Review: William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

London Contemporary Orchestra. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops with The London Contemporary Orchestra (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 August 2012; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

‘The most helpful and useful music I have ever known.’ Antony Hegarty makes no secret of his affection for William Basinski’s seminal work, Disintegration Loops, and programmed this orchestral reinterpretation as the finale of his Meltdown series at the Southbank.

This exquisite performance was much more than a transcription, it was a reimagining by Maxim Moston of the first two tracks, DLP 2.1 and DLP 1.1, of the original digital capture which constitutes Basinski’s 4-CD 5 hour magnum opus, in their world and European premieres, respectively.

Disintegration Loops was assembled by Basinski in 2001 when he attempted to transfer the analogue sound from his original cassette tape loops dating from the early 80s to digital files, only to find that the surface of the tapes had partially perished over time and when he ran them again they continued to degenerate in direct contact with the recording heads, creating an other-worldly remoteness and additional strands of poignancy. Through temporal accident, Basinski played back the piece during the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers, which has imposed an additional mythical dimension to the work.

This concert was also a piece of New York hitting London. Ryan McAdams, the evening’s dynamic conductor had been invited to take the rostrum at the premiere of DLP 1.1 at a special concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum on the 10th anniversary of September 11th, and Basinski and Moston, also a member of Antony and the Johnsons, were in attendance.

London Contemporary Orchestra. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

The feathery tune-up to DLP 2.1 could have been its prelude. The 40-strong, black-clad orchestra, under the pin-sharp direction of McAdams, slowly and purposefully built up the intensity from the merest hints of sound with an extraordinary delicacy and clarity that offered a surprising insight in to the lightness of what might have been Basinski’s original looped elements. Trombones, woodwind and string sections created an undertow of bass pulses and pastoral, minimalist threads that ran through the whole performance.

The grittiness of the digital recording was reconstituted in rustling, intricate percussion, fed through high-level speakers, which gave them a unique physical dimension in the acoustic mix. This was the underlying foundation, which allowed the emergence of the rounded, brass tones of the horns to evoke a nautical distance and hints of a painful, echoing emotion.

London Contemporary Orchestra. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

The sensitivity of the LCO’s execution was emphasised in a passage which combined lightly plucked strings and a complex weave of percussive intrusions that conjured a distinct sense of timeless Japanese space and sound.

A smaller, 24-piece ensemble was convened to visit the lengthier DPL 1.1 and they set the tone with a prescribed vocal hum to focus players and audience, before embarking on a flowing journey of bright repetitions with intermittent, richly orchestrated glimpses of a regional American folk theme. Wistful syncopation between the three percussionists and within the body of the orchestra maintained a tension and balance, and vibraphone and slow clarinet contributed warmer, mellower aspects to the work’s inevitable sense of decay. This was ultimately borne out in the silence of a few minutes which was held unflinchingly by McAdams, linking it to the remembrance of 9-11 with which Basinski’s moving work has become linked. Basinski, with a characteristically baroque, braided hair style, and Moston took to the stage to share the applause from the enraptured audience.

The orchestra’s ability to tread such a light path with its flickering shadows in the process of revealing the gossamer tensions in Basinski’s composition was a major feat. The beauty of this achievement lay in the response that each of the young players brought to the arranger’s vision and the conductor’s evocation of that unique environment that constitutes the melancholy, glimmering emotional range of Basinski’s composition.

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