9/11 and all that’s been written and done since. The day that has most defined the 21st century so far, for certain, and one of the smallest, most insignificant of sub-plots, continues to mystify to this day. The ‘Disintegration Loops’ - the remastering of loops that disintegrated over 20 or so years to then be digitalized with the disintegration in tact - by William Basinski were famously listened to for the first time in a mastered format by Basinski and his friends on a terrace overlooking the momentous terrorist attack in New York that day. The music itself has proven seminal in modern ambient music, the aesthetic of pristine intentional loops crumbling and being subsumed by erosive time having its own poetic affect.
Pitchfork described the effect as akin to being returned to the womb in their original review at the time (to-date, one of the best reviews from the site before it became the megalith brand it is now). The link to 9/11, with the pixelated pictures of the emergent smoke that formed the LP covers of each of Basinski’s loops, somehow transcended this poetic beauty into something more, something more important. A recording (if that’s the right word) marvel in itself, it’s marginal role in a day of terror and tragedy served to transform this into one of the early artistic masterpieces of the 21st century.
Most of Basinski’s other work is overshadowed by the Disintegration Loops. The Melancholia loops possess their own eerie beauty and his latest work, Aurora Liminilis, has starry grandeur. Yet, the side-effect of a release as mysterious and seminal as the Disintegration Loops is that the rest of his oeuvre simply doesn’t have the same back-story, neither the poetic recording erosion nor the coincidental historic pertinence. Going to see Basinski at another of the fantastic sessions at St Johns Hackney Church, its impossible not to feel a respectful apprehension – he surely won’t play the work he’s ultimately renowned for because he’s had an extensive career either side, and yet, most people in attendance were probably there for reasons derived from listening to that one particular collection of loops, whose story will have affected them deeply.
Unless, of course you were there to see Fennesz, a man whose experimental sound production and innovative use of guitar looping has earned him much critical acclaim and importance despite lacking the largely accidental masterpiece of Basinski (nothing wrong with accidents by the way, just listen to Steve Reich’s Its Gonna Rain). Following the doom-ridden glitched loops of the impressive youngster Helm, Fennesz’s manipulation of drones and guitar was quite awe-inspiring. His music as a whole is shaped by a experimental transcendence that uses grating effects to create smoothly beautiful timbres. His track Circassian is amongst the most intensely beautiful instrumental pieces to be released in the 21st century, and behind it all is the innovative use of guitar feedback on show at St Johns.
Perhaps most impressive about Fennesz is the way he you can see the process of his transcendent loops unfold. Beginning with intense bass drones, he’ll play various guitar dits that seems incongruous atop the rumbling beneath, but as each brief riff is manipulated and looped quietly, a greater whirl of a more ineffable ambience emerges to subsume the accompanying bass. In essence, he is using the guitar to build wondrous timbres that are completely distinct and foreign to the original building-block riffs, and by doing so creates resonant ambient drone riffs with their own ungraspable melodies. Such is the mechanics of the process, the actual guitar input can at times sound a bit trite – simple guitar riffs which do not in themselves contribute to the more transcendent appeal of his music. But once the intended purpose of these riffs emerge, the effect is incredible.
It was a difficult act for Basinski to follow anyway, and considering Basinski’s music throughout his discography is shaped by a minimalism distinct from Fennesz’s complex use of feedback, he was going to have to rely on the harmony and beauty implicit within his already established loops to go anywhere near to recreating the aesthetic impeccability of the Disintegration Loops. As he came onto the stage, flamboyantly saluting the crowd with his huge blond hair, to sit down and essentially play two or three recorded loops interweaving at different points, there is little aesthetic force about Basinski’s June 2013 performance.
There were two major problems. Firstly, it was difficult to tell what he was actually doing. Sure he used his performer’s ear to decide when to interweave the different loops, but whereas Fennesz created these loops with exceptional and tangible musicianship, Basinski seemed as though he was just crossfading the loops. Sure many lower-rate DJs may essentially do this with dance tracks, but Basinski is neither low-rate nor was was he playing dance music. Secondly, the loops he played, though eerie at first – especially in combination with the looped images of a glowing moon behind dense clouds behind him – they really didn’t sustain any sort of attention and nor did they really go anywhere. Frustratingly, whenever the interaction between the different loops did look as though they were about to combine to go somewhere different, Basinski held back, and maintained the dissipating eeriness that had already occurred. Sure, it was probably a deliberate aesthetic tactic, but to the by now largely lethargic audience, it proved tiresome. As he ummed and ahhed and nodded to himself, it all felt a bit self-indulgent, loops for the sake of it, a beautiful ambience never really developing. But ultimately the loops didn’t possess the necessary aesthetic appeal inherent within them, as Melancholia or the Disintegration Loops do, on record at least.
What we effectively left St Johns Hackney with were examples of where ambient and experimental music can go right and can go wrong. With Fennesz we had extraordinarily innovative musicianship creating beautiful timbres distinct to what we are accustomed to hearing in most music. With Basinski, we had some rather boring notes plodding repetitively in a self-congratulatory manner.
Images: Bardino Myriam