William Basinski, The River

Released: 2002

William Basinski originally created The River in 1983 using Muzak tape loops and shortwave radio static. These sounds were, according to the Raster-Noton web site, "slowed down and mixed live to cassette from two 50s Norelco reel-to-reel decks with a random accompaniment of shifting shortwave radio static."

When I first heard about this release, I was immediately attracted to the concept. I've been interested in shortwave radio for some time (thanks largely to The Conet Project), and creating musical compositions in real time out of sampled shortwave signals seemed like a great idea, one that I've used in my own work. I didn't know whether the music would be any good--it was, after all, 20 years old, and in the world of electronic music, 20 years is about a millennium. However, I was eager to see how this artist made use of shortwave signals, no matter how "ancient" it might sound. Boy, was I an idiot. The River is anything but antiquated. This is a wonderfully rich, rewarding, deep, chaotic composition that should be the standard for all ambient music for the next 20 years.

It's a simple work, really, just like all great music. It consists of Muzak orchestral loops repeated at different speeds over and over and over, with the static added in varying degrees of intensity and across a variety of frequencies. The only variation is really between the two disks--not in the sounds themselves (the same loop is used on both disks) but how those sounds are shaped and ordered.

On the first disk, the loop--a slow-moving, simple synth and string melody--dominates, and the shortwave static plays a secondary role. The effect of putting the loop in the foreground is to emphasize the long, slow procession of the melody as it floats around in our heads. The work is called The River, after all, and here the river seems a literal thing, the melody acting as the currents bobbing and weaving past us in their eternal march forward. The static, in the background, is like the ambient noise surrounding the river, centering the current at a specific time and place.

Things change for the second disk, where the static is pushed more prominently into the foreground, at times even obscuring or occluding the loop's march forward. Moreover, the loop itself seems to move a bit faster, as if we're suddenly standing at a different part of the river--near where the river collides with the ocean, perhaps. There is a greater sense of a collision between the two elements at play here, yet the end result is not chaos or destruction but creation, as if the ambient noise is transforming that slow, simple loop into something not quite so slow, not quite so simple.

This is Basinski's masterwork, and yet it is only being released now, 20 years after it was created. Why? Well, perhaps because Raster-Noton's founder, Carsten Nicolai, didn't have a label in 1983; perhaps the world needed to hear the microsounds of Bernhard Gunter, Richard Chartier, and others before Basinski's elliptical music finally made sense. Whatever the reason, it's here now and it's something that all fans of electronic music should cherish.

Raster-Noton Home Page

William Basinski's Home Page

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