Preview: Saisonscape – Decay

Steve Lee catches up with LA composer William Basinski ahead of a rare trip to the UK this month

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Saisonscape: Decay is the third instalment in Salford-based Art Assembly’s series portraying changing seasons through experimental music and sonic art. Representing autumn, Decay promises to reflect themes of gradual breakdown and organic decline.

Due to headline these live performances is the incredible American composer William Basinski. Utilising tape loops, his work is both mesmeric and moving. Described by Art Assembly’s creative producer Julia Dempsey as “classically trained, mathematically minded and with a rigorous and exacting approach to composition,” Basinski’s work is as emotional as it is difficult to describe.

In fact, speaking on the telephone from his current home in Los Angeles, the man himself is at something of a loss when attempting to categorise his music. “I’ve heard the terms ambient, contemporary classical, avant garde but…” – a small, rather self-conscious laugh – “…I honestly don’t know. Let’s say all of the above.”

Now in his mid-fifties, Basinski began working with loops while living in San Francisco during 1978. Initially inspired by his partner’s extensive record collection and a basic diagram he stumbled across explaining how to construct a two tape-deck delay system, the young sonic experimentalist “bought a couple of Philips tape decks super cheap in the local junk shop and started playing around. “I’d record anything – the compressor in our freezer had such rich overtones – loop it and play our rented piano over the top. I’d try out everything and the results were very encouraging.”

To a degree, this is the technique he has worked upon with such dedication and precision ever since. During his forthcoming performances in Salford and Liverpool, Basinski will be showcasing latest compositions Cascade and The Deluge. “On stage I’ll be using my two tape decks and a computer and one loop that runs through a series of feedback loops of different lengths, randomly over a period of 30 or 40 minutes, and the computer builds it up in waves to this intense reverberation. And then that gradually gives way and leads to this bold symphonic loop that closes out the show.”

It’s fascinating work, too, with that orchestral punch in The Deluge promising to provide a surprising finale. That the symphonic sample appears at all is entirely down to luck, part of the found sound element that runs through Basinski’s work. “I was using old tape that someone had given me and I just happened to listen to the other side and there was this strident symphonic sample, probably from someone or other’s mix tape back in the seventies. It sounded amazing and it was in the same key as what I already had. It gives a kind of ‘credits rolling at the end of the film’ aspect to the piece.” Due to be combined onstage with visuals courtesy of James Elaine – “his film comes from a natural source but the way he handles the camera is amazing, it’s all quite beautiful and mesmerising” – these rare performances promise to be very special indeed. And if those unfamiliar with Basinski’s work are still unsure just what to expect, the composer himself offers a little advice: “Just come along, close your eyes, trip out and take a little vacation from life.”

Saisonscape: Decay featuring William Basinski, Islington Mill, Salford, 16 Sept and Kazimier, Liverpool, 17 Sept

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