William Basinski

A Red Score In Tile (reissue)

Through hideous circumstance, William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, the first batch of which were released in 2002, came to be viewed as an abstract eulogy for the victims of 9/11. The sounds were hewn from decades old spools of tapes that were literally decaying, and these real time erosions soundtracked Basinski’s disbelief as he watched New York implode from his rooftop apartment in Brooklyn; like the fabric of the city itself, the composer’s pieces were crumbling. Inevitable metaphors duly fostered, Basinski would occasionally be hailed as a sort of postmodern sacred minimalist, an exemplar of how cathartic art can overcome tragedy. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that The Disintegration Loops were cast as a sort of underground reboot of The Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. But as in any reading of Gorecki, it is a gross oversimplification to focus solely on the transformative nature of Basinski’s music. It inhabits a far more ambiguous and awkward space than some would like to imagine.

Back in 1979, Basinski composed A Red Score In Tile. Inspired by sometime collaborator James Elaine’s painting of the same name and first released by the Three Poplars label in 2003, this 45 minute tape piece was previously only available in the form of a pole-axed vinyl which split the composition in half. Streamline’s CD re-release is therefore a welcome insight into the genesis of a unique praxis, and it remains one of Basinski’s most uncompromising works. As a composer renowned for an engagement with processes of decay, a reductively humanist interpretation of his fragile, rarefied loops has become all too common. Here though, the underlying anxieties at the heart of the work are more blatant. A single loop is adjusted with virtual invisibility at infrequent intervals, the anxious bite of each piano note parleying with crackle and silence.

While certain passages foster an immersive, surface beauty, this is not ambience. The composerly patience of Basinski’s work is often trumpeted but his is an approach infused with subversive tension. Shorn of the metaphysical baggage attached to later releases, A Red Score In Tile must instead be addressed on its own, elementally harsh terms. It poses much more difficult and uncomfortable questions about the transient nature of the present than Basinski’s later work. These tapes sound tired, old rather than decaying. The entropic nature of the sound is less pronounced, yielding to an aura of fretful infirmity, worry for the future. The cruelty of time is an ever present theme and here it informs his approach to sound in the most unsettling of ways. In another notable work, 2003’s Melancholia, a genuflection towards Arcadian serenity is stalled by repetition. There is little inclination toward pastoralism for the younger composer, rather an eerily dissociative drift towards unconsciousness.

This dichotomy between different layers of meaning has been noted by the essayist and blogger Adam Harper, who has christened Basinski – along with The Caretaker and Indignant Senility – a “playback hauntologist”. This parallel cluster of artists are distinct from the pastiche radiophonica of the British school (bewitchingly exemplified by the Ghost Box label) and also set apart from the reclamation techniques of U.S Hypnagogic Pop. By formulating an approach to sound that is reliant on pre-existing music from aged vinyl and tape sources – which are then often further eroded through deliberate manipulations – the playback hauntologists craft darkly incisive ruminations on the essence of memory. In the case of Basinski’s early loops, the original contours of the tapes content are more apparent. Yet the work remains thematically focused on despair at times passing and the fragility of being. Notes dissolve, motifs emerge. The brief moments of reflection in between are oddly reminiscent of a very different kind of minimalism, that of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, albeit in a way that subverts Feldman’s comfort with empty space.

It’s in these fleeting moments of nothingness that A Red Square In Tile locates a disconcerting power and goes some way towards recasting the artist’s later compositions in a less transcendental light. The profundity of Basinski’s loops is not to be found in the universality of their unfolding decay, but rather in a form of disconnect, manifested as a cruel irony. As much as some would like to comfort themselves in invoking synthesis and eternity in relation to this stuff, if anything it’s an investigation into the transitory, an agitated brand of anaesthetized purgatory.

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