William Basinski, Fennesz, Helm

St. John Sessions, June 2013

Photo: Peter J. Kierzkowski, 2008

William Basinski has been a central figure in experimental musical avant-garde ever since the release of his digitized tape work Disintegration Loops. Created on the eve of the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks, it has become part of the artistic response, or meditation on, or emotional recovery from, those events. (Take a look at Basinski’s chat to The Quietus if you have no idea what I’m on about.)

Basinski eschewed Disintegration Loops for this performance, however, instead playing the two compositions making up Nocturnes, his first solo release in four years. Sitting almost motionless at a table on a barely-raised stage, with only a shaky back projection of a full moon to accompany him, it was, nevertheless, a mesmerising performance.

Technically, I have no idea what Basinski was doing. As the loops – which seem to be sourced from a dissonant piano fragment – spool round an antique valve player next his laptop, he tweaks, manipulates and distorts the sound. It’s almost the same each time but subtly, secretly different.

The emotional affect is astonishing. The constant repetition of the loop has the effect of drawing us in, like any good dance music. Yet the microscopic changes of each revolution – sometimes changing the timbre of the sound so it resembles a struck bell, sometimes introducing other shades and textures to the sound – make us acutely aware of the ever-growing and shifting shape of the music, focusing our attention as the tune grows and morphs across the hall. It’s immersive, transcendent, meditative, cosmic.

Earlier on, transport hiccups meant that I missed the Helm’s set that opened the evening, arriving just in time for glitch and guitar maestro Christian Fennesz. Clad in a smart blazer and t-shirt combo, with an impeccably coiffured bob, the 30-minute set saw Fennesz wrenching fuzzy power chords and plangent clanging notes from his white Fender jazzmaster, processing and manipulating them over a bed of constantly-shifting bass drones.

Rushing yet static at the same time, it was a like a single moment of rock thrill, as if enacting the first time you heard those opening chords of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Teenage Kicks’ or ‘Venus in Furs’, isolated and repeated into infinity.

This show was the first in a series of electronic music performances organised by arts organisation Moringa at St. John in Hackney. If the rest are anything like this you can count me in.


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