Last night composer William Basinski gave a solo performance at The Lab. Over the course of about an hour, he presented music from his new album The Deluge. This was basically a 40-minute composition in three sections, all performed entirely with electronic gear along with the projection of a video by James Elaine. This was followed by a shorter piece, whose title was not given, using the same gear and played without video accompaniment.
Describing Basinski’s music as electronic, however, entails a slight misrepresentation. His basic materials, at least for this performance, tended to be sampled sounds. The opening section of The Deluge (also called “The Deluge”) amounted to a relatively brief cadence performed on a decidedly not-equal-tempered piano. Whether the alternative tuning was deliberate or simply a product of negligent maintenance is probably not relevant. The effect was one of a piano that did not quite sound like a piano, which seemed to be enhanced by echoes in the space in which the sounds were captured; and it was easy to identify spooky qualities in the resulting sonorities, all associated with connotations of the light drizzle that precedes a heavy storm. That storm then appeared in the second section, entitled “The Deluge (The Denouement),” as another brief cadence, this time performed by a full orchestra. The composition then concluded with “Cascade,” which returned to the “drizzle” motif. The source for the second piece, on the other hand, appeared to be one or more foghorns; perhaps suggesting Noah’s Ark lost at sea.
Basinski’s rhetoric is one of gradual change unfolding over such an extended duration as to be almost unnoticeable. In the Cascade composition, the clarity of the sampled sound of the piano gradually degrades until it is little more than a single sonority against an ambient background wash. In contrast the video was based on reflections of light on the surface of a flowing stream with equally slow changes in the focal point. Thus, the video begins with what seems to be an abstract pattern of points of light. The presence of the stream is revealed at what could be called a snail’s pace and is then just as slowly defocused back into abstraction.
Both the music and the video appeared to be conceived as processes whose gradual change had been relegated to automatic control. Performance was thus little more than a matter of initiating the process and then letting it run its course. The result was that all that one would see was Basinski sitting in front of the projected flow of images monitoring his equipment, rather than interacting with it.
At this point it is worth noting that Basinski performed to one of the largest audiences I have ever encountered at a “bleeding edge” event. By “ever” I mean “over the course of my lifetime,” rather than the much shorter span spent on writing “bleeding edge” previews for this site. Every seat in the audience area of The Lab was filled. People were standing along just about every wall except for the area where the video was projected. Others were seated on the floor, either against a wall or in front of the front row of seats. Some stretched out, figuring that lying down was the best way to take in this gradual experience. When compared with the more modest turnouts at the Center for New Music and the Outsound Presents venues, this was a decidedly impressive turnout for a significantly avant-garde experience. Furthermore, not only were the numbers impressive; but also the rapt attention of such a large audience for such a “minimal” engagement is not often encountered in this town.
Nevertheless, in the broader scope of history, how “avant-garde” the experience was could be called into question. Composition based on very gradual change is nothing new. It was of great interest to composers associated with the early days of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, including Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Where instruments were involved, Morton Feldman’s career amounted to writing longer and longer pieces based on fewer and fewer basic “cells” subjected to only the subtlest of transformations. Then, of course, there was Alvin Lucier, who found his music in the natural vibrations of “a long thin wire.” One the other side of the pond, when he was not producing albums for David Bowie, Brian Eno was exploring different ways to create “ambient” sound environments, which required a fair amount of focus before the listener could be aware of change taking place.
These “revolutionary” techniques eventually passed with the turning of Fortune’s Wheel. John Adams shook up the avant-garde not only by bring back the triad but also by returning to the dominant-tonic progression. The New Yorkers were as hostile to him as they once had been to Feldman’s extremely prolonged chamber music. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in Pacific Overtures: “The blossom falls on the mountain/the mountain falls on the blossom/all things fall.” However, every fall entails a rise; and, in Basinski’s work, the minimalism of barely perceptible change is on the rise again.