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Back to the womb

img  Tobias

“William Basinski is a musician and composer who has worked in experimental media for over twenty years in NYC, expanding the boundaries of the aural landscape.” -

It is true then: The best way of discovering exciting new music is by carefully listening to the recommendations of others. It must have been about a year ago that Christoph Heemann, after his concert at the Cuba in Münster, suggested I listen to “A red score in tile” by a composer I had never heard of before. He told me about the “Disintegration Loops” and about a music, which was too subtle for words, too fragile for the radio and too comforting for TV. I bought the LP without ever having listened to a single note and was hooked right away. The composer, of course, was William Basinski and the record opened up an entirely new cosmos for me, dark and intriguing, yet full of romanticism and harmony. I quickly immersed in it completely, discovering trap doors and many, many questions. Still, even in this already mysterious and secluded galaxy, “Water Music” remains an enigma of its own.

“These works have been spoken of in hushed tones for a few years, as they have never been widely available.” Official press release of “Water Music”

Two elements have established themselves as characteristical of the “Basinski”-style: Decay and melancholy, the latter almost always pared with the sound of an old, slightly detuned piano. What made the “Disintegration loops” stand out was the fact that they essentially redefined the principle of repetition – Basinski had found a way of coming back to the same point without ever touching it twice. And he had made a strong statement in the question of development: “Some pieces don't necessarily have to 'go' anywhere in particular, their existence is simple enough in that it presents a mood, a moment, a place and encapsulates it. Think of still-images for the ears as opposed to moving-pictures for the eyes.”, as the ominously titled reviewer [k/doherty] puts it. „A red score in tile“ and especially the awe-inspiring „Silent Night“ took this premise to new extremes (according to Heemann, the theme of the former work never changes in the course of its approximately 45 minutes, even though this remains open to debate), basically standing still for their entire duration. “Water Music”(and its follow-up brother “Water Music II”) is different, though – it is in constant flux and its main themes are replenishment and consolation.

"Water music" is a perfect antidote to the saccharin-drenched ambient cakes released nowadays by hundreds of self-producing wannabes. It's a never-too-present low humming lullaby, caressing the brain and the ears and slowly developing from silence.” Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

Back in 2003, when this album first came out, it was only released as a CD-R and part of its legendary status is down to the fact that it coincided with the publication of the “Loops” and was virtually covered by the sudden media attention devoted to its “big brother”. What makes the proximity of their release especially fascinating is the fact that it not only implies the lineup of two hugely different musical worlds, but also that it confronts Basinski’s present with his past: While the “Disintegration Loops” were essentially pieces composed in the early 80s, “Water Music” was genuinely contemporary and marked by his efforts of finding a new language of expression. Or maybe just of formulating the same with different words. If one can believe the myth surrounding the first edition, the copies were quickly sold out and then never reprinted, until the resurfaced considerably later as extremely simple and pure shell-cases, still without any additional information or even a booklet. Which puts all emphasis on listening. Which is were every so-called analysis should start.


“Watermusic was the archetype of his subsequent shimmering, lulling, gentle ambient music for electronic keyboards (...) it is soft and slow tonal music for the Voyestra synthesizer.”

The first thing you become aware of is a faint humming, then a deep, oscilating tone, rising from the emptiness into consciousness. Gentle waves of warm drones pulsate against gleaming cascades of pearly drops and occasionaly two notes connect for a melody, before dying down again. Something is twinkling in the air, but it could well be your mind playing tricks on you. Like a painting of the open sea in black and blue shades, on display in an empty exhibition hall in the middle of the night, this aural image hardly moves. Instead, it is as though an invisible hand were delicately changing the angle of a tiny spotlight, accentuating different aspects of the picture. Or as though there were a wind blowing over the immobile surface of the water, causing minimal patterns.of ripples There is not a single tonal change in the course of this almost exactly one hour long composition and yet it is full of energy and positive inner tension. Once again, Basinksi has taken the listener to the womb, an almost primordial space of Jung’ean archetypes. It should come as no surprise then (even though, strangely, it has never been noted before) that it was written in the most basic key of C major.

“'Water Music II' has an undulating predilection that Basinski then goes on to obscure through diffused soundscapes of incremental intensity. Immersive in a way you won't realise possible until you let it submerge you fully.”

“Water Music” is wonderful, period. But quite possibly it would not have reached its status without its pendant, the second part, which already indicated that this was going to be a continued series. And somehow, even though this makes no sense on a purely rational level, the first part becomes better by listening to the second and vice versa. But rationality and logic have never been the best parts of your sensory equipment to “understand” Basinski’s work. On the surface of things, in fact, these two albums are so much alike that they seem like the same piece. Maybe it is. “II” brings the subcutaneously glistening movements of the original score to the front, turning like the wheels of a mill in the summer sun. The bass has become less brooding and there is more movement in the middle and upper section of the tonal reigisters, with a minimal melody being repeated over and over again, until it becomes part of the texture. Even though there is not really more movement here, it is more directy audible and the overall impression is more lively. The colours have now turned to an intense and shining light blue and the horizon is filled with hope.

"I had to force myself to end it after a period or i never would have made another piece of
work." William Basinski

Truly, "Water Music" has many characteristics of creating an environment of its own. And there is a good reason for that, as Basinski explains himself: "It is indeed one long time-based experiment which cycled in my studio day and night for 9 months, sometimes waking me up in the middle of the night to run to the studio and pop in another disc in the burner.  It ended when I was in the studio burning a disc and tight near the end of the cdr everything went silent... I thought perhaps the amp had overheated and began troubleshooting the equipment, but then after a moment or two of silence it started back up again... the three different length component parts (of three simple themes (actually two and the third was the two of them together) had all synched up and ended together." The piece became a small-scale obsession, which he needed to end at one point, to open himself up for something new: "I
loved listening to this piece and had it on as I said in my house for months... it was just the soundtrack to the house and I had to force myself to end it after a period or I never would have made another piece of work."

"Who is William Basinski?" tokafi

Maybe everything will become clearer, when the series is continued - for there are "at least three more volumes of this piece", which might be released someday. With other Basinski releases, it was easy to identify what made them touch you, but with “Water Music” it becomes increasingly difficult. It is not just Ambient music, even though it could work as such. And its accesibility, caused by the use of one basic key and simple patterns, also awakens the usual expectations of development in a piece. It at first beggars belief that more volumes are planned, but after sitting down to listen to the music, one can’t help but wish they would finally be released. Maybe we can answer the riddle with a fresh question: Don’t you sometimes wish for things to go on, for this one second to stretch into infinity and never release you? If you do, you will get the point of “Water Music” right away. 

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: William Basinski / 2062 Records

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