Launched after the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the Manchester International Festival held its first event in 2007 and offers a great opportunity to see artists that you rarely get the chance to see in this part of the country. The biennial arts festival showcases a diverse range of talent from around the world over the course of just over two weeks, with this year’s event being held between 29th June and 16th July at venues all across the Greater Manchester area.
Houston-born, New York-based experimental composer/sound sculptor William Basinski usually performs in the UK about once a year. However, more often than not these have taken place in London. Inspired by the work of minimalists such as John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno, as well as German artists Cluster and Harmonia, Basinski has been creating music since the 1970s but only released first album in 1998 with the archival ‘Shortwavemusic’. Since then though his output has been nothing short of prolific, releasing over 20 albums in the past two decades.
Most people will recognise him for ‘The Disintegration Loops’, a four volume 9/11 lament created from decaying tapes which he released between 2002 and 2003. The music that Basinski creates is perhaps best described as a timeless blend of ambient, drone and choral sounds with elements of musique concrète that’s very melancholic but also quite spiritual and deeply affecting. Thematically, much of his work has focused on time and the realities of human existence, such as morality, memory, degeneration and fear.
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At Manchester’s Pavilion Theatre, a temporary venue erected in Albert Square for the duration of the festival, Basinski was there to play his most recent album in full. Comprised of two 20-plus minute pieces created from old tape fragments which had been chewed by the cat of an old roommate, ‘A Shadow of Time’ is arguably his finest work since ‘The Disintegration Loops’ was released 15 years ago. Widely acclaimed by both critics and fans, it will likely appear on a number of album of the year lists come December.
Suffering from a bit of a cold he acquired from a recent show in Berlin, Basinski came across as being in a slightly irritated but also very talkative mood. After first complaining about some issues involving his set up (wires in the wrong sockets etc.), he soon moved on to discuss the current state of the world. In a similar vein to the Bill Hicks joke about how all the good people are taken us from while we allow the worst of our species run wild, Basinski spoke about the passing of David Bowie and how big of a loss he was to this world.
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It was a fitting introduction given that the first of two pieces performed was a tribute to the Starman himself. Titled ‘For David Robert Jones’, it was created shortly after his death in January 2016 and is one of the most stunning pieces of music released this year. A quite beautiful but also very mournful piece, it’s just as mesmerising live as it is through a pair of headphones in the comfort of your own home. The introduction of a tenor sax about quarter of the way through alongside the main choral loop ties the whole composition together, which then gradually becomes more eerie when a foreboding drone joins during the final section.
The second piece and title-track was a much darker piece and contrasted nicely with the more emotive Bowie eulogy. The glassy, high-pitched notes which open the piece were gradually replaced by a droning sound that was originally created using an old Voyetra 8 synthesizer. Slightly longer than the opening piece, there were subtle changes throughout before the droning gradually faded from view to be replaced by delicate piano loop for the final 5-minutes, adding warmth and fragility to what was largely cold and machine-like.
Those in the audience who arrived too late to claim one of the hundred or so available seats had the right idea by sitting or lying on the floor, either directly in front of the stage or in the aisle. It’s by far the best way to experience the profound and emotive music that Basinski creates. A truly singular and original artist.