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Sonic Relations

img  Tobias
William Basinski is clearing out his vaults. After twenty years of musing, composing and simply feeling at home at the Arcadia loft, one of New York's most romantic sons is leaving one of it's most renowned culture castles. The reasons for the decision are trivial: Basinski is moving into a Hollywood Bungalow and simply can not cram this much furniture into a single appartment – especially considering the baroque dimensions of some of the items. This, however, is not stopping masses of potential customers dropping by in search of treasure. „The first day of the sale went smashingly well“, Basinski confirms, „There were lots of dealers, of course, but also lots of very lovely people.“ With a smile and a tear, he is watching one piece of memory disappear after another, confirming how relevant and pervasive Arcadia has remained to the city's Avantgarde all through the years.

Living with the music
Clearing out the vaults – in a sense, the Arcadia sale is a strikingly adequate metaphor for Basinski's compositional technique. While he is as active as ever behind the scenes, working on new music and audiovisual installations with his partner James Elaine (breathtaking pictures of an opus based around water lillies have been published anonymously on YouTube), his current releases are again taking a dip into the pensive pond of the past lying in the garden of his fairytalophile mind.

Revisiting these pieces is, however, not so much a case of nostalgia for Basinski Rather, it is quite a natural process for an artist, who truly lives and breathes with his own music for years in order to be able to truthfully and objectively gauge its value. It is a selection process which implies long waiting times in between subsequent records, but which definitely pays off for listeners in the end: You don't just buy a William Basinski album, you enter into a relationship with it which may last a lifetime.

With regards to „The River“, that expression can almost be taken literally. Basinski has always maintained that this long-form piece, recorded over two decades ago, spanning one and a half hours and spread out on two CDs, has been one of his all-time favourites. It is a dark opus, an unpolished black diamond from a subterranean world filled with mysterious murmours, wondrous whispers and ghastly growls. Hymnical and elegiac Voyetra melodies, akin to the coded chant of Whales, are repeated ad libitum, fearfully swelling and exhaling and sucking the audience into a space where every grain of sound is as important as the borderless sonic architecture arching over it. With the exception of his recently re-released „Shortwave Music“, coincidentally created around the same time, Basinski has never sounded this apocalyptic since.

Sonorous, resonant and enveloping
As has been the case with all of his limited releases, „The River“ quickly outsold its first print run on Raster Noton, turning into a sought-after collector's item and fetching irresponsible sums at online auction houses. Which is why the re-release was mainly motivated by the notion of making it available again to all latecomers – quite a considerable quantity among his fan base with Basinski. While he was at it, however, he decided to remaster the tapes as well to bring them up to date with his current production aesthetics. When we mail, he downplays the impact of this treatment („I think it is a little warmer than the raster-noton release. Don't know if anyone else would notice any difference.“). But when I receive the new version by mail and put it on, it sounds decidedly more sonorous, resonant and enveloping. Some of the rasping, insectoidly-organic noises only now develop their full potential, creating entirely new tension archs and structural segments.

The result fully justifies buying the album a second time even if you already own the previous edition and it takes you all the way back to the early 80s and the work's creation, which Basinski vividly described in a recent interview for eMusic: „I had gotten this amazing shortwave radio. I loved the sound, all that static. You could get it in between stations. It was this amazing thing, you never knew when a wisp of middle-eastern melody would come in and be perfect with what you were doing. That's when shortwave experiments happened. So I did that for a few years, and that culminated in The River. I wanted these elemental loops, like three or four of them, and I just used those and did this one 90-minute session one night, and it just blew our minds.“

As if two takes of the same of piece weren't enough, there is now also a third option. This is the one Basinski cherishes most. „There will be an alternate mix of The River available only as an mp3 that is dramatically different and has a softer, warmer, darker sound to it than the CD releases“, he tells me with excitement, „It is from the same session, but I believe it is from a cassette that was a generation or two from the original, therefore it has less pronounced high end. This is the one I listened to for years and the one I really love!“ He is right, of course: The compact dynamics of the mix create an even more haunting experience, Basinski's interwoven harmonic clouds floating by like specks of fog on a full moon night.

A precise point on an oblique scale
Despite all the completely justified applause this doubly pleasure has been endowed with, another seemingly obliterated work has re-emerged from the void. Between April and September of 2003, Basinski collaborated with Richard Chartier on an album, which was first going to be called „The Garden of Brokenness“ (the title would later be considered inappropriate and be used for another musical proposition). These sessions are testimony to a completely different William Basinski. Realised quickly and published almost instantaneously with Japanse outfit Spekk, it sees him forget all about his usual doubts with regards to his own work („I worry about everything. I'm a worrier“ he says about himself) and release a daring piece of music to the public without thinking twice.

Both artists may have known they were on to something special here. The fusion of their distinct styles and their technique of integrating their material organically and immediately into their partner's textures has resulted in a work which is both congruent and contrasting with their previous output: Glassy, icicle-like crystals peel themselves off dark drones and begin unfolding in slow-motion, like a frosty flower opening its petals to a gradually ascending sun.

Former Glory

Many of Basinski's tracks create the illusion of being cyclical and without beginning or end, but these untitled compositions rather seem to delineate a precise point on an oblique scale, moving relentlessly through a world that won't change. If the hands of the clock simply stood still on an album like „Silent Night“, here the minute hand is dragging itself forward on a neverending trajectory while the hour hand has simply disappeared. It is music which balances daringly between consolation and confusion and which is full of allusions and metaphors. The coming and going of motives creates the impression of a mysterious entity breathing in and out, ruling a landscape of immense beauty in its dreams.

Basinski has already left Arcadia, but the remaining furniture and gear still reminds visitors of its former glory: Chandeliers, a much coveted medical cabinet, a maple tall dresser, keyboard amps, a drum set, tube amps and „lots of cool junk and knicknaks“. Between 1989 and 1997, he hosted an underground cabaret here, uniting those who thought differently under a glorious gothic umbrella for at least one evening a year. It may sound like a loss, but maybe there is some good in burning bridges. „I will always treasure my time there!“, Richard Chartier commented on the Arcadia sale, „Such treasures... let them be free....“ Just like the wondrous objects of his former home, clearing out his vaults may also have made William Basinski free again – free for revisiting his past again, free for a new future.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: William Basinski at MySpace
Homepage: 2062 Records
Homepage: Line Records
Homepage: William Basinski at eMusic

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