William Basinski

(Copyright © 1999-2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use)
Variations - A Movement in Chrome Primitive (2002), 6/10
A Red Score in Tile (2003), 6/10
Shortwave Music (1998), 7.5/10
The River (2002), 7/10
Melancholia (2003), 6/10
Watermusic (2001), 6.5/10
Watermusic II (2003), 6/10
The Disintegration Loops (2003), 7.5/10
William Basinski + Richard Chartier (2004), 6.5/10
Silent Night (2004), 6/10
The Garden of Brokenness (2006), 6.5/10
Variations For Piano And Tape (2006), 6.5/10
El Camino Real (2007), 6/10
Nocturnes (2013) , 5/10
Aurora Liminalis (2013), 6.5/10
Divertissement (2015), 7.5/10
Cascade (2015), 5/10
Deluge (2015), 6/10
A Shadow in Time (2017), 6/10
Selva Oscura (2018), 5/10
On Time Out Of Time (2019), 5/10
Lamentations (2020), 5/10
Hymns Of Oblivion (2020), 5/10
Something From The Pink House (2020), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

William Basinski (Houston, 1958), raised in Dallas, a classically-trained clarinetist and saxophonist, and a fan of the new wave and punk-rock of the late 1970s, moved to San Francisco in 1978 with his partner, the artist James Elaine. There he fell under the influence of John Cage, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno. In 1980 the couple moved to New York.

Basinski began by experimenting with compositions for piano and tape that created a melancholy ambience via looped and overdubbed melodies, for example, Variations - A Movement in Chrome Primitive (1980), released on Variations - A Movement in Chrome Primitive (Durtro, 2002 - Die Stadt, 2004). The "movement" actually consists of eight "movements". Each is a simple loop with no static noise: a muffled piano sonata (the first), a frenzied minimalist pattern (the second), a music-box refrain (the third). The fifth is the one that "disintegrates": its humble piano loop interacts with a field of electronic noise and eventually succumbs to it. The electronic field is protagonist also in the seventh piece: a loud rumble comes and goes behind the limping piano phrase.

A Red Score in Tile (1979), released on A Red Score in Tile (3 Poplars, 2003) was even more austere. The undulating and warped sustained tones of its infinite loop evoke a muffled jam of cool jazz by a piano-based drum-less combo superimposed to the recording of marbles rolling down a viscous surface. The implementation was still a bit too simplistic to fully deliver the power of Basinski's vision.

Shortwave Music (1982), some of which appear on Shortwave Music (Noton, 1997 - 2062, 2007), processed and assembled snippets of radio broadcasts to produce atmospheres at the border between musique concrete and ambient music. Evening Scars emanates a stream of vibrations that sound both ominous and cryptic, a meeting of Brian Eno and Pierre Henry. The sinister hissing and grating of Cobalt Pools is even more intimidating and sci-fi, while the sense of suspense and horror peaks in Fringe Area, industrial music for zombies in death factories. The 24-minute On A Frontier Of Wires sounds like the coupling of a field recording of crickets and a pastoral flute melody that gets slowly submerged by cosmic radiations; a symphony of angelic trumpets and hellish embers. These pieces employ the looping technique in a more melodramatic manner, allowing sounds to emerge and to fade away so as to create a narrative of sorts. The CD reissue appends a fifth piece, Particle Showers, an abstract soundpainting of even harsher dissonance. By the standards of his ambient works, this was heavy-metal music.

The River (1983), collected on the double-disc The River (Noton, december 2002 - Musex International, 2008), was the most mature expression of his "shortwave music", an eerie symphony of musique concrete. Its core is a sleepy loop of chirping and snoring androids in a field of electromagnetic shocks. The background sounds like swarms of little mechanical insects eroding sheets of radioactive material. The lead instrument is a slow melodic pulsation. The clangor is even more "industrial" in the second part, a melodic undercurrent replaces that pulsation. The combined effect is to create an almost epic pathos. As it dissolves into languid siren-like drones and dub-like reverbs, the piece becomes more of a wall of abstract noise than a "musical" composition. A psychedelic quality emerges: voices appear and disappear; mindblowing drones blow from all directions; echoes chant shamanic formulas.

Melancholia (Durtro, 2003 - 2062, 2005) collects more loop-based vignettes from the 1980s, closer in feeling and scope to Erik Satie and Brian Eno.

During the 1980s, Basinski often played saxophone during multimedia performances, and was a member of the Gretchen Langheld Ensemble, which later evolved into House Afire. In 1989 he opened his own loft for the creative arts, nicknamed "Arcadia". Throughout the 1990s he refined his song-cycle Hymns of Oblivion. In 1997, Basinski launched his performance-art act Beautifying America. He also formed the electronic ensemble Life on Mars. Basinski has also created videos and films, notably the "ambient film" Fountain (2000).

Watermusic (2062, 2001) was the archetype of his subsequent shimmering, lulling, gentle ambient music for electronic keyboards, later continued on Watermusic II (Durtro, 2003). Instead of "disintegration loops", water music is softly and slowly tonal music for the Voyestra synthesizer that juxtaposes a delicate droning melody and a dissonant burping pattern, and intertwines them in an endless dance of loops. The second volume has a stronger and more dynamic melodic voice, akin to the timbre of a church organ, while the burping pattern remains the anchoring element. Thus revamped, this "Water Music" sounds like a slow-motion version of Terry Riley's Persian Surgery Dervishes. Eventually this organ-like melody kills the dissonance and soars to a solo finale.

The four volumes of The Disintegration Loops (Musex, 2002-2003) are just that: loops of tapes that disintegrated during the recording process. Basinski adds a melodic commentary on the synthesizer, and turns them into symphonies that evolve in a predictable but highly emotional manner. The effect of the one-hour long DP 1.1, akin to a solemn requiem march that is slowly reduced to a drumbeat, is mesmerizing and opened new avenues to minimalism. This constituted the crowning achievement of the techniques first experimented with Variations. DP 1.2 takes the same mournful melodic pattern used at the beginning of DP 1.1 and basically sets it to "automatic repeat". By just delaying that pattern a bit and emphasizing the contrasting notes, DP 1.3 is the piece that most obviously evokes waves endlessly washing ashore. What was obscure in DP 1.1 and menacing in DP 1.2 becomes calm and humane in DP 1.3. DP 2.1 and DP 2.2 unleash a volley of galactic drones that decay into a brittle battle call. The 42-minute DP 3 targets a majestic choral-like aria that disintegrates into bursts of static noise. DP 4 begins stuttering and noisy, and only gets worse along the way until you only hear scratching and popping noises. The less extreme 52-minute DP 5 mauls a celestial new-age hymn although it does not completely erase it (and it is therefore less powerful than the others). The 40-minute DP 6 sounds like an accelerated version of DP 1.3's tranquil waves equipped with a percussion-like countercurrent that actually hints at a different melody. All these pieces feel a little like being hypnotized by ocean waves and slowly being lulled into oblivion (blurred vision and eventually just another world with distant echoes of the real one).

His collaboration William Basinski + Richard Chartier (Spekk, 2004 - Line, 2008) is one of his most subtle works. The music defies Physics, evolving while it hardly changes at all: subconscious listening at its most ethereal. The first part grows slowly over the course of 21 minutes but remains fundamentally shapeless: a shadow without a body. The microscopic events that create the illusion of life remain embedded in the quantum lattice, below the threshold of human experience. It feels a bit like listening to the sea inside a shell. Whatever it is, it is rarefied and unbound, an echo of a large and concrete mass of vibrations. The second part (36 minutes) is unusually eerie and sensible. Basinski rarely leaves this much substance in his compositions. This one feels like the light of a shimmering rotating object, emanating in all directions, broadcasting to the universe its constant motion. The effect on the ears and the mind is similar to cosmic music. As the radiation deteriorates, its wavering notes feel like star dust drifting into gravity-less empty space. Each speck emits a slight tremor. Their cumulative effect is one of peaceful resignation to meaninglessness.

Still zigzagging between reissues of his old "tape & loop" constructions and his new ambient soul, Basinski achieved the celestial sound of Silent Night (2062, 2004), a gentle composition for synthesizer melody and crickets that has little in common with Basinski's old aesthetics and more in common with Harold Budd.

Basinski's romantic soul surfaced again with the 50-minute ambient sonata for piano and distortion The Garden of Brokenness (2006). The music is created by the interference between the two threads: the looped piano melody (worthy of the romantic sonatas) and the stream of black noise. The result is one of his most serene and optimistic works. Sometimes the blurred nebula of noise prevails and drowns the delicate piano notes, and sometimes the piano stands out alone, and sometimes both sounds are muffled and merge into one. If previous works focused on music that was "decaying", this one seems to focus on music that is being born.

The 44-minute Variation #9: Pantelleria on Variations For Piano And Tape (2062, 2006) is Basinski's most faithful interpretation of Brian Eno's ambient music, except that, of course, the process used to create the piece of music is exactly the opposite: deconstruction instead of construction of a looping form of music.

El Camino Real (2007), recorded live, was a 50-minute static composition, a loop of a dense cluster in which the electronically filtered noise creates a mirage of winds and voices.

92982 (Musex International, 2009), recorded in september 1982, documents his "sloppy" ambient music before the "disintegration loops".

Vivian & Ondine (2062, 2009) documents a live performance of September 2008.

Aurora Liminalis (Line, 2013), the second collaboration between William Basinski and Richard Chartier, is a 44-minute composition for drones and natural sounds: a slow 17-minute crescendo that slowly reveals the elements of the mix, then a roaming buzz for 11 minutes that seems to be searching for something in a dark forest, then a denser and more sinister vibration envelops the landscape, but at the 33-minute mark the natural sounds start prevailing, although slowly processed into an otherworldly hiss. The composition feels like a panoramic 360-degree view of the world around the composers, and, in terms of quality of sound, this is an impressive achievement.

Nocturnes (2062, 2013) is mainly devoted to the archival Nocturnes (1980), an austere 41-minute composition for prepared piano and tape, but it also contains a new composition, the 28-minute The Trail Of Tears (2009), a loop that seems to accelerate until it dissolves the original pattern so that the last nine minutes are basically a different composition (probably a piece that deserved to be left over).

Divertissement (Important, 2015) was another collaboration with Richard Chartier. It basically starts where the previous one left off, a gentle hissing amid night jungle sounds, a night haunted by mysterious voices and temple chimes. The background vibration grows in intensity and swallows the whole landscape. We quickly enter the depths of a black hole, which by the 20-minute mark has become nothing more than a massive rumble. At that point a new vibration enters the landscape, a sign of life hailing from a distant galaxy. A form of life intones a monologue that is a mix of videogame noise, radio interference, and old-fashioned musique concrete before the final cosmic apotheosis of soaring drones. It is not only one of Basinski's most description and cinematic compositions, but also the closest thing to a symphony he has recorded. The credit, obviously, must go to Chartier, who keeps Basinski from indulging in his sadistic tape-loop games.

Cascade (2062, 2015) contains the 40-minute piano loop Cascade, or better "piano loops" because the piece is a dialogue between two interlocked piano loops. For 33 minutes it is difficult to find any nuance in this dialogue, and it feels like a mathematical formula that keeps repeating itself on an infinite blackboard. Then suddenly the "music" decays and slowly dissolves. It is certainly not his most creative piece, and, on record, it lacks the emotional power of the live performance (with projections by his wife).

The Deluge (Temporary Residence, 2015) is mainly devoted to the 20-minute tape-loop composition The Deluge: the piano loop of Cascade is gradually modified in a sea of reverbs and echoes until (about midway) it becomes a dense chaotic knot, and then it reverse itself all the way to oblivion. The album also includes an eleven-minute excerpt of Cascade. For some reason Basinski decided to include a brief, crackling, symphonic intermezzo, The Deluge Denouement, as if played by an old short-wave radio.

A Shadow in Time (Temporary Residence, 2017) contains two compositions. The disintegration loop of 23-minute synthesizer meditation A Shadow in Time, ostensibly a requiem for a friend who committed suicide, unwinds a seductive nebula that after 15 minutes folds into a cold lugubrious wind. It is one of his most organic and cohesive compositions, and also one of the most accessible, closer to new-age music than to Eno's original ambient manifestos. For David Robert Jones, ostensibly a tribute to David Bowie, is instead a confused piece, probably a leftover.

Selva Oscura (Temporary Residence, 2018) documents a collaboration with Lawrence English.

The 39-minute composition of On Time Out Of Time (Temporary Residence, 2019) . abandons tape loops for a more conventional cosmic exploration. It is rather uneventful.

The twelve Lamentations (Temporary Residence, 2020) are a minor work. Only O My Daughter O My Sorrow, with the "lamenting" voices buried deep into the mix, works well. The 11-minute All These Too I I Love and its appendix Please This Shit Has Got to Stop are amusing experiments of "disintegration loops" for skipping vinyl record, but nothing groundbreaking.

Basinski finally released, after about 30 years, the Hymns Of Oblivion (2020), a collection of melancholy gothic music.

Something From The Pink House (2020) is a live recording of a private improvisation at his home with Richard Chartier.

(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use)
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