In the late seventies, inspired by the work of John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno, William Basinski started experimenting with reel-to-reel tape recorders and developed alternative playing techniques using only small loops of tape and feedback devices...
He based his musical vocabulary on chance and repetition and explored radically new ways of combining and arranging looped audio fragments until they worked as singular compositions. Dusty pianos, hazy orchestral recordings or spectral shortwave radio transmissions often served as raw material used in such early experimentations and whilst being processed through the prism of tape and iron oxide they often turned into phantomatic reflections and disembodied ghosts of their former selves, something that would eventually become the trademark sound of William Basinski’s music. At the time and throughout the eighties and nineties, his palimpsest-like experimentations with tape loops sounded like nothing else and very few people realised the importance of his work and the singularity of his vision. His very first album ‘Shortwave Music’ was released by Carsten Nicolai in 1998 on Raster-Noton, and yet it took another 5 years and the release of the Disintegration Loops in 2002-2003 before his music started gaining critical acclaim. In the last 10 years, the career of William Basinski has grown steadily and he’s released about 20 albums (mostly on his own imprint 2062) that have often but not always originated from his old catalogue of experimentations.
‘Nocturnes’, the first track on Basinski’s eponymous album, is one of those very early pieces and as such it demonstrates the depth and originality of his early compositional methods. As they most likely informed all of his subsequent work, listening to ‘Nocturnes’ sheds a fascinating light onto Basinski’s entire release catalogue. The melancholy, sadness and beauty that has since defined his work were already all here in ‘Nocturnes’ but present in a more elemental and raw form. Compared to vast and expansive sounding records such as The Disintegration Loops or Vivian&Ondine, ‘Nocturnes’ feels more private, enigmatic and introvert. It might be due in part to the reduced sound palette used at the time of the composition (mostly prepared piano) and the absence of artificial reverb heard in many subsequent records. For ‘Nocturnes’, Basinski produced his tones and textures by cutting off the attack or recording only the sustain of the notes, so he could later arrange those elemental fragments into loops to form a virtually infinite composition – the piece lasts only 41 min but finds fascinating new meanings when played for extended periods, as time itself starts to disintegrate and the music becomes something else altogether. The main piano loops collapse onto one another so their friction imbues the music with an elemental tension and a sense of space, whilst underneath the surface secondary loops are mixed at the threshold of perception. In the process, they invite the ear to come closer and listen through the cracks and interstices of the music to discover shadows of notes and remnants of tones. As the loops fold back upon themselves, new details are reveal upon each iteration. In a way, this work recalls Brian Eno’s early experiments with MIDI loops. If the surface of music in ‘Nocturnes’ appears almost static, in reality, new forms and shapes constantly emerge from the interplay between loops as various melodic elements come in and out of focus throughout the piece. As in ‘Music for Airports’, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere and weightlessness but Basinski’s piece is nonetheless substantially different from Eno’s endless deambulations. The elemental material used here is rather spectral and enigmatic and gives the track an emotional heft that conjures subtle feelings of quiet suffering and resigned solitude that go unresolved throughout the piece.
The second track, ‘The Trail of Tears’, feels almost like a B side that strongly contrasts with ‘Nocturnes’, both in atmosphere and compositional development. It’s a very recent piece based on delay and feedback loop experiments made around 2009. It was used in Robert Wilson’s opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, that was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. The piece itself follows a more circuitous path than ‘Nocturnes’ and sees elemental loops dying away in a cloud of hazy delays and vapourous textures. The dissolution of repetitive melodic elements gives the piece an enveloping sense of depth and dimension: amid the amorphous sonic fragments softly undulating, the loops become barely recognisable – as if burning from the inside – and seem to vapourise in the aether, the music eating away at itself in an act of self-cannibalism, until literally remains a trail of tears. The final movement featuring heavy sheets of strings, perhaps more in the vein of Basinski’s precedent albums, turns the piece into a transcendental affair that is engulfing in its scope and devastating in its emotional impact. So much weight is conveyed with so little, just an hazy orchestral loop that repeats seemingly endlessly until it dies away, slowly swallowed into the vortex of silence.
Nocturnes as an album is a fascinating reflection on William Basinski’s 30-years long career and it bridges the gap between its early and solitary experimentations with tape machines and his more recent work often carried out in collaboration with other artists or made within a larger artistic context. The space that exists between the two compositions featured on the record embodies the slow and formidable transformation that his music has followed over this time period. In the process, Basinski himself has become one of most interesting experimental musician in activity and his ever expanding release catalogue continues to branch out in many directions whilst staying anchored to his original musical vision.
* Photo by Bardino Myriam