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William Basinski: Vivian & Ondine; Steve Roach: A Deeper Silence


Although this review may suggest otherwise, there is no hidden biographical connection between William Basinski and Steve Roach. In fact, their CVs could hardly be more different: Whereas the former spent the 80s in the heart of bohemian New York surrounded by friends mostly from the visual arts, the latter left behind a career as a racing driver and his former home of San Francisco to live a solitary life far away from the lights of the big city. By the time Basinski finally released his debut Shortwavemusic in 1998, not only was Roach already approaching his third decade as a recording artist, but the ambient scene which he had been instrumental in building up, was slowly falling apart again. Sociology teaches us that initial conditions as radically different as these must by default lead to different results. And yet, although probably without any of the two protagonists knowing about it, their respective works seem to have been intimately entangled from afar, revolving around related topics and making use of strikingly similar techniques.

Increasingly, both have expressed themselves through long-form, zone-like pieces questioning and expanding the traditional process of listening to deal, albeit mostly implicitly, with some of the fundamental issues of human existence. Both, too, have championed the two sole approaches capable of doing justice to their personal perspective on musical form, thematic development and time: Either, they would capture tracks on the fly, building them from spontaneous decisions and instantaneous triggers. Or they would literally live with and inside their creations for months to penetrate their emotional core with unprecedented clarity and to refine them in places other composers would not even remotely consider relevant. This highly increased sensibility for all but imperceptible details and the uncompromising dedication to see through the consequences of their ambitions is what still today sets their oeuvres apart from the legions of artists which have followed in their wake in a bid of replicating and sharing in the magic.

With this in mind, it can hardly be surprising that the initial reaction to a new full-length by either artist is mostly one of familiarity rather than surprise. And yet, within minutes of pressing play, one finds oneself quickly withdrawing that statement, as the pull of the music again releases entirely fresh and exciting sensations. Effectively, although both have become known for the procedural aspects of their work – gradually decaying loops in the case of Basinski and the multi-layer harmonic quilts of Roach – knowledge of these procedural aspects really bares no relevance whatsoever to the listening experience. The harder one thinks about what it is that makes these pieces intriguing, the harder the answer gets – and the less important the question appears. Perhaps this is why their work, by now analytically dissected in myriads of reviews and feature articles, has stood the test of time and proved so particularly nourishing in an era when the last miracles are being explained away by science: A residue of mystery always remains here.

It certainly does on these two, once again expansive, works, which, for whatever reason, seem to have been just slightly less present in the media than some of their earlier releases. Even within Roach's prolific discography, A Deeper Silence represents a remarkable one-off, an island-like node between his potentially infinite ambiances and his more concise, precisely structured compositions, between his almost purely textural work and his melodic and rhythmical side, between the subliminal and the consciously moving, between tradition and an ongoing quest for artistic renewal. To appreciate all of these nuances, meanwhile, you will first have to flout the "suggested application" advice in the booklet, which considers "low volume playback" as the best means to increase the potency of the album. In fact, it is only in the moment that one chooses to move from psychoactive background perception to conscious listening that the piece fully unfolds its meaning.

In its radical minimalism and almost obsessive focus on the deep end of the sonic spectrum, this may well be Roach's most extreme composition ever. Its thematic material consists of just two sections, the first a closed cycle of three chords, the latter a longer progression with an ethereal, darkly glowing, sacral touch. Disturbingly, the second part is left harmonically suspended in mid-air for a few seconds, before flowing back into the first, thereby creating an infinite circle. There is no end to this process, which simply continues for the entire duration of the disc, nor do there seem to be any obvious changes even within the already highly restricted materials at Roach's disposal – although, occasionally, the mind can be fooled into perceiving ever-so-slight deviations in the structure of the floating harmonics forming on top of the cloud-like chords. And yet, the attentive mind won't stop wandering, guided by the laws of relativity. With the complete absence of fixed points, the mechanics of motion are confused: Is the music drifting by like an iceberg on the horizon of a moonless night? Or is it, in fact, standing still, as the listener floats weightlessly along the outer borders of a fractal mountain range? As the endless iterations of the same motives shroud the past in a haze and render the future irrelevant, the music fixes its audience firmly in the present moment, then reveals the void hiding behind it.

At first, Vivian & Ondine seems even more reduced to the bare essence. Running through the entire track is a short instrumental fragment of a handful of notes describing the shape of a downward-bent perfect fourth, once again culled from Basinski's seemingly inexhaustible "lunchbox" of tape loops from his early time in New York. A mere seven seconds' short, it will be stoically repeated a staggering 387 times in total, seemingly without any kind of alteration or adjustment. And yet, contrary to some of his earlier works like El Camino Real or A Score in Red Tile, which essentially thrived on a fascination for inertia, there is actually quite a lot happening here – although the rate of transformation is hypnotically slow. Emerging straight at the beginning of the work is what sounds like a single bass drum kick seemingly recorded from the other side of a long tunnel, its timbre softened, its volume reduced to a quiet patter, its echoes irregular and alien. It will take almost twelve minutes before it is answered by an equally discrete, looped high-pitched plop, which roughly stays around until the twenty-minute mark, then disappears again, washed over by the tidal force of the gently billowing drones spilling over to the fore.

There is a distinct sensation of transport here, reinforced by various sonic details which Basinski has strategically placed along the wayside with utmost care: A forlorn, almost inaudible piano sequence here, a metalically scraping sound there. Unspectacular and puny as they may appear, every micronoise supports the flow, embellishes the scenery, enriches the canvas: Vivian & Ondine's cover may make use of a shot from the rejuvenating water of the Mediterranean Sea off Pantelleria, but, as a listener, one isn't just observing the music's play of waves, constant and yet forever changing, but slowly sailing down Basinski's river on a ship made of tender thoughts. This sense of forward motion and things heading for a destination point is by no means a coincidence, but quite deliberate, further reinforced by the demonstrative ending of the piece, which doesn't just fade out, but can clearly be heard coming to a conclusion in the very last seconds, when the loop comes to a halt. It is only then that one notices that this main motive of the piece had almost disappeared from one's attention. Intriguingly, whereas the carrier medium was literally crumbling on The Disintegration Loops, it is the music itself which is disintegrating on Vivian & Ondine, cancelling itself out just a tiny bit more with each repetition, until it disappears completely, leaving nothing but a shiny, goldenly gleaming surface.

One can compare this process to the effect of a mantra wiping clean the surface of the human mind. Behind it, the listener can clearly see his own face staring back at him. This, perhaps, is what unites the work of Basinski and Roach: The feeling that as much as music is always a sensation in its own right, it can also be a tool to bring the listener in closer touch with himself.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steve Roach
Homepage: William Basinski