William Basinski, Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive
William Basinski is one of the most important musicians working today. Ironically, most of his music was actually created in the early 1980s. That's when he created the Muzak meets shortwave radio epic, The River; that's when he created the tape loops that would eventually disintegrate into The Disintegration Loops; and that's when he created his most recent release, Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive. While Variations is not quite as essential as the earlier works, it is still one of the best releases of 2004.
Variations consists of eight lengthy pieces (the shortest is 9:18 and the longest is 23:15) spread over two disks. Each work is very simple. A piano loop is created and then cloned. The identical loops are then played randomly against one another, creating feedback that slowly transforms the initial loop into brand new "variations" on the originals. Whether these variations are, in any way, "chrome" or "primitive" probably depends upon one's definition of chrome and primitive. Personally, I don't find them all that primitive, except that they are less complete, more muddled than the more civilized piano piece parents. However, there is a shimmering quality to each of the pieces, a metallic undercurrent that bubbles up as the feedback grows increasingly complex, that suggests bright, shiny chrome (at least, in the classic 50s car sense).
Basinski calls this type of music creation "breeding": the cellular creation of new music through the almost sexual coupling of earlier musical cells. It is, in theory, a fascinating approach to making music, one that has, in recent years, become a staple of experimental electronic artists (a good example is Taylor Deupree's 2000 Ritornell release, .N). Of course, Basinski created his work long before computers were capable of such nanotechnological feats. That's impressive, but it's hardly a justification for the music. There are plenty of groundbreaking musical works that are simply not interesting listening. However, most experimental artists don't have Basinski's ability to ground their music in and around beautiful melodies. Basinski's experiments never stop being listenable; this is true even when those beautiful melodies are being torn apart (as on The Disintegration Loops) or mutating into something new (as in this work).
Take "Part 6," one of the shorter works (at 13:34). It begins (as they all do) with a simple piano loop, one that even I could play (with my one-finger-at-a-time approach to piano). As with the rest, this little loop is joined by its clone, randomly placed against the original (in this case, just after the first note). For a time, these two loops complement one another, creating a single, slightly more complex loop. But then the real fun starts: echoes of the initial loops start to blur over and otherwise cloud both the original and the clone, and soon those echoes breed more echoes, followed by echoes of echoes and echoes of the echoes of echoes. The effect is a bit like the way patches of fog roll into an area, obscuring some views while leaving others untouched. The original loops are never completely obscured here, but, as the track moves forward, the echoes ebb and flow. Sometimes the original loops are clearly audible (no fog); sometimes they are buried under a collage of feedback (fog). However, even when the feedback is at its densest, the song never loses its beauty or tranquility. In some ways, the feedback adds to the beauty, for it dampens the piano tones, slowly molding the work's overall sounds into something soft, warm, and peaceful.
Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive is not my favorite Basinski composition; that would be The Disintegration Loops. This one is beautiful and fascinating, but it lacks the grandiose power that makes his greatest work so great. Basinski himself calls Variations his "youthful experiments," as if the work he did here was merely a prelude to more mature efforts. This is true. However, this is still an incredibly beautiful, incredibly rewarding work. I have been listening to this music for the past two weeks without pause, and I am continually discovering new sounds that I had never heard before. This is a treasure of a work; that it does not match Basinski's other works is more a comment on the incredible power of those other works than a disparaging comment on this one.
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