So, we have to start with the stories. Here’s the first story: In 2001, William Basinski came upon some tape loops of slowed-down recordings from radio which he’d made in the 1980s, back before he got (relatively speaking) famous in the ’90s. He decided to transfer them to digital, set the loops going, and hit record. Then he watched as the magnetic material flaked off the tape as it went round. The result is a work which is slowly but inexorably disappearing as we listen to it. Here’s the second story: He completed the work on September 11 of that year, and played it through for his friends sitting on the roof of his apartment in Brooklyn, watching the smoke billow over Manhattan.
And we really do have to start with the stories, because this is the kind of music which wouldn’t be the same without knowing the context of its creation. The first four CDs (originally released individually in 2002 and 2003) are made entirely from a few loops of music each a few seconds long. They have a gentle, ambient minimalism, the effect is pleasingly meditative. As such, they would be pleasing to dip into, but their combined running time of almost five hours would probably be a little much. As a complete work it’s something else again. Okay, so the metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but this music is excellently suited for calm contemplation, and I find the effect rather moving. Its monumental scale makes it all the more powerful.
The fifth CD, new to this box set, contains two live versions of the first (and best known) track. These are rather strange propositions, both being painstakingly literal orchestrations, in which the performers play the same few bars over and over, the disintegration being effected by notes getting cut short or dropped from the melody. At first, it seems a somewhat pedantically literal effort, but on reflection it kind of works, and as part of this package it stands as a testament to the importance of the work. This is especially true of the first, purely orchestral, version, performed by The Wordless Museum Orchestra in a concert in the Egyptian Temple of Dendur as rebuilt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (and so of the work). The second version is from the Venice Biennale in 2008, and is played by Alter Ego (who, like all right-thinking people, I love for the performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic which they did with Philip Jeck), this time with the addition of an overlay of distant-sounding clangs and pops described as a “Field Recording Of Venice With Empty Cigarette Pack” by Basinski himself. Finally, we get a DVD of the track being played over video footage of the smoke over Manhattan shot at that first play-through in 2001. This is undeniably unsettling, but I admire its unsentimental attitude.
A delightful person bought this for me from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal.