William Basinski Cascade

[MMLXII; 2015]

Styles: ambient, tape loops
Others: Tape Loop Orchestra

The albums of William Basinski, America’s most-renowned quasi-ambient tape loop manipulator, are most affecting (or perhaps just most approachable) when they provide a temporally specific “in.” It’s no wonder that The Disintegration Loops and their 9/11 narrative remain his most well-known pieces, and the wisps of 1980s Brooklyn street noise rippling the loops of 92982 tinged that album with a hyper-specific nostalgia. The temporal rifts built into pieces such as those opened the door to reams of theoretical and emotional loops, time and affect torquing around one another in bewildering ways.

But there’s always a first-level affect at work in his pieces as well — repetition of emotionally resonant minor chord loops as a gateway into deeply felt sorrow — but aside from 2003’s Melancholia, he’s rarely approached his work with such strict focus on crafting a specific somatic response as he does on Cascade. Like his other pieces, it’s simple to describe: an endlessly repeated piano figure draped in delicate reverb and echo, lightly hissing with tape distortion, minutely altered over the course of its 40-minute duration, aside from an abrupt drop in volume followed by a nearly choral figure for its last few minutes. It is, of course, crushing.

In a way, it’s a strange inversion of Eno’s now-insufferable and inescapable bit about ambient music functioning as furniture music, allowing for attentive listening but not requiring it, etc. etc.; except that, in this case, the music barely changes upon closer inspection. One notices the changes in reverb, in new harmonies and dissonances, but they’re hardly the focus, quickly overwhelmed by an explosive affective response, an overpowering and enveloping sadness. It’s a misery not unlike Cobain’s also-inescapable but equally valid quote about the comfort in being sad, that strange combination that brings forth incommensurable words like “unbearable” and “cathartic” in the same breath. And that breath brings along a movement into the physical — the catch in one’s gut, the uptake of breath, the tears pooling in the eyes. (I’m crying now, with the piece on for reference as I write, for no particular reason and for no one in particular.)

None of this is new for Basinski, whose work has always crept up on a listener only to emotionally erupt at their cue. But here, he’s stripped aside much of the theoretical sprawl, resulting in a work that feels both minor, even by his standards, and gargantuan, even by his standards. Here we’re adrift among crystalline shards of piano and minor chords, which work because they work, with little else to hold on to. We can grasp onto his craft for help — there’s no doubting that a simple loop wouldn’t yield the power his nearly-unnoticeable but methodic, thorough manipulation of timings do — but his craft is so subtle that it nearly eludes us. This stripping down leads to strange avenues — Does one feel cheated? Have we approached the terrain of the “merely cinematic”? What does it mean to feel this much when there’s no signifier to attach it to? (Those burning towers made it so easy for us, validated our misery, put a narrative to it.) Is a sadness for no one in particular merely a form of ego-love?

Cascade remains impenetrable on the matter, but perhaps that theatrical dive into hushed tones and choral rebirth at its close provide some clues, their overt manipulation finally bringing the piece into focus as a performance rather than a process (another rarity in this oeuvre). The tape loops and, as always, the temporality bound up in their tiny snaking physical bodies have been brought forth to perform, Basinski (winkingly? wittingly?) reminds us, and we diligently weep. The misery landscape here reveals its ties to the operatic tradition, with textural complexity bound up in the simplicity of the human response. And we go home, our eyes bright.

Links: MMLXII

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