A very British concept: a concert series themed around the weather, Saisonscape‘s autumn tour arrives at Salford’s Islington Mill just as the season changes to suit. It’s warm inside though, and standing room only as the main draw tonight is breakout star of New York’s avant-garde scene William Basinski.
Basinski first rose to prominence on the back of his extraordinary Disintegration Loops series a little over a decade ago, and has been ploughing a similarly restrained and haunted furrow ever since. His latest album Cascade is built around a short mournful piano motif, minimally manipulated over 40 minutes, and as with his most famous work the repetition, slow pace of progression and detail in the music has a hypnotic effect which rewards careful listening. Having recently heard it for the first time, we arrive at the Mill eager to hear how his work would translate to the live setting.
A delayed feast of mussels in cider elsewhere means we miss the first two acts, a colab between Concréte favourites Ahrkh and Sam Weaver, plus a set by Liverpool’s Kepla (actually we catch the end of Kepla’s set, but not enough of it to give a fair view)
Main support Howlround is a delight – the music is created entirely by the manipulation of quarter-inch tape loops played over multiple reel-to-reel machines, with the loops stretched round mic stands 15 feet or so out in the audience. Drones, white noise, feedback and the lowing of an unidentified farmyard beast are all skillfully mixed and manipulated to create a truly immersive sound collage.
The loops making their way back and forth across the dancefloor, sometime perilously close to the audience’s heads add a touch of humour and a visual focus sometimes missing in a scene mainly built around serious men behind laptops and banks of modular synths – pound for pound, it’s actually the high point of the night.
Basinski arrives on stage ebullient, a little underprepared and perhaps a little refreshed. He cuts a striking figure – grey hair swept back into a ponytail, gold ear rings, sunglasses, a black leather blazer over a black polo neck jumper – a caricature of the ageing New York rock star. After fiddling around for a while with some wires and a laptop he settled himself and begins his first piece The Deluge, a further exploration of the same descending piano line heard in this summer’s Cascade.
As expected, it’s quite beautiful – Basinski slowly manipulates the loop over 20 minutes or so, gradually breaking it down with echo and reverb until it’s barely there – a scree of noise with a tracing of the piano line just holding it together. Then he brings it back gradually, and us back down to earth, and drifts away into silence.
He follows this up with a shorter piece, The Deluge (The Denouement), Which was much less satisfying. A subdued piano loop is quickly overtaken by a string section, which in turn is overtaken by a long deep orchestral drone. You could imagine each element, taken in isolation and treated at length as with the first piece could be similarly mesmerising, but no part is really given the space to flex it’s muscles – to my ears it feels a little unfinished.
‘And now for pudding’ he says, and the first bars of dlp 1.1 fills the room – a shudder of satisfaction runs through the crowd, and I hear a few moans of pleasure off to one side. This is the first of The Disintegration Loops series, a horn section and some gentle percussion, muffled as if heard through the bathroom door. It’s a gorgeous piece of music and it’s good to hear it played loud on a decent system, but feels unnecessary – especially as Basinski looks like he’s had enough.
The Disintegration Loops were created almost by accident – transferring part of his huge archive of tape loops from the 1980s (the same archive also provided the loops for his recent work), he noticed the tapes were degrading, losing a little of the ferrite the sound was recorded on with each pass, and minutely changing the resulting sound. So he left them running and recorded each loop until they disintegrated, treated the results with a little delay and released them (and several other volumes) to unexpected critical acclaim and commercial success.
Perhaps their success has created a sort of Bohemian Rhapsody of the minimalist avant-garde (stay with me) – a piece of music that fans expect to be played at every concert, but which is almost impossible to perform. The performance was in the destruction of the tape in 2001, and it’s difficult to know what he can do other than just pressing ‘play’ that wouldn’t mess with the integrity of the work.
Either way, it seems a poetic contrast that the music that made Basinski famous, he made by accident as he abandoned the way of working – using live tape loops – that made Howlround’s performance earlier in the evening so vital and engaging.