William Basinski: Union Chapel Session

Spaced-out sounds

‘Like two black holes fucking’. Those were the choice words William Basinski, sporting a pair of seriously cool aviators and looking very debonair in a tight-fitting, sequined black jacket, used to describe the central, fundamental theme of his new, forty-five minute work, On Time Out of Time. Basinski took to the stars, using exclusive recordings from The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory to shape ambient of seismic magnitude; another corner of the cosmos speaking, through music, to the universe at large.

The main motif revolved around the very real sound of two black holes colliding, a light, tinny clicking noise followed by an ominous reverberation which boomed out horizontally, resonating like thunder on a distant gas giant; something so gigantic in scope as to be incomprehensible. It sucked in great gasps of air and then expelled it back out into the chapel in a series of tight, looped sequences and regular intervals. Flanked by a row of lit candles and engulfed in a tide of red smoke, which lay suspended in the ether like the dust of a fallen star in an ancient constellation, Basinski’s music was immeasurably powerful; here’s hoping for a physical release.

The reverberation seemed to be the alpha and the omega, indicating something gigantic, inhaling space and then exhaling the breath of the stars back out into the void. A detonation, a collapse, the crushing asphyxiation of life. The uncaring devouring by something strong, relentless, and inescapable. This coalesced with thin slivers of stretched ambient light. The distant echoes of space seemed to breathe out from a central point: the stage, which morphed into a living, breathing organism beyond anything previously imagined.

Vaguely romanticized melodies began to emerge – single lines that stretched out at the speed of light, travelling through the black gulf – and the thin spokes of stage lighting seemed to represent that, travelling vast distances on their voyage through the depths of space. Those melodies were very much in keeping with Basinski’s style, a trademark fragility and a sound focused as much on entropy and decay as it was on the fullness of life. Drifting through time, the music segued slowly into other parts, feeling like three distinct and yet interconnected sections to a single long-form piece. The middle section walked a familiar line in its drifting ambient, bringing to mind the thin layers of Silent Night (2004). Basinski has been known to recycle and re-contextualize some of his older loops and segments – most recently, the technique has featured on 2017’s A Shadow In Time, which brought back the aching heart of his crushing record, Melancholia.

The latter section included brighter, more radiant sounds which then shifted, turning ominously sour as a major chord fell into disorientating territory. Towards the end, he began to stand up in front of his set-up, seemingly transfixed by the music. A long, slow fade-out left only the click of one black hole devouring another, and in any other sense, this would have been a thoroughly anticlimactic sound. Instead, it was an amazing capture, a sound of massive significance. The space-age music was in keeping with the dark somnambulant stars, accepting and surrendering to its ultimate fate – what can you do when you’re being ripped apart by a black hole? Nothing, pretty much – with total acquiescence.


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