William Basinski – ‘The Disintegration Loops’: Round 55 – Rob’s choice

William Basinski - The Disintegration LoopsAll songs and all records have stories. Some arrive preceded by them, either by artificial hype, by personal testimony or by the weight of historical significance. Some music comes to us completely fresh but within seconds we begin to weave a tapestry of our own tales and experiences into their fabric, helping us to make our own sense of them.

William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’, a set of works which span 5 albums, has a story. As we listened to it this evening, the subject of whether the music and the story could or should be separated worried us like no other I can remember in our preceding 50+ meetings.

If you’ve never heard the pieces before, you may choose to seek them out and hear them free from their associations, their assumed and imposed meanings. I’ll add a link to a YouTube clip of ‘d|p 1.1 below, but you’ll want to avert your eyes and use only your ears if you want a completely association-free experience. Certainly this was one of the possibilities we struggled with when we listened. Tom hadn’t heard the origin story before and we couldn’t help feeling that we’d somehow blighted his experience by allowing the myth to precede the music. But then, who but Basinski and a few of his friends has ever heard this music without the story?

To be accurate, ‘Disintegration Loops’ has two stories. One concerns the way it was made. The other concerns the way it was used. Both stories are told here in a long interview with Basinski by John Doran of The Quietus.

It seems inappropriate, somehow disrespectful, to describe this monumental work as a product of luck. Would that be good luck? Even worse perhaps. And yet without happenstance, fortune, unplanned calamity, it would not exist and without yet more serendipity, coincidence, unplanned connection, it would not have gained such resonance and meaning. 

In large part, it is the beauty in unplanned occurrence, and specifically the uncontrollable, unpredictable march of decay, which this work captures intrinsically and has come to symbolise extrinsically. That the work – a series of repeating, slowly changing loops – when shorn of its accompanying backstory and the palimpsest of meaning which it has since has accrued, remains as powerful, moving and beautiful as it is, is perhaps the real miracle. It does seems to me that even freed from what we come to know about the pieces, this is heart-stopping music. But then, I can never truly know.

And yet, and yet, even from this simple flow and ebb of sound, amidst all these noble and humane reactions, new meanings emerge each time I listen. Tonight I find myself contemplating trust, of all things, because, and whisper this, there’s 0.1% of me as listener that can’t quite accept that this ever actually happened, that this work was ever produced as the story would have us believe. Some of the detail doesn’t quite seem to add up and, ultimately, I find myself wanting to know more and more about the minutiae of its production, more in fact than I have wanted to know about any other record I can remember. Ironic, knowing that conscious thought and ‘production’ in the sense of the deliberate act of making, was apparently not so big a factor.

Perhaps the reason this music ties in so perfectly with what it has been asked to symbolise is that in their own unimaginable ways they each tell us that sometimes the fantastical, the impossible, really does happen. In fact, they say, look around you. It’s happening all the time.

And on we go. We debate the story and we debate the context and we debate the manufacture and we debate the impact and we find so many ways to question and praise and doubt and affirm the work but ultimately that seems so much piffle. The work transcends.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOr8TlnqsY%5D

Nick listened: Rob’s done a very good job of not actually revealing any of the backstory to this record, so (despite my reputation for spoilers) I’ll endeavor to do the same.

I’ve been wanting to hear this for literally years; Stylus was one of the first and most vocal places to praise it way back when (don’t click that if you don’t want the backstory) but it seemed almost impossible to get hold of and inordinately expensive, so for some reason I never got round to hearing it. I pretty much squealed with delight when Rob pulled it out, and enthusiastically joined in imparting the whole context and narrative that goes alongside it.

It’s hard if not impossible to disentangle the music from its context, and any description of the music sans context sounds prosaic to say the least, if not downright dull; it is, essentially, just slowly, minutely changing ambient loops that go on for a long time and, somehow, seem loaded with sadness and profundity. Sonically, aesthetically, it’s not a million miles away from Stars Of The Lid, or Aether by The Necks, or Discreet Music by Eno, or a Buddha Machine, or a dozen and then some other minimal drone loops that exist. Is it better? Is it more mystical, more profound? The context is, to be blasphemously cynical for a moment, an amazing marketing gimmick.

I borrowed this from Rob and played it at Emma a couple of days later, sans context. She said she found it comforting and familiar, and that it felt more part of an art installation than a piece of music-qua-music, even more so than some other ambient stuff we own. When I explained the context, though, she felt immediately that it was somehow perfectly connected to it, that she somehow knew this already, and wondered whether we’d already seen the above video somewhere, somehow. Maybe we have, or maybe it really is a piece of serendipity.

Tom Listened: Emperor’s new clothes or a brilliant innovation…or a bit of both? I have no idea and have given up trying to work it out!

Brian Eno – Another Green World – Round 6: Nick’s choice

Knowing that Rob has never knowingly listened to Eno, and being more than a little interested in the pioneering producer (we share a birthday in addition to many attitudes regarding music, and as well as many of his records I also have a number of his iPhone generative music apps, and own a set of Oblique Strategy cards), I was always going to choose one of his records to play at Devon record Club, and it was pretty much always going to be this one (as it’s my favourite). The question was only ever when. Rob’s own house, given that he’s never heard Eno before, seemed to be the obvious choice. So there we are.

I first heard Another Green World while studying at university, and I’ve owned three copies over the years since; that original CD issue, plus the new remaster from about six years ago, and also a 12” LP copy, which I keep framed on a wall. Although me saying of a record “that’s one of my favourite records ever” has become something of a comedy catch-phrase at Devon Record Club, in the case of Another Green World it is absolutely true: I don’t know what the other 49 would be, specifically, but if I was forced to take 50 record with me to a desert island or suchlike, this one is coming with me.

Mythologically, Another Green World bridges the gap between Eno’s early glam rock solo records, like Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and his later ambient albums, like Music For Airports. In truth, though, Eno actually recorded his first fully ambient record, Discreet Music, before he recorded Another Green World (both came out in 1975, Another Green World in September and Discreet Music in November), meaning that actuality is, as usual, more complex and less linear than the stories we think of as being history. I’ve just read Geeta Dayal’s excellent 33 1/3 book on Another Green World, and she recounts the relationship between the two records, and 1977’s Before And After Science, which is often thought of as a precursor to Another Green World, expertly.

Literally, though, Another Green World does bridge the gap between rock and ambient, being made up of five vocal tracks and nine instrumental ones, the two types of song sequenced relatively evenly across the course of the album (unlike, say, Bowie’s Heroes or Low, which both group the ambient tracks together on side two).

It starts judderingly, with the quasi-funky motions (courtesy in part due to Phil Collins, who may be an odious twat, but who sure can play the drums) and elongated, timeless textures of Sky Saw, and the album slowly becomes more and more gentle from thereon in. The lyrics, when they’re present, mean nothing, and are sung with Eno’s typical flat intonation; Another Green World is almost entirely about the textures, the motions, the architectures: I find the slow, simple chord progressions of and layered sonic materials of The Big Ship almost unbearably moving.

Most of the time I can’t discern guitars from synthesizers from pianos from “electric elements” from “unnatural sounds” from “organ and tape” from “treated rhythm generator” (all of which and more are listed in the sleeve as being played), but the individual elements are not the point here; Another Green World’s genius is in how the components combine, interact, and alter each other through context. Tellingly I have never, as far as I can remember, listened to Another Green World on headphones; I always play it in full, in order, via speakers, whether I’m busy being occupied with other things or trying to concentrate on the album alone.

Interestingly I learnt from Geeta’s book that Another Green World was recorded in a rush, under pressure, with no songs (save I’ll Come Running) prepared in advance, and largely took shape in post-production, as it were, with Eno editing together disparate performances and ideas in a similar manner to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, another two of my favourite records ever.

Tom listened: I only own two Brian Eno records – Here Come the Warm Jets and Music For Airports – and they are so different that it is difficult to believe that they have been made by the same artist. Another Green World has been one of my ‘most wanted’ for a long time now but, as a vinyl junkie, my searching has always ended in disappointment. One of the aspects of this record that I found most fascinating (other than the fact that it is totally and utterly marvelous) is that it enables the listener to see the route from Eno’s initial ‘glam punk’ eclecticism to his late 70s minimalist ambient stuff. Rob and I were amazed by the production on this record; to think that this album was released at a time when Mud, The Sweet, The Nolan Sisters, The Bay City Rollers, Brotherhood of Man et al were producing such drivel and yet 35 years on, it sounds as though it could have been released yesterday. An essential record, methinks by one of rock music’s few geniuses.

Rob listened: PiL, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Fall. They got me aged 15 and told me, directly or otherwise, that if it was pre-1976 and it wasn’t the Velvet Underground or the Stooges, then I shouldn’t be listening to it. I obeyed, and even this far down the line I reckon the artists who have genuinely breached that particular line in the sand are countable on one hand (Beefheart, Dylan, Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder… erm… I own ‘Solid Air’ and ‘Astral Weeks’?). If I have to go back and get acquainted with Eno, who’s going to listen to that Archers of Loaf b-sides compilation?

Still, ‘Another Green World’ was full of very pleasant surprises. I expected floating ambience, but instead got sharp, crisp, clever electronic rock music that sounded both timeless and clearly directly influential on much of the stuff we’ve been listening to since its release. I’d buy it, but there’s a Death By Milkfloat double live album out next week.