Live Music + Gig Reviews

William Basinski & London Contemporary Orchestra @ Barbican, London

9 June 2022

Seminal work The Disintegration Loops is given an orchestral reimagining as the worlds of avant-garde, ambient and minimalism are successfully merged

William Basinski performing at at the Barbican (Photo: Jose Ramon Caamano)

William Basinski performing at the Barbican (Photo: Jose Ramon Caamano)

William Basinski’s musical output stretches back four decades but he’s best known for his 2001 album The Disintegration Loops, an extended ambient opus of sorts that has taken on greater significance due to the context of its creation. Basinski had spent much of the 1980s experimenting with making instrumental music based on tape loops and delay systems and in 2001 had started to work on transferring some of these older tape recordings to digital formats but while doing this discovered that the tapes had deteriorated over time, giving them a unique sound.

He completed the project on the morning of the 9/11 New York terrorist attacks, watching the aftermath unfold from his Brooklyn apartment. He subsequently dedicated the album to the victims and used an image taken from his apartment that morning as the album art. Tonight’s show at the Barbican, presented by Baba Yaga’s Hut, sees pieces dlp 1.1 and dlp 3 recreated in orchestral form by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames.

Before the orchestra arrive however, we get to see Basinski perform himself. As he appears on stage sporting shades, ponytail and sparkly black jacket, it’s clear he isn’t your average, shy and retiring ambient musician. After a few lines have been exchanged with the crowd he settles behind his table of tape reels and various electronics and plays his 2020 Lamentations album in full. It might not have the critical acclaim or conceptual weight of The Disintegration Loops but it’s a fascinating, multi-chaptered piece that sees different sounds spliced and amalgamated together. These warped, digitally disrupted sound sculptures present themselves as a soundtrack to mysterious, alien lands. Periods of apparent stasis are abruptly interrupted to alluring effect.

An irregular, malfunctioning avant-garde beauty courses through them, with the looped operatic vocal fragment of All These Too, I, I Love particularly effective. The way this human form is juxtaposed with moments of distortion and abrasion creates a sense of temporal displacement of sorts. It also suggests a hauntological aspect to his music that can effortlessly reconcile sounds and aesthetics of different musical eras. At its heaviest, it operates in a firmly psych-ambient realm. At the end of his set, he removes the flimsy tapes from the reels and holds them aloft like a magician would when revealing a surprise component of his act.

London Contemporary Orchestra playing The Disintegration Loops at the Barbican (Photo: Jose Ramon Caamano)

London Contemporary Orchestra playing The Disintegration Loops at the Barbican (Photo: Jose Ramon Caamano)

After a short interval, the LCO take to the stage to perform two sections of The Disintegration Loops. One unique quality to the original recorded version is how the sound breaks down and decomposes over time, revealing new paths and heading in different directions as it does so. Could the orchestra successfully replicate it?

The LCO was made up of a string section with brass, woodwind and marimba soloists and, crucially, two percussionists. It was this latter pair that were employed to recreate the sense of degradation and add a textural element. It did take a few minutes to adjust to the orchestral sound, especially after Basinski’s earlier set, however the repeated motifs soon settle into a recognisable pattern, all slowly shifting grounds and gradual realignment and refinement. They’re particularly effective in making it sound like an elegy, possibly to those who lost their lives in the incident it has become associated with but also to the passing of time and everything that goes with it. It would have been easy to deliver a version that underwhelmed or one that offered more in the way of prettiness than substance but what followed was a clever, well executed interpretation.

The shorter lengths of the two sections performed tonight mean a similar sense of full immersion isn’t reached as compared to the recorded original but it’s still a hypnotic and enveloping experience, and there’s much satisfaction to be gained in picking out the subtle evolutions. The second of the two pieces played, dlp 3, is brass led which lends it a more mournful tone. It closes with a slow, infinitesimal retreat of strings, until all that’s left is silence (even if one member of the audience offers premature applause). It recalls the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, comfortably placing Basinski on an equal footing with these two defining names. 

Basinski bounds on stage to embrace Robert Ames and take the plaudits of the crowd and so he should. Tonight offered a condensed overview of his art, how he is able to extract beauty from decline and how he is able to successfully merge the worlds of ambient and minimalism.

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More on William Basinski
William Basinski @ Attenborough Centre For The Creative Arts, Brighton
William Basinski & London Contemporary Orchestra @ Barbican, London
William Basinski: “These are my lamentations about the shit that’s been going on forever” – Interview
William Basinski – Lamentations