nthposition online magazine

'The disintegration loops' by William Basinski, 'Architectural commentaries' by M Behrens

by Ian Simmons

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I seem to recall a Talking Heads album called More Songs About Buildings and Food. If that is so, then these are More Songs About Buildings and Buildings. Disintegration Loops is, to an extent, about buildings, while Architectural Commentaries actually is buildings, constructed from recordings of the sounds buildings make. This is also where it contrasts with Disintegration Loops: while Commentaries is based on the construction of sounds, Loops is derived from their collapse.

William Bassinski, a New York-based composer and sometime Anthony and the Johnson's associate has a long history of minimal tape loop experiments, and it is from this that Disintegration Loops derives. In late 2001, he was reviewing old tapes and came across a pastoral composition from 1982 which he had completely forgotten about. Intending to transfer it to digital format for preservation, he set the old tapes running, but time is not kind to magnetic tape and decay had fatally undermined their stability. As they played, fragments of iron oxide spalled off the tape's surface and became dust, gradually, but progressively, breaking down the music into a ghost of its former self, becoming ever more fragmented as the recording progressed. Almost simultaneously, within view of Bassinski's apartment, the appalling events of 11 September were unfolding. In the collapsing loops, he saw their reflection, and the music became a requiem for the twin towers. And very fitting it is, too, a gently shifting cavernous drone, becoming more blurred and fragmented as the tape self-destructs in front of us, sombre and dignified, a beautiful epic of romantic decay. It is for good reason that for the cover, Bassinski had himself photographed in the guise of doomed Romantic poet Chatterton. Coincidentally, Disintegration Loops has strong similarities to another piece of music marking an epoch-defining disaster, Gavin Bryar's Sinking of the Titanic. The two pieces share a tonal quality and minimal palette, although Titanic is ultimately the more complex.

While Disintegration Loops is essentially an emotional piece, Architectural Commentaries is one of studied detachment. M Behrens has long been creating impressive electro-acoustic pieces from environmental sound, and here his attention is focussed on the small sounds buildings technology generates and its resonant effects in a variety of room spaces. The resulting constructions of sound feel like architecture in their own right and avoid sonic cliche. Although for the most part quiet, they never drop below the threshold of consciousness as their source material would, and remain fascinating. Anyone who has taken time to sit in an acoustically active modern building and just enjoyed listening to it go about its business will appreciate the pleasures on offer here. I am reminded of sitting in the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich and listening to its automatic environmental controls flickering and twitching around me, and the strange feeling of sonic vacuum you get in a building when forgotten air-conditioning suddenly cuts out. As an effective dramatisation of a largely ignored acoustic environment, it is a huge success.