Features | Concerts

William Basinski & London Contemporary Orchestra

By Matt Main | 27 August 2012

August 12th felt like a significant ending for London. On the evening the Olympics, heralded as Britain’s greatest sporting hour, drew to a close, the city’s noise was appropriately replaced by murmurs. Stewards pottered around Waterloo station morosely for the last evening; there was a palpable uncertainty as to whether the closing ceremony should be mourned or celebrated. I bought these tickets to this rendition of Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003) not really thinking of the night it coincided with, and I went with a close friend who is leaving for a year in China in a week or so. That’s a different kind of ending, an open-ended one, the kind that Basinski’s music (and specifically The Disintegration Loops) reflects: impermanent, slow-burning, but difficult to process nonetheless. Because it is not definitive, it is not obvious how best to respond.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall is a part of London’s Southbank Centre, situated right on the Thames, the city’s defining geographical landmark. The London Contemporary Orchestra had been booked to play two suites of The Disintegration Loops as the final night of a series of concerts curated by Antony Hegarty. It was a fitting, if overshadowed choice, and even in the venue a large number of people remained downstairs to watch the closing ceremony on a larger screen. But for a piece of music that is so commonly associated with New York and 9/11, it felt entirely of a place with London on that night.

I had wondered how the original might be transferred to an orchestral setting. The album is famed for its origins as an attempt to digitize Basinski’s older tape loops, and neither format is particularly related to classical instruments. These logistical issues were overcome in curious ways: the crackle of tape hiss was emulated by the steady unwinding of cling-film next to a microphone; the final buzz before silence the simple bows of the double bass. But these were concerns that rarely reared their heads once the performance had begun, such was the ease with which the listener could recognize the pieces.

Right down to the texture of the sound, “dlp 2.2” was unmistakeable. Violinists used pizzicato to recreate the wear of the frayed tape reel, and horns engulfed the entire orchestra at points. But it was “dlp 1.1” that was most affecting, a shortened version of the Disintegration Loops’ longest track that nonetheless excavated the tortuous ending to perfection—the final wind towards an finite point that is always out of reach. Arranger Maxim Moston captured perfectly the dive and then lift back up once more of the strings, ever quieter, ever slower, despite the bleat of the horns, to the point where you question how much these values really are shifting, and the oppositions between instruments dissolves. Even at the conclusion, it is held for five spectacular minutes of silence, burst open only by nervous coughs and uncomfortable fidgeting on leather chairs. I think the point of the Loops even when they first originated under Basinski is this ending, or lack of it, the absence of finality in the midst of a city and people that think it a necessity. The endings we impose need not be so absolute.