Writer critiques Basinski at EMPAC

William Basinski, famed audio tape executioner and undertaker, rolled into Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center last Saturday night. Known primarily for The Disintegration Loops (2002–2003), a series of albums laboriously chronicling small ancient loops of tape being played to destruction, he looked as the tapes themselves: a relic, a blonde shoulder-length god-of-rock haircut cast off his forehead in a bouffant, the dust on his unzipped leather jacket similar to the dust on the tape we would soon hear, the lack of undershirt and dangling cross from neck to navel indicating that he could have just auditioned for a glam rock band. As the story goes, Basinski’s current works are sourced from his forgotten analog tape recordings made in the 70’s and 80’s, time and erosion stripping fidelity, but creatively uncovered and reimagined into a showcase of that same process–playing the tape over and over as it burns and wears until it is something new and beautiful.

The works are meant to evoke a reflection on analog imperfections and the progress of culture: the metaphor of an almighty antiquated machine grinding down to self-induced death has never been so close to the real process, and all the while he’s commenting on infinitely-playable digital music and the Luddite-esque beauty of limitation. His performance at EMPAC, a rising mecca of contemporary (read: digital) performance, took this analogy a step further. On that night, Basinski looked as if he was a time capsule from the same era as those tapes, like he invested his soul into those tapes, and as the music emerged from the tape so did he, unchanged except for a layer of dust.

The first piece was taken from the album that he is touring in support of, Nocturnes (2013), which featured a very striking reinterpretation of a prepared piano. It consistes of multiple samples of piano on abused tape looped at different lengths, resulting in a harmonic melody that shifted over time. Even though we exist in an age of endless aural manipulation, the simple changes he applied to the piano were elegant: the “tink” of the piano key as it is pressed was removed; the warbling beat of a held note were emphasized by the natural flutter of analog tape. The sounds also had their high and low frequencies removed, resulting in a mid-timbre resonance that didn’t pierce like a sharp high frequency; rather, it was blunt and dull like an oscillating stitch in your side. Smudged together in lo-fi goodness, the now-alien tones in innumerable layers of different notes warbled into a melody that looped in your head long after.

It became apparent, as the different permutations of melody were tracked by the listener, that Basinski does not play to the human attention span. The performance may have been dynamic, the loop length automatically altering the composition over time, but they were only rewarding to those of a certain mindset.

Imagine a graph: the spectrum of “focus” stretching horizontally to the right. The middle of this spectrum is tall and swollen with the majority of the musical canon, where music gives the listener something interesting to hold onto, and the listener can additionally dive in and find worlds to explore. Basinski’s performance began at the crest of this hill, being new and novel in a way that anything should warrant attention; but much like the reels of tape used, it rolled off this hill. As determined by the listener, the attention could roll down the hill to the left, relegating the entire performance to background ambient music and checking emails on their phone instead. Or, the listener could roll their attention off to the right, increasing in focus and taking an active role in the concert. Feeling the warbles change was very interesting and revealed a lot about the creative process, and watching the tape hiss dissolve into an out-of-place high-pitched piano key was lo-fi bliss.

After an amount of time, which felt like it could have been a lifetime or an instant, the first piece ended, and a funny thing happened: the second, final piece recontextualized the first. Up to this point, Basinski, on the table in front of him, had been jockeying his laptop and periodically moving over to the mixing board. Beside those, standing short and fat, were two portable tape decks. In this piece, he attempted to feed his famed tape loops through them–making us notice that the tape decks had not been touched previously. While it is convenient to utilize digital audio software for electronic music, this revelation cast a lifeless air to the performance. The loops we had been hearing were not really disintegrating before us, it was pre-recorded. A contradiction. We had been listening to analog tape loops reconstructed through software, and this approaches Basinski’s key metaphor of his work from a new angle. If the analog deterioration is captured forever more, is it cheapened? The 1970s rock-god playing a laptop in a performance about audio tape may have been a death knell of the analog medium.

Regardless, the second piece featured a repeating piano melody bouncing around the space. The melody, apparently coming from his laptop, continued as Basinski dipped into his can of tape and pulled out a silky loop, peering at it down his nose, much like a librarian, trying to decode the short scribbles written on the edge. After winding a few into the tape deck, he settled on a sample of an orchestra winding down in a major key. Whether it was the first real-McCoy tape heard that evening or just the first major key, it felt so warm and inviting as the orchestra crashed over and over, over, over, over. Craning our ears to hear more, savoring it, Basinski, the cruel man, faded it down, lower, lower, holding it for a few cycles just audible in the massive room, now silent except for this, then panned it out and closed the show. Torture was had here, in a surprisingly emotional close to an ambient performance.

The human focus was not meant for Basinski, or he was born to taunt it. The listener could not help but drift in and out of musical focus, the first piece asked for presence like a drop of honey threatening to fall into your mouth–tasting great when it splashes your tongue, like the taped notes reconvening into that main melody–but wouldn’t it taste better if you really wanted it first, holding steady above your mouth? That’s the cold attention that it asked for.

William Basinski at EMPAC was a paradox. The analog beauty and death expected from this performance was delivered in a different way, in realizing why analog tape did go out of style. The compositions played were much too complex to be created using tape recording methods, and he didn’t rely much on the real loops because of their apparent complexity. Walking onto stage like Robert Plant in a funeral, as a holdover from the era of tape, he only made us come to that conclusion quicker. Beneath the dusty leather jacket and behind the tape machines older than I, is Basinski now subject to Disintegration too? But, to the musician who provoked these thoughts, who locked his soul in an attic for 30 years, one day hoping that it could be significant yet again; play on.