William Basinski: Cascade

With a single endlessly echoing piano loop, aching yet serene, Basinski demonstrates the fluidity of music.
William Basinski

At last year’s Ecstatic Music Festival at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, William Basinski and Man Forever, the percussion ensemble headed by Kid Millions of Oneida, played a three-part set together. The whole performance is still available to stream on the website of the all-classical station WQXR, and it is well worth spending at least an hour of your life with. Man Forever came on stage first, performing a twenty-minute piece for which the term “drum solo” could perhaps be applied but would barely begin to do it justice. They were then joined by Basinski, who did his best to spare the arms of Millions, Ryan Sawyer, and Greg Fox from further torment, having all of them stand in front of but a single cymbal each.

Following a period of suspended rolls, they began to wrench echoing scrapes out of their cymbals by holding them in place and dragging their sticks along the edge. For his half of the piece, Basinski played a repeating, tranquil electronic lament, the kind of which has been his trademark since the The Disintegration Loops. Basinski and Man Forever might have first seemed like a perplexing combination on paper, but in practice it lived up to the festival’s name. After a brief pause, Basinski took the stage alone, spoke to the audience in a more personable and funny than his music alone might suggest, and began to play a variation of Cascade called “The Deluge”.

Cascade is a single 40-minute piece consisting of a tape loop of a distant and spectral piano figure, gently undulating, forever returning to itself in oblong laps. Only in its final minutes does the loop begin to recede, and in its place rises an ethereal denouement of warm, low tones. The piece is so gradual that when the curtain finally does fall the phantom of that piano loop lingers in the ears for long after. Basinski’s work often questions and pushes against not just expectations of structure, but also the necessity of defining what a piece of music can be, whether in the classical sense or the modern, commercial song sense. Cascade is available for purchase in traditional physical and digital formats, but the commonalities with everything else out there in the marketplace get hazier from there.

The piece has a beginning and an end, but in certain moments of listening to “Cascade”, the more such distinctions feel like formalities, forced upon it by the limitations of our physical world. Then again, in other moments, it feels like a natural length for the piece, surely arrived at by its creator after countless drafts of different lengths. In fact, in an email from Basinski to his fans this past April announcing the release of Cascade and The Deluge, which Temporary Residence will be releasing on vinyl this coming July, he noted that he “agonized over these and almost threw them in the trash.” It is fortunate that he didn’t toss them out.

“The Deluge” is the same piano loop as Cascade “processed through a series of feedback loops of different lengths”. Though it begins in essentially the exact same place as Cascade, the feedback that it envelops increasingly shows through the skin as the piece endlessly unfurls. Its denouement is also much more pronounced: a short run of different piano loops followed by a striking full orchestral swoop (buried under crackling decades of aging, naturally) that repeats, rises and fades away.

As on record, this was how “The Deluge” ended when Basinski played it that night at the Merkin Concert Hall. (Watching him continually add and take away all those bits of tape from his analog machine made the performance more visually engaging than one might expect.) Why Basinski decided to go with a much less dramatic ending for Cascade might seem arbitrary, but by inserting just enough difference between the live recording and the studio version to allow them their own separate titular identities, again he highlights how fluid boundaries in music can be.

RATING 8 / 10