Orchestrating Imperfection: William Basinski/LCO at Meltdown Festival
By now there’s an established tradition of orchestrated versions of electronic music. Kraftwerk, Jeff Mills and Aphex Twin and others have all been orchestrated, sometimes very memorably, sometimes less so.
William Basinski‘s music fits into this lineage but is much more of a challenge, since it requires the orchestration of grainy originals sourced from degraded reel-to-reel tape recordings of much earlier works. This means that the orchestrations are already two steps removed from the original sounds.
The story of these Disintegration Loops already carries great emotional weight. Basinski completed the work of producing new originals from his damaged tapes on September 11th, 2001 and spent the rest of the day observing and filming the apocalyptic spectacle from his New York roof while listening to the fresh recordings, which instantly became a lament for the events of the day.
If some orchestrations of electronics seem like interesting but secondary interpretations of the originals, these arrangements by Maxim Moston, skilfully played by the London Contemporary Orchestra, actually introduced new depth and power to Basinki’s work.
The result is all the more impressive given that the music is intensely repetitive and based on slowly intensifying decay and flutter played out over long durations. Individual players will repeat the same short phrases hundreds of times in the course of a single Basinski work.
The Meltdown performance included the world premiere of the Disintegration Loops 2.1 and the hall was packed from the start. From the outset of the piece the brass section impressed, creating waves of sound that mimic electronics but have their own power and warmth.
As time passes other elements creep in, notably repeated pizzicato string patterns. Sometimes these seem to be a little halting or uncertain, but that’s entirely appropriate to the corroded, imperfect nature of the originals. The piece had great dignity and solemnity but also more ethereal elements and by the end the feeling is more sublime than mournful.
A smaller group of players take the stage for 1.1 and the feeling is instantly quite different. By comparison to 2.1 it’s initially almost poppy, far brighter and lighter. Had it remained in this mode it would have seemed like a light but unmemorable contemporary classical piece. Two factors prevented this. One was the deftness of the percussion players, repeating the same phrases continually until the rhythm became seductive and convincing rather than overly jaunty as it had initially seemed.
The other was how well the epic deceleration of the original piece was arranged and performed by the orchestra as a whole. Once the slow, graceful decay of the piece became tangible, each repetition became bittersweet: it was clear that each took us closer to the end but also clear that the end was going to be approached in a stately and graceful manner.
In the final section the repetitions were ever slower and the notes ever further apart and I’ve rarely experienced such a drawn-out and memorable ending to a piece. Even when the last notes had faded it wasn’t over. The lights remained low and the conductor remained tense and poised for at least another two minutes of silence during which the audience respectfully but tensely waited to break into applause at the end of a very memorable and innovative concert.