Nathan Chadwick explains why he loves the music of the tape loop genius, and why you should too.
Life is a set of ever-disintegrating loops.
Think about that for a second.
How many times have you recalled something, that you know to be true, but have had it contradicted by someone who was also there? Have you ever picked up a relic from your youth – an old toy, a record you’ve not heard in years – only for it to be somewhat alien to the ‘truth’ of your memory?
As for our lives, what are they but collections of mini loops wrapped around our core, swaying this way and that as we stumble around trying to work out what the point is, and what we’re meant to be doing from one moment to the next?
Each day that passes, each hour that trickles by, each moment that is consigned to history and each second that evaporates, we are all dying, disintegrating. This could be self-inflicted, genetic or mere bad luck. Fact is we’re all circulating a racetrack with the same chequered flag in our destinies.
The music of William Basinski echoes those themes, both in technique (more on that later) and in tone. His beautifully observed ambient swathes mirror the human condition; hope and melancholy, memories and futures, all together and yet set apart.
Much like the vast canvases of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, to the uninitiated William Basinksi’s music is simplistic, “just the same thing over and over again”. What makes the relationship between Rothko and Basinski’s compositions so cohesive is that these very “criticisms” are what makes both so powerfully emotive.
Mark Rothko once said: “I'm not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on...The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them.''
The more you listen to Basinski’s music, the deeper it pulls you in, the more it reveals of itself – and the more it reveals of you too. Each strip that is pulled back reveals new elements of sound to explore, much in the same way that getting up close to a Rothko reveals ever-more intricate brushstrokes.
Because it is so minimalist, it forces you to think for yourself, rather than be dictated to; and that’s an interesting, innovative and somewhat subversive thing these days. After all, is it best to submerge that emotional void at the core of your being under forced grins, backed up by over indulgence in social lubrication and conspicuous consumption, or is it better to confront your demons and battle them thoughtfully?
Each passing loop provides a link to a disintegrating memory, a musing on what could have been, a reflection of a future that you remember. Alternatively, it could be a projected image of a long-gone loved one’s face that’s becoming trickier to remember. It could be anything, but something private that you keep locked away.
Some people may write it off as depressing. But look at it this way, if you face off against the dark, at the end you come back into the light. And that is the true power of Basinski’s music.
Basinski started making music in the 1970s, but only started to get success in the late Nineties. He’d been part of New York’s art and music scene for some time before that too, but it was in that very city, on a certain day in September 2001, that things moved on apace.
William had spent the summer digitising ambient compositions found on some old tape reels. The magnetic tape had been so ravaged by time that as it moved past the tape head, the ferrite was scratched from the plastic backing and fell off. Thus each time the loop went over, it was unique. Each loop was the sound of music being destroyed.
On the morning of September 11, William put the finishing touches to the project, just as the Twin Towers collapse. He and his friends then relocated to his apartment’s roof, and played the loops repeatedly as the world they once knew disappeared into the sky, wound up in thick black smoke. He recorded the last hour of daylight to video and set it to the track d|p 1.1; a documentary on the final throes of perhaps a more innocent age.
Further releases on Raster Notion and his own label, 2062, have since cemented his position as one of the leading ambient artists of our time, and his influence can be felt across the musical spectrum, from folk artists to dubstep and beyond. William’s new album, Nocturnes, was released in May. The title track is a dark, suspenseful piece taken from piano work done during Basinski’s 1979-1980 period. It’s a wonderful, shimmering confrontation with your darker, nervous and twitchier side. Driving across an anonymous city, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those pitch-black alleys you see drifting by, with all the tales they could tell.
William’s performing in London on June 27, along with Fennesz and Helm, at St John at Hackney. See here for more details: http://stjohnsessions.co.uk/
Check out William’s music at www.mmlxii.com and https://soundcloud.com/williambasinski.
William Basinski’s music is very personal; you either get it or you don’t. For many the idea of an hour’s worth of the ‘same’ loop will have all the appeal of a cyanide-flavoured marinade. But for those that take the time to delve into this music, the rewards are profound and truly great.
As Mark Rothko once opined: “Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”
Photo Credit: Peter J. Kierzkowski C. 2008