(w/ Sigur Rós, Postminimalism)
In March 2013, my friend Steve bought us tickets to see Sigur Rós play in London. They played a set that reached lofty if inconsistent heights – at times transporting with brilliant melodic force, aided by an ingenious and huge dual projection system involving two screens, one behind the band and a second nearly transulecent, ulta-thin screen in front of them as they played, creating a stereoscopic depth-field for the projection of images and video, texturing the band in between.
And yet as can sometimes be the case, it was to some other extent that this screen setup most resonated with my friend and I, as we waited for quite some time before the band came to the stage.
Over the PA, a most unusual piece of music was playing, listening to which we could scarcely believe our ears. It consisted largely of a single looped refrain, lustrously textured and tape-caked with that warm and deep sound, two predominant notes sway back and forth amid a swirling chord wash of strings that stutter and crash before being born again. And yet everything is taking off – an upward tone-looping, spiralling scion of arrival and simultaneous escape – that sense of being bathed in the dawn light of another, different world than this.
I had previously listened to William Basinski’s Water Music II, entranced by its brilliance but also been wary of its sadness and though neither Steve nor I knew until later that this music coming over the PA was Basinski, its transcendent power for us was outstanding. As we were in this state of being sonically-transfixed, the stage in its emptiness – a vista of extraordinary possibility.
The opaque lighting, falling upon that gossamer screened emptiness created an eerie wall of fog effect of completely indeterminate depth. In fact the more one stared into it the deeper and more dense it became.
The overall effect was beguilingly oneiric, with a potent correspondence towards unhitching one’s perception (and sight) towards it.
A single red light shone in the ‘fog’, vaguely abstracted and yet also attached to some shape or outcrop – adding to the impression that we were seeing into the frontier of some strange and otherly phenomena, a conjured space of unknown dimension soundtracked and completely changed and transformaed in mystery and power by the music. We wove tales of the mystery of what we were seeing as if we were on a mountaintop, staring into a new and powerful mist suddenly gathered from over a valley or chasm. The red light assemblage was some kind of beacon marking the edge of the known, a way point to the unknown or else a lightstation-wayhouse, far out in the nearly indiscernable.
In terms of this music playing, utterly synergised with the experience of the anomalous fog, it was one of those moments, when you cannot believe that the human world has had a breakthrough, seen and accepted a simplicity of the magic of something. That the world has agreed and loves outwards enough to give you the gift of something you will love in the most propitious of circumstances. The profundity and brilliance of which you knew and felt instantly, here being experienced for the first time along with this unintentionally fecund tableau of full emptiness lit between two screens, inviting imagination and a kind of dreaming to take place, escorted affectively by Basinski’s piece D|P3, segueing all along towards the resonant silence of its eventual nothingness. It was fortuitous that Sigur Rós and their crew and designers would set up this space for dreaming before their show, whether intentionally or not became somehow irrelevant.
Soon after that gig, I have a CD of the Disintegration Loops album and come to understand more of what is involved. Basinski was coming across as a slightly-strangely adjuncted late emergence from some of the same interests and ideas that had driven the minimalism of the 60’s. Steve Reich’s seminal phasing tape experiments, or Terry Riley’s tape loops from Poppy No Good and the Phantom Band, the San Fransisco Tape Music Centre co-founded by Morton Subotnick and later to have Pauline Oliveros among others as its alumni (not to mention the tape based experiments of Stockhausen and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop).
Basinski’s method involved a tape loop, subjected to years of decay and dereliction to the point of reaching actual disintegration – an artistic act and installation that they should be played only once – to the point of their own material de-composition – arriving there through a process of being increasingly composed of greater and great interposing arrivals of space. These silences in the loop, impacting the refrain like ever expanding fugues that continue until silence is finally achieved and the piece is over, their magic now internalised to our wild, deep frequencies of being.
Within a couple of months, June of 2013, my friend Steve and I attended a london gig by Basinski at a venue (also a church) where in his headlining set, he’d conjured long and mesmeric tableaux that enchanted and deepened along their courses, looping and varying to produce what London Jazz news at the time suggested for one of his three pieces as an ‘ethereal quality with an hermetic warmth…’ It was not discerned by my friend or I how Basinski had been producing these sounds at the time, but it had been effective. The sense of a space that gifted something familiar, lovely and yet tellingly alien all at the same time.
And so to Thursday 9th of June and a concert with the London Contemporary Orchestra. My friend and I again to attend at the Barbican, the brutalist and striated high-brow living room of Empire. As he walks out into the impressively lit stage area, Basinski makes reference to the venue (and of course some masterieces of play and performance have taken place here). He also, as he approaches his tape station for the first half of tonight’s performance, informs us that there is a war coming and that it won’t be pretty – leaving us with the sense as to whether this is a prognosticator who reads our future demise?
It becomes clear at the end of this solo set from him, that he was referring to what he was attempting to undertake – recreating in some way the cycle to disintegration as he played and mixed old and varied loops live to create and re-create his release Lamentations (2020).
If it was a war then it wasn’t clear who if anyone had ended on the winning side.
The question of modern classical music’s engagement with experimentation is fascinating as in some respects there are desperately experimental and radical things afoot. One strand emerging continues classical’s work with electronic music. Although gigs and concerts have for me been still few and far between after Covid, my first return was when my friend (who’d picked up on the decription in one of their mail outs) arranged for us to see Robert Ames at the Royal Festival Hall in November ’21. The performance that evening featured music sumptuously played, composed and arranged with deft skill and faculty.
Although aside from either of Ames’s two performances that night (with larger and smaller ensembles), it felt somewhat like the show was stolen by violinist/composer and electronics player Galya Bisengalieva who worked alongside a live violinist to create a powerful and striking sonic storm that lulled and darted between vibrant textures and percussive forces. When one considers pieces such as Aralkum (below) it is not hard to imagine that Galya has and hopefully will continue to produce exceptional music.
There is a connection here, as Ames it was who conducted the second half of the evening’s performances at he Barbican, featuring The London Contemporary Orchestra and an arrangement of two of Basinski’s tape pieces from the Disintegration Loops; 1.1 and 3. It has not been evident from anything I have read as to whom undertook the arrangement, as it was conducted by Ames, it may have been himself. And yet by moving from tape to orchestral performance, there is something of the trajectory of some of these early luminaries of modern classical music’s minimalists.
As such, things start well, the arrangement uses two percussionists, each playinng vast orchestral bass drums, together these easily lend great subtlety and body to the piece. The fluffing and skittish, cloudy fluttering of the original recording is wonderfully reproduced as the skin of the drum is struck with two shakers, bringing to mind the deceptively innovative percussive sonics of Dirty Three’s Jim White.
The refrain of the loop itself in its clearly tonalised texture definitely approaches the strangely poised smooth judder of the recording of D|P1.1, the bass drum filling out the lower frequencies with conviction, swelling the emegent wholeness of the sound.
For Basinski’s recorded work of the Disaster Loops, reverb is especially important – it allows for the gaps which arise to be beathed into by the sound. To have these reverberant, living remembrances of themselves trailing off for a moment into the gap. This is the process of enlivening the space with the presence of that which has become absent. How this would impact live in the context of arranged orchestration was a definite question. And yet for D|P1 it seemed not to matter – the refraining of the loop itself sparked enough that its pertubation and disquiet moments come through with the nuanced arrangement as well balanced and tailed off or attacked onto – creating an overall that gave the sense that this piece could be the beginning of something powerful and fiercely beautiful – live performances that fired and flared into a form and force that could genuinely touch and move you. There was yet still a sense that we (or perhaps the pieces themsleves) hadn’t fully taken off – the sense of what might arise with the second performances was palpabale as D|P1 wound its way towards the fomrlessness of the void, growing outwards from insides devouring its sonic vestige into space. And so the performance of D|P1 held out, melting into the gaps – its raiment of wonder intact.
Somewhat strange then that D|P3 – through which my friend and I had been so magically inculcated at the Sigur Rós gig and again conducted (and potentially arranged by) Robert Ames – should fall so flat. Instantly, from the first iteration of the refrain, the sense of that overall cohesiveness within the sound as a whole is absent – too much music, tailed off by a curiously emaciated trombone, left with an irksom and kitchy motto at the tail of the refrain that will now stand out non-sequitor for most of the remainder of the piece as its performed.
For all that D|P1 had hinted at what might be possible with its coherence and lustrous voices – D|P3 instead became lost following a dissolute model of the wrong kind – meaning long before its phased sonic disintegration – it was already lacking that most critical of integrities; intensity itself. An ill equipped island it became.
This is not to say that in being an arrangement – it might not be quite faithful to the original recorded component’s of Basinski’s tape loops – but in effectively transcribing something that is fundamentally a sonic artifact – the life (unlife) of the piece in its most accretionary and sublime modes should be the guide for such an attempt. Something that apparently broke through with D|P1.1 more than it did D|P3.
What should remain in focus, what has come out of this for me is not the relative successes or not of these worthy performances inspired by Basinski’s tape work, but by the work itself. Even shorn of their state political gesture – imaging of its story – on a sonic level there remains something of extraordinary impact and moment in these works. Spiralling their own obviessence/obviation in a way that remains touched by the depths of tonal contact and expression, that carries and acknowledges mutliplicity in both formless and the formlessness – resonating through each other.