Report: William Basinski and Rhys Chatham in conversation at Cafe Oto

William Basinski at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston © 2014. All rights reserved.

William Basinski and Rhys Chatham in conversation
(Cafe Oto, 19 March 2014; report and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Anybody who was at William Basinski‘s conversation with Rhys Chatham at Cafe Oto last night will need no further encouragement to attend the two composers’ concert tonight at St John’s Church Hackney with Charlemagne Palestine, part of Basinski’s Arcadia season, organised with Art Assembly in conjunction with Sound and Music.

In the relaxed ambience of Cafe Oto, Basinski used the opportunity to encourage Chatham to talk about his New York roots, and his immersion in the emergent arts, minimalist and punk music scenes, before adding anecdotes from his own move to New York and early experiences of the city.

Their friendly discourse had many moments of light humour – Chatham is an expansive character, and Basinski, proving himself to be a practiced interviewer, is no shrinking violet.

Chatham was brought up in Gramercy Park, a comfortable Manhattan neighbourhood, and had his aspirations to become Ringo Starr (after seeing the Beatles on TV) deflected by his parents and took up the flute, then the trumpet and also the guitar, which became his instrument of choice after seeing the Ramones. Basinski revealed that he had harboured a parallel ambition – to become David Bowie!

Once he’d experienced his musical epiphany – Terry Riley’s live performance of A Rainbow in Curved Air – after walking out of the venue and then returning after failing to persuade the venue to refund the entrance fee, he aligned himself with the minimalists: ‘The Ramones were doing more complex things than me – they were playing 3 chords; I was playing one …’ He’s currently working up to A Secret Rose for 100 guitars in Birmingham in June.

He covered a gamut of experiences as the first musical director of The Kitchen, the foremost downtown performance space, aged 19, and gave a priceless description of tuning Glenn Gould’s harpsichord, when engaged in his family business – ‘Gould was everything you expected he would be’, including turning up with a scruffy bag containing the only cushion he would ever sit on! He studied electronic composition under Morton Subotnick at NYU, where he met Charlmagne Palestine amongst many others, and also with La Monte Young, whom he persuaded to teach him, by offering to tune his piano in exchange!

Basinski, a Texan, arrived in New York from San Francisco in the early 80s, settling for unfashionable Brooklyn, after SoHo loft prices had begun to escalate. One assumes that this was the location from which he viewed the awful events of 9/11 which are so closely linked, almost fortuitously, to his major work, Disintegration Loops (reviewed here).

With a classical training as a clarinettist and saxophonist, to survive he found work briefly at a gay porn cinema in Times Square, an experience from which he recounted some fairly unappealing episodes…

Gradually, as the artistic centre of New York shifted outwards, he developed his connection with Williamsburg, by the river, a place still affordable to the artistic community, and his encouragement of artistic talent through his Arcadia studio in the 90s, has given rise to this London season, which celebrates this important initiative.

The bonus of the extended piece that Basinski and Chatham performed combined looped live samples of Chatham’s curiously high-pitched and purposefully pinched vocals, and flute phrases to create a meditative, all-embracing mood, which augurs well for Basinski’s return to St John’s tonight. (previous concert reviewed here)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Rhys Chatham at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston © 2014. All rights reserved.

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1 reply »

  1. I've just done a bit more research and the location from which William Basinski viewed the events of 9/11 was his loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was not the original loft that he moved to on arrival in NYC.

    In the Self-Titled publication interview of Oct 2012 (http://www.self-titledmag.com/2012/10/30/the-self-titled-interview-william-basinski) he says of his first loft:

    … we finally found a loft in downtown Brooklyn, near Jay St./Borough Hall.

    Did you end up staying there for a while?

    We were there for 10 years, then they tore it down to build [the] Metrotech [school]. And that was when we found the Arcadia loft in Williamsburg, around ’89.

    And he confirms that he was due to be interviewed for a job at the World Trade Centre on that fateful morning …


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