knight gathered the material for the Bitter Blood albums and released them in 1978, an interest in the group was rekindled. The original intent of Blacklight Braille was to record songs that weren't fully realized by Bitter Blood.

"Tom (Owen) was not in charge of Bitter Blood," says Smith. "He couldn't get a lot of his concepts recorded, so he formed Blacklight Braille."

"I realized I couldn't do it myself," Knight admits, "so I introduced myself to Doug and asked if he would help me attain the sound I was looking for."

Smith brought longtime associate Arthur Montgomery, a classical tympani player, into the fold. Knight heard a demo tape of a band whose sound interested him. He asked them to contribute to the project, and since then Bill Cordray (guitar), Sam Cordmy (d rums), Michael Barrett (bass, now playing with the Modulators), and Wayne Hartman (pedal steel guitar), along with the Bitter Blood musicians, have participated on each of the eleven recordings.

"We're all a bit surprised that it's still going," says Smith. "It was originally only intended to be a project to record (The Electric Canticles of the Blacklight Braille) in 1980. But as long as Tom (Owen) is living we will be recording.' Th e recent Dietle's Tavern CD is a compilation of songs from all of the Braille albums. 'Those are the songs we would play if we were younger and roaring around playing places," says Knight. "But we're of an older, semi--retired generation." Yet Blacklight Braille is undoubtedly the most prolific band in the area when it comes to recording and releasing new material. They produce an album a year on the average. For each record they release, a thousand copies are printed and sent to radio stat ions around the world and to record stores across the country. Recently, Knight finished mastering five CD compilations of the Braille's past vinyl recordings. A CD of new material, Sea Change, was finished in the autumn and should be in area record sto res soon.

On the back of their fifth album, The Carmarthan Album, these words appear: "With this album, with much sadness, we bid farewell to our dear friend, Arthur L. Montgomery." Montgomery was killed in a car accident on the Pennsylvania turnpike in 1988 . On the 1991 release, The White Hill Album, the song "Out of the Stars She Came with the Wind of all Winds" was based on a poem written by Arthur Montgomery.

Smith remembers recording the song. "I had that song in me for quite a while. It sounded like something Art would write. I started playing the song and Tom (Owen) started reading a poem written by Art. I didn't even know he was going to read this p articular poem in the song. I wonder if Art didn't spiritually write the song."

Such possibilities are not out of the realm of magic and mysticism that surrounds Blacklight Braille's work. Their songs often deal with dream-like otherworlds of myth and folklore, such as the King Arthur legends, not to mention the otherworld of death, as expressed in the song Wind Tossed Shadows:

There will come a windy day when I shall turn a shade of grey
Blowing winds will shake my tree, wish wish and l'll be free.
When you see my shadow pass don't turn down an empty glass.

Knight explains the last line: "I wanted to point our not quite the sentiments of Omar Khayyam, who said we should turn down an empty glass as a libation for the dead. Instead, mine should have a little something in it."

So, to Arthur Montgomery a glass is turned down with a few drops of blackberry wine still lingering on the bottom. The wine flows down the clear edge of the glass and coolly settles on the table, looking not unlike blood.

"If Art hadn't been killed we may have done more live shows," says Knight. "He had a very colorful set up with his sculpture of percussion. Actually, all the members of Blacklight Braille are colorful performers; Doug with his tree of keyboard s, Luther with his percussion tree, and Patrick with his various flutes and percussion." He pauses. "If there is one thing I regret, it's that we've only played one live performance. It's just so hard to get everyone together at one time. But th ere are hopes for the future."

Smith recalls the aforementioned performance. "It sounded mostly like Bitter Blood, but it got pretty wild and eventually it ended up sounding like nothing. The roles in a live performance aren't defined. We're just used to recording and performing in the studio."

Some of the small, decaying, ambient sounds heard on Braille recordings would be lost in a live setting. Other sounds from the environment that they incorporate into their music would be impossible to recreate live. Take, for example, 'Rain Swept Hills' from 1980s The Electric Canticles of the Blacklight Braille. They recorded it on an 8-track in engineer Dan Murphy's basement, the birthplace of Group Effort Studios, where Braille does all their recording. There was a rainstorm churning outside, so th ey opened the door and Montgomery improvised on the timpani along with the storm. It is hard to distinguish between the thunder and his timpani. The storm stopped as Smith began exploring with the piano. Crickets reveal their own song as the rain ends and Smith's piano fades out. The rain and the crickets became members of Blacklight Braille, nature fused with recording technology.

Such classical, symphonic pieces on side two of The Electric Canticles are juxtaposed with the sounds of electronic music and the background noise of the Sargent Tool and Manufacturing Company on the first side. Metal drills, metal saws, grinder claw ham mers, lathes and punches, along with various synthesizers, create an industrial symphony. The motif of the fusion of tradition with experimentation in Blacklight Braille's music is established on the first record, which Knight calls his favorite.

Smith explains, "I can't avoid form, coming from a strict classical background, but I've always been interested in people making music with washing machines. I was specifically looking for that kind of thing as a musical source."

Smith says that about 80 percent of the music is improvised. Knight sets up a studio date and tells the other musicians to be thinking of things they would like to express musically. "I tell them what I'm looking for and we work it out in the studio, " says Knight. "We don't practice ahead of time because we all know each other so well when it comes to music."

Knight feels that writing out the music on staff paper doesn't always work for the modern concept of music. "Texture and sounds are so important. They come to me from the environment." Knight stops and listens to the sounds travelling to the por ch. The sound of the cracker he breaks and holds in his palm, the obligatory dogs, screaming children, and high-revved cars are no longer everyday noises, but are elevated to high, sonic art. "For instance, every walk around the block will give you s ound combinations and exciting textures and balances in sound and silence. It is very exciting if people would only listen for them. When I go to work out material in the studio, I remember the sounds I found intriguing in my walk and I take them into t he studio, whether on a tape or just their influence on me."

Knight pauses, listening, thinking. "I've never really thought of myself as a musician. I've never had the time or the patience to become technically proficient at any instrument. I look for ways that things are not done, but I try to keep within the boundaries or requirements for what is considered art. I'm in the field of creativity, and my job as creator is to steer between what is so obvious that it has been done already and what is so abstract that it approaches formlessness." (source)

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