One of the many, many wonderful things about music is that, even when it takes a long time to say something, it can seize you in its grip, stare you in the eye, and keep you there, while it says it. It can speak slowly to you, unfold its story in soft, drawn-out whispers, in breaths that brush against you; each whisper, each breath, a soft, tired shadow of the one that went before it, each one almost silent, all of them holding you spellbound.
It is this very special power of music that
avant-garde composer, William Basinski, exploits like no one else can or could in his amazing 1979 composition A Red Score in Tile. US
Imagine, if you can, a little stretch of music, a few minimalist notes drawn out of a piano, a vague ghost of a drone cushioning them as they fall downwards and die, the whole thing recorded on an old tape, indistinct, fragile, no more than 20 seconds long. And then imagine the tape looping 136 times, at times the tape, and therefore the notes, stretching, distorting just a little, the tonality and pitch wavering now and then, as if at any moment the tape could disintegrate altogether and forever. It is as if those soft, drawn-out whispers are the breaths of an old and dying person who has just one more thing to say before they leave you.
This is the moment, the eternity, that William Basinski captures so sublimely in this incredible 45 minute composition. The tape itself seems to come to you from far away. It sounds old and tired but incredibly beautiful and at peace. And as it plays over and over and over, its subtle changes wash over you until, slowly, you can feel yourself sinking, drowning in them.
But the beauty of this music lies not so much in its astonishing stillness as in its heartbreaking fragility. You feel that you are listening not really to music, but to the memory of music – and a memory that could fade at any moment. It is music coming from far away, from long ago, from a place and time that hardly anyone knows anymore; and, as you listen to it, to its bare handful of notes, slowly everything else around you seems to die away and you are aware of nothing else – nothing other than this old, worn out tape, playing over and over, embracing you in its unfathomable loneliness.
There must surely be a vast, vast ocean between the ability to create something like this well and creating it badly. It could so easily be something that would bore the bejezzers out of you, or else make you think that all those narcotics you took in your youth have perhaps affected you more than you realised.
But here, in the hands of William Basinski, the effect is staggering. The music is quiet but it fills every corner of your room, your mind; it is slow, but it sweeps you up in itself and you can’t escape its unrelenting flow; it is still and almost unchanging, and yet you feel something within you has been shifted and changed forever after you have heard it.
There is really only one way to listen to William Basinski’s A Red Score in Tile, and, regardless of how you try to listen to it, the music itself will take over and make you listen to it as you should: it will make you shut out everything else, turn out all the lights, turn off all the phones and settle into its frailty – a frailty that somehow has the power to take you as its prisoner, and then to take you with it as, in its final seconds, it fades away into nothingness.
This is music that makes you feel, when it has finished, that if you hit the “PLAY” button again, it might no longer be there.