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Rewind 2021: Critics’ Reflections

I found myself reading a lot this past year, picking up books old and new. Juliane Fürst’s Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations in Soviet Hippieland provided an insight into hippy subcultures of the Soviet Union; Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub explored the pub as a social, political and architectural space; while Kenneth Womack’s Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of The Beatles gave me an excuse to revisit familiar songs and put Peter Jackson’s documentary series into context.

The most influential book I read this year, however, was Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. This is a comprehensive but accessible text on how significant fungi are to life on this planet. Suddenly mushrooms were everywhere, not least in the brilliantly illustrated children’s book Humongous Fungus. In October, my family and I participated in an urban foraging walk and workshop, led by Czech filmmaker Alice Dušová, in East London’s Lea Valley. Both the book and walk changed my outlook on nature, particularly its interrelationship with urban spaces, and helped to shake off my post-lockdown malaise. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2021

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Review: Mute Frequencies – Echo Chamber (self-released, Aug 30)

Conceptually speaking, London sound art collective Mute Frequencies’ first release firmly situates itself in reference and response to “times of pandemic,” but unlike many other creative works I’ve seen, heard, read, etc. with the same topic, Echo Chamber has a timelessness that will endure long beyond the times in which life is still significantly changed, or even when those changes either last and become old hat or disappear into faded memory.

The (re)new(ed) poetic interest in daily tedium recently embraced by artists of all kinds has delved even further into the unutterable truths hidden within our routines than we all already have in the process of experiencing the paring of our lives down to very nearly them and them alone, and this gorgeous 15-minute piece is just one of many artful odes to domestic mundanity that wordless remind us that the banal is not to be taken for granted; not necessarily appreciated, or derided, or avoided, but simply not neglected.

According to the trio of Ilia Rogatchevski and Laura and Kitsuné Rogatchevskaia, the more abrasive textures—seething emf clouds and cranked-up radios set to dead air—“periodically interrupt” what often presents as tranquility in an effort to “remind the listener of the unfortunate global context” that inspired the music, but to me, admittedly someone who is quite partial to “abrasive textures,” the intrusions play several important roles in supporting the familiar sounds of bird chirps, babbling children, and playground equipment in the breeze, none of which turn out to be so negative.

Beyond their “periodic” nature providing a loose, abstract sort of rhythm to glom on to, and their sharper edges engaging in compelling contrast-interplay with the outdoor field recordings, the sudden surges and swarms of electronics act as up-close, almost confrontational channels through which to experience the overall soundscape, much more tactile and therefore graspable than their ephemeral partners.

I’m sure everyone will find their way to their own meaning via these conspicuous conduits, but the purpose behind Mute Frequencies’ work here will inevitably surface, somehow, in any analysis; the eminent neutrality of their auditory lens leaves room for subjective interpretation, even as its very existence affirms the impossibility of these base, innate things ever being fully explained. Round and round we go.

Jack Davidson
Originally published by Noise Not Music, September 2021

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Misantrop Interviewed: Reproaching the Absurd

Text and interview by Ilia Rogatchevski.
Photos by George Nebieridze.

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with Berlin-based producer Misantrop about their new album Reproaching the Absurd, which is out now on Opal TapesThe artist discusses their writing process and talks about how night life, collaborations and musicology inform their work.

Misantrop is the nom de plume of Nicolai Vesterkær Krog, a Danish sound artist based in Berlin. Krog has a background in the music industry as a DJ and events organiser. As well as producing their own music and spearheading the Foul-Up label, Krog has also collaborated with Lasse Björck Volkmann as Glass Knot and with Tobias Rye Adomat aka Splash Pattern. Krog is currently undertaking a master’s degree in sound studies. 

Misantrop’s debut album, Reproaching the Absurd, was produced over the last four years. Its seven tracks explore the thought processes of a reveler’s mind at a club, observing their different mental stages throughout the night and the following day. The record is also a sonic portrait of Berlin. It attempts to channel the city’s energy by tapping into its electromagnetic patterns, as expressed in the track Homebound, via Christina Kubisch’s induction headphones.

Reproaching the Absurd is an engaging intersection of club culture and sound art. In the press release, Krog describes their approach to making the album as “resolutely queer […] draw[ing] influence from the hardcore continuum, techno-dancehall, no wave, harsh noise, musique concrète, pop, ASMR, and beyond.” Misantrop’s collaborators include the saxophonist Jeremy Coubrough, the ambient musician Angelo Harmsworth and Tobias Rye Adomat, who mixed the album. 

Let’s start with your background. Where are you from and what got you interested in experimental music?

I’m from the south of Denmark, from a little island called Falster. I moved to Copenhagen when I was 18 and came to Berlin eight years ago. 

I got into experimental music quite early. I was 13 when I was making noise in the microsound genre. My technical background is all pretty much self-taught. I’ve done a few courses here and there, but nothing special.

When I moved to Copenhagen, I started DJing at parties. Later, I learned piano, because I really wanted to study musicology. Then I moved to Berlin. I was working behind the scenes in the music business and decided to start my label Foul-Up. A few years later, I drifted away from making art and music. That’s when I was like: “Maybe I should go back to university.” Which is why I’m in art school now. 

What are your takeaways from the course?

I’m getting a lot out of it. I needed to restructure my life completely. I needed somebody to provide that structure for me. That’s what going back to school did. It made me completely refocus my life. It provided me with a lot of time to work on my ideas and develop them. Before, earning money came first, and art and music making was reserved for the little free time I had. Now I’m putting artistry first. 

Reproaching the Absurd is a significant departure from the Limerence EP you put out a few years ago. The EP was more dance orientated and beat driven. The new album is reducing those club sounds to something more experimental, violent even. In another interview you mentioned that there are elements of disco, R&B and Eurodance as well as harmonies and chord progressions in the initial stages of the project. What made you strip those elements away?

It took quite a while to get the first EP ready. By the time I was done with it, I was in a different place already. I wanted to do something different. It was me doing club sounds and then injecting something experimental into it. It was very subtle, in a way. But then I was like: “Maybe I should flip the script to make it more clear what it is that I’m actually trying to do”. 

I really like to work a lot with references. I think like a musicologist. I enjoy most kinds of music. Stylistically, there is nothing that I am opposed to, but aesthetically I’m very specific. I was open to everything and just trying out different things. I think I have a tendency to choose references that have the most extreme departures from what I know how to do. With most of the stylistic references, I never actually intended to get there. It was more like setting a destination, even though the goal was actually a detour. For instance, the disco and Eurodance thing, I realised, in the process, that it wasn’t where I was meant to be going. 

I guess that’s the problem with having studied musicology. I’ve learned a lot of rules about music and it’s difficult to unlearn them again. I put a lot of effort into the harmonies and melodies, but it wasn’t working for me: creating a mood that I wasn’t into, a mood that was too emotional for the lyrics. 

Your voice is hidden under the wall of sound. It’s disembodied, almost robotic. What initially interested me about the project was the idea that you go on this journey to a club and experience everything from ecstasy to depression. Were the lyrics an attempt to understand something about yourself from a distance, psychologically speaking?

Yes, definitely. The lyrics were the first things that I did. Reading them back now, it’s all straightforward to me, but I remember that they were very difficult to write. Putting into words what I had been experiencing helped me to actually understand it. 

It is difficult to remember why I wanted to do it, but I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I think there are two reasons. One is that I was in this environment a lot. I was working in the scene. It’s pretty hedonistic. Partying is an expression of joy, right? I felt like I needed to be talking about how there were other experiences within that environment that weren’t very much fun.

The other thing is that I’ve been dealing with depression for a long time, since I was a child. I felt like I was surrounded by this empty empathy that wasn’t doing anything helpful for me. I wanted to expose myself. I didn’t want to be seen as somebody to empathise with. It was a harmony through conflict approach.

Let’s talk about your collaborators. There is a bit of saxophone from Jeremy

Coubrough on The Latent Image and Lingering Transgression, and a bit of guitar from Angelo Harmsworth on Trail of Stasis. How did you meet them and what did they contribute to the record?

I met Jeremy on the dancefloor in Berlin. I thought he looked familiar. I walked over and said “Hi”, before I realised that I didn’t know who he was. We started talking and it turned out that a friend of mine had introduced me to his music that same week. 

Is that TLAOTLON

Yes, it’s impossible to pronounce. 

You played at the KW Institute together?

That was Haku Sungho, but Jeremy and I did play together, yes. It was this place called Villa Kuriosum (Sonic Curiosities, Jan 2020). That was an improvised set. 

Me and Jeremy had known each other for a while. I guess we were just hanging out and then he mentioned that he got his saxophone back. I said I had been contemplating getting someone to play saxophone on The Latent Image

So we went into the studio and ended up having these jam sessions where he played the saxophone and I would be doing voice and some electronic stuff. It was actually really helpful for doing the album, for getting more comfortable working with my voice. You mentioned that my vocals are pretty buried. That’s mostly a reflection of me being shy. 

On the album there is also Angelo Harmsworth, who I’ve known for a few years. We were good friends before Covid, but there are some people who, for some reason, you got a lot closer with during Covid. At least that happened with me and Angelo. Suddenly, we were talking every day. 

We were meeting up once a week and playing what we’ve been working on for each other. I finished six tracks for the album and felt like there was a guitar missing. It turned out that he played the guitar. It already felt like he was a part of the album, because he was giving me a lot of feedback.

The person who really helped, because he did the final mix of the album, was Tobias Rye Adomat. 

You worked together on another EP, Idée Fixe, as Splash Pattern.

Splash Pattern is Tobias’ project. We released the EP as Splash Pattern & Misantrop. That project we were working on for a really long time. We’ve known each other for ten years and, at some point, we became closer. He was coming to Berlin, every once in a while, to hang out. He was actually the first person to whom I’d ever read the lyrics to. One night, we came back from the club and I forced him to read all the lyrics in my kitchen, which was not the most perfect end to an evening. 

I’m also interested to hear about Christina Kubisch’s electromagnetic headphones. 

I did a workshop with her. I got to borrow them for a day, which was a lot of fun.

How did you find the experience?

You’re not walking around with a thing [receiver] in your hand. You’re just wearing headphones and it’s the headphones that are producing the sound as well. It’s very interesting watching people listening to LED panels, lights and electric doors. Getting in the way of other people. It was fun. 

Reproaching the Absurd is out now via Opal Tapes

Originally published by Iklectik Off-Site, August 2021

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Echo Chamber

Echo Chamber is a multichannel sound installation that explores the notions of routine and domesticity in times of pandemic. Composed from field recordings created during lockdown walkabouts and the performance of humdrum activities, the work interrogates the role that repetition plays in our everyday lives.

The sound pieces are accompanied by a series of drawings. These works were created in parallel to the recordings and act as a visual anchor to the sound installation. Made with basic materials such as children’s crayons, the drawings depict, in part, portraits of the couple’s daughter, and aim to evoke a sense of the familial by employing everyday pictorial language.

Echo Chamber is the first exhibition in the Intro : spect series under Project DivFuse, where selected artists are invited to showcase their media-based work on site as a checkpoint of their long term artistic development.

Opening :
20 August 5pm – 8pm
RSVP to divfuse@gmail.com

Exhibition :
21 & 22 August 2pm – 6pm
27 August 3pm – 7pm
28 & 29 August 2pm – 6pm

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On Air: Radio Activity

Abelian Global
abelian.org

Abelian collects round the clock streams of the very low frequency (VLF) radio band. These sounds of ‘natural radio’ are characterised by a series of whistles, crackles and pops, generated by thunderstorms and lightning flashes bouncing off the Earth’s ionosphere. Currently, the site hosts streams from locations in the US, Italy, UK and Germany.

Kindred UK
kindredeverything.com

Based at a record store in Clerkenwell, Central London, Kindred operates as a radio station every Tuesday. Hosting an average of six DJs a day, it specialises in house, techno and garage. Sessions are archived online, but it’s best to visit the shop for the live sets, if you can.

Priyom Global
priyom.org

Not a broadcaster but the site of an international organisation of amateur radio enthusiasts who research number stations. These notorious stations transmit encrypted messages on shortwave frequencies, most likely directed towards intelligence agents across the world. There is a comprehensive directory of current and former stations along with short samples of transmissions, a station schedule and links to live digital streams.

Radio IDA Estonia/Finland
idaidaida.net

IDA is a community station broadcasting two parallel streams from Helsinki and Tallinn. Typically online in weekday daytimes, there is a wide range of programmes including DJ mixes and talk shows. The archive is tagged by genre, so it’s easy to make new connections and interesting discoveries.

WORM Radio Netherlands
worm.org

Located in Rotterdam, WORM is a multidisciplinary art space focusing on alternative new media practices, experimental performance and the development of non-academic knowledge. The radio station broadcasts from the basement and predominantly showcases avant-garde music. Live from around noon onwards every weekday, the full schedule is published on the radio.worm Instagram page.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, July 2021

Image above taken from the Mr Redley & Kristy Harper session at Kindred Radio, June 2021.

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Black Merlin – Scape One

For his first release with Artificial Dance, Black Merlin aka George Thompson takes a departure from the hard-wearing techno and intricate field recording work that he has come to be known for. Scape One is a fifteen-minute psychedelic diversion recorded in one continuous live session. While the track’s sonic characteristics may echo dance music from the turn of the millennium, its pulsating rhythm is more suggestive of the slowly evolving landscapes seen outside of a train window as opposed to raves from the late ‘90s. 

Appearing on the B-side is Gordon Pohl’s remix of Scape One. Like its source material, this track is long and subtle in the way it develops over time, but Pohl dissects the most salient elements of the original to construct a new rhythmic urgency. The high frequency accent that guides the remix does so at a speed that recalls the rotations of Brion Gysin’s stroboscopic Dream Machine, which taps into your brain’s alpha waves, aiding drug-free hallucinations. 

Pohl and Thompson are frequent collaborators and release music together as Karamika. While Scape One is not a collaboration in the strict sense, there is plenty of crossover in the working methodology of the two musicians, especially when it comes to constructing uncomplicated arrangements. 

The repetitive nature of their respective tracks locks the listener into a contradictory sensation of travelling whilst staying seemingly motionless. This sensation is not altogether uncommon, but in this instance it’s not quotidian either. The result is a record that unravels slowly, leaving space for the listener to home in on all the available information and, in the process, discover elements that can be just as unnerving as they are satisfying. 

Records purchased from the Artificial Dance Bandcamp page come with a further two remixes by Pohl as digital-only bonus tracks. Artwork by Steele Bonus. Mastering by Gordon Pohl. Text by Ilia Rogatchevski.

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Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland

Photo: Hippies at their summer camp in Vitrupe, Latvia, 1978 (Photo courtesy Archive G Zaitsev, The Wende Museum, Los Angeles)

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with historian Juliane Fürst about her new history of Soviet hippies and the counterculture of the former USSR.

Juliane Fürst is a historian specialising in Soviet subcultures. She is head of the Communism and Society department at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. Fürst’s interest in Soviet countercultures can be traced back to her first book, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth And The Emergence Of Mature Socialism (2010), which explored anti-Stalinist youth organisations, as well as subcultures like the stilyagi, that emerged after the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War.

For over ten years, Fürst has been researching Soviet hippies and conducted over 130 interviews with former members of the movement. Inspired by the music, fashion and lifestyle of their Western counterparts, the hippies of the USSR challenged the norms of their socialist environment and, despite state repression, survived as an underground community until the early 1990s. The project also spawned a film Soviet Hippies (Terje Toomistu, 2017), on which Fürst served as a historical consultant, and an exhibition at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles/Culver City in California called Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture in the summer of 2018. Her latest monograph Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland is the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union. It is published by Oxford University Press.

Ilia Rogatchevski: What drew you into researching Soviet hippies?

Juliane Fürst: I’m interested in what makes people do radical things. Of course, radicalism is relative. You are radical depending on how harsh your restrictions are. In a more liberal society you have to go to greater lengths to be radical than in a society where you are very restricted, where it’s enough to grow your hair long and dress in a particular way.

In the West, the hippy phenomenon largely died out by the early 1970s, but in the Soviet Union hippies survived until the collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the subculture was so resilient there?

That resilience, even in the face of persecution and difficult life circumstances, is really the merit of the so-called sistema, which was a loose network of hippies. It’s down to the fact that people like Iura Burakov aka Solntse, in Moscow, and later hippy authorities such as Gena Zaitsev, in Leningrad, Sergei Moskalev, in Moscow, and Misha Bombin, in Riga, grasped what needed to happen to make this movement more resilient against dispersion, repression and just petering out. They did that by maintaining an elaborate contact system through address books, travelling, summer camps, writing their own history, creating rituals. They really started to challenge the state monopoly of memory and culture. They basically made sure that their own people knew they were not alone. They survived because they created a community.

Freedom was a key part of hippiedom. How did Soviet hippies define freedom?

In the Soviet Union freedom meant first and foremost freedom from state interferenceIn the West, freedom was very much connected to anti-materialism. There was a rejection of the materialism of the postwar generation, who had fled into domesticity. In the Soviet Union, it was rarely economic privilege the youngsters railed against. Of course, there were economic differences in Soviet families, but these differences were usually the result of political or social privilege, which was bestowed on you by the state rather than economic prowess. The rebellion actually happened against this privilege, because it had to be paid for by loyalty.

It’s striking that a lot of youngsters who came from very privileged households decided to make that rejection. Some of them suffered, some assimilated back into the world of Soviet privilege. Some of them broke, because the repercussions could be quite severe, especially if drugs were involved. Almost all male hippies spent time in psychiatry, partly voluntarily, because they wanted to get out of the army service, partly enforced, because they were deemed not fit for normal society.

That experience of incarceration, imprisonment, forced medication created an even larger desire for individual freedom. If one looks at the manifestos that are written around the concept of freedom, especially by the Soviet hippy Iura Diversant from Moscow, they are often centred around the freedom from physical interference. This, of course, refers to arrests, having your hair cut [by force], but also to the experience of being stripped of your physical rights in psychiatric institutions.

How important a role did ideology play in Soviet hippy culture?

It would be wrong to understand the hippies as an ideological phenomenon. Only part of their self-identification went via ideology. I have one chapter on ideology and it is followed by a chapter on kaif [Russian: high, buzz, pleasure] and, in many ways, the feel was more important for the hippies as a self-identifier. They felt being hippies, they did not think being hippies. But then, of course, the two are not entirely separate from each other.

There were ideas floating around to which they subscribed. The interesting thing is that it was perfectly possible to subscribe to contradictory ideas. Soviet hippies liked an American idea, which was, however, anti-American. Hippies in America defined themselves as being against the Vietnam War, against materialism and, to a certain extent, against America as an imperial power. But [Soviet hippies] actually quite liked the West. They thought that American music was cool. They thought that American hippies were cool. So what did they do with this anti-American element? They kind of just ignored it.

Most of your research stems from first-hand interviews with former hippies. Could you trust the validity of their statements?

That’s the big question. How much can we trust oral history? I can only say that after ten years of interviewing more than 130 people, my impression is that most people want to say the truth as they remember it. You then have to work with their subjective views rather than against them.

Did you speak with any former KGB agents to balance out the story?

It turns out that KGB agents are much harder to find than hippies. The written sources about hippies by the state are mostly uninteresting, even the ones from the KGB, which I could access in the Ukraine [through the Ukrainian SBU Archive]. They repeat the same tropes over and over again.

In the end, I decided that I was more interested in what the hippies thought about the state, in the self-organisation and creation of culture that happened in this community. The KGB work is the most interesting when we come to the 80s and we get this phenomenon of the curator; where the KGB starts to get a more serious engagement with the music scene, because the music scene was the bridge between the more radical hippy movement and a much larger part of youth. They started to pluck people out of that cultural midst and say: “OK, we don’t want you to betray or give away information, we want you to give us an estimation about the scene. You tell us whom we should tolerate and whom we should not.” Gena Zaitsev became one of the organisers of the Leningrad Rock Club. Or there is Sergei Zharikov who went on record (in a different interview, not with myself) saying that he was one of those curators and largely responsible for the punk music scene in Siberia, which was very radical.

The role of hippy-as-curator that you mention seems to be a direct result of ‘the concert that didn’t happen’ in Leningrad. Can you talk about that and the path to the semi-legalisation of rock in the USSR?

I don’t know why, but someone in the Leningrad film industry got this idea that they needed to make a film, which would be a cooperation between East and West and feature a large concert scene where Soviet youngsters would dance to Soviet and Western music. They put an announcement into Leningradskaya Pravda, the Leningrad daily newspaper, saying that on 4 July 1978 this concert would happen on Palace Square – right in the revolutionary heart of Leningrad, where the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace – and would feature The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Santana, Alla Pugacheva and a couple of other acts. A little snippet of the newspaper was sent around the whole country along the hippy information highway. In the meantime, the film was cancelled, but nobody announced it to the public.

On the day, thousands of people assembled waiting for the concert. People waited for about two hours patiently. The square started to fill and they started to chant: “Where’s our music? We want Santana! We want Alla Pugacheva!” The sheer amount of people demonstrated to the authorities that hippies were not an isolated group in society. There were a lot of hippies on the square, but there were a lot of people who just liked rock music. It really transcended all sectors of society. People got very impatient and then the chants started getting more political until they reached: “Down with the Soviet Union! We want our rock music!” People went down Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare in Leningrad, and it came to violent encounters with the police.

The actual riots got crushed within a few hours, but it left quite a shock. For the first time in the Soviet heartlands, the authorities saw how music can mobilise young people and how it was capable of creating such strong emotions, which very quickly could turn against the system. That’s definitely an impetus as to why they started to act. Two most famous examples are the Leningrad Rock Club and the Moscow Rock Laboratory where bands were allowed to play outside the official canon, but under clandestine KGB supervision. That provided a valve. The club was perceived as a space for youth by youth and [the curators] were very good at keeping the KGB presence in the background (they were hiding as trade union representatives).

As you mention, music is an integral part of hippy self-identification and Western bands, particularly The Beatles, played an important role in defining the Soviet hippy lifestyle and fashion sense. In the book you suggest that hippiedom paved the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Not quite, but I would certainly agree that it was one of the factors that facilitated the disappearance of the Soviet system. That The Beatles brought down the Kremlin is of course the Leslie Woodhead theory, which he advances in a BBC documentary [How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, 2010] and subsequent book. The Beatles appeared at the same time as technological innovations such as the magnetophone, which allowed people to record, and increased traffic of goods between East and West. The most important previous influence of Western music had been jazz, but jazz was difficult music, especially as it moved away from swing.

Over the last 30 years of Soviet rule people had been very successful in building up an alternative sphere in which the regime was only necessary as a boogeyman. The really interesting question is hence not why the Soviet Union collapsed – there are many factors starting from economics to party politics and personalities like Gorbachev. What’s really interesting is how in January 1992 people woke up without the Soviet Union and just went on and did their thing. The reason for this was that there were already many structures in place, so when the Soviet superstructure imploded initially not much was felt to have changed. Subcultures served like lighthouses in this kind of society. The hippies might have been small in numbers, but their ideas, their fashion, their music was just a concentration of things that spread in less radical form to the entirety of Soviet youth.

Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland by Juliane Fürst is published by Oxford University Press. Subscribers to The Wire can read Ilia Rogatchevski’s review of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Soviet rock film Leto (Summer) in The Wire 417 via our online archive.

Originally published by Wire, March 2021.

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William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

When I was ten years old, I purchased a little transistor radio. It was cheap and small enough to fit into my pocket. Although I was slightly embarrassed by its pink plastic casing, this thing kept me company on my thirty-minute walk to and from school. I remember taking the radio out with me to the playground one day and turning it on in. Each station, it seemed, was preoccupied with transmitting the same news. I didn’t know what the World Trade Centre was at that point, but the magnitude of what had just happened dawned on me very quickly.

In the 1970s, William Basinski sat in his Brooklyn loft making tape loops. His radio antenna was powerful enough to capture transmissions from the Empire State Building. These broadcasts relayed muzak cover versions of American popular standards. Basinski recorded them, capturing ethereal snippets on magnetic tape. This was sampling before such a concept really existed. Knowing that these recordings were good, but not yet having the confidence to use them in their own right, the classically trained composer boxed them up.

In the early 2000s, when Basinski finally came around to digitising the loops, he discovered that the tape had degraded to such an extent that bits of it would flake off every time it passed the tape head. This meant that the recordings would slowly disintegrate as they were being played and soon became ghostly versions of their former selves.

On the morning of 9/11, Basinski rushed up to the roof of his building and watched the second plane hit the South Tower. As the smoke billowed, he turned on The Disintegration Loops and listened. Beautiful, haunting melodies swelled up around him, mapping their own decomposition. They were at once both hopelessly melancholic and surprisingly resilient. 

Unlike the moment with the pink radio, I don’t know where I was when I first heard William Basinski’s music. Most likely, it was a YouTube recommendation; a full-album stream of Watermusic II. My appreciation of his work had been gradual, much like his music is gradual. Things that at first appear static soon reveal themselves to be filled with dynamism. There is a wealth of possibilities in chance, simplicity and repetition. Basinski’s work showed me that you don’t necessarily need to ‘go anywhere’ with a piece of music. It can stay in much the same place and your mind can wander. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Thames Submarine, January 2021