My first event of the festival was an overwhelming musical experience. Arriving upstairs at Gabe’s, they had set up chairs down front. A healthy crowd showed up, which is great when you consider how far removed these artists are from anything resembling commercial pop music.
Teaadora opened the show with a set of melodic songs presented in spare arrangements of bass, guitar and ‘cello. The fact that she sings lyrics might make her at first the odd person out at this show, but her songwriting isn’t based on verse/chorus/verse forms; they are formed around one repeating harmonic progression, which mirrors the explicitly loopy constructions of Barwick & Basinski. Even with a static harmonic bed, there’s plenty of drama and progression in Teaadora’s work; her voice rises to a high, clear peaks, and the ‘cellist and bassist accent and embellish.
Julianna Barwick performed in silhouette against projected loops of oceans and waves took us further away from traditional song-craft. She’s what’s known as a looper, someone who builds compositions from recording and looping her own voice and building up a piece in layers as you watch. There’s a whole musical subculture of looping, which–like anything else–generates music of wildly varying quality. Barwick is not a noodler. The pieces she performed at Gabe’s are things that grew out of considerable compositional craft. That several pieces were familiar to me from watching her youtube videos takes nothing away from the improvisational freedom of her performance.
The way that she fearlessly deploys her lovely, pure voice creates a virtual cathedral of echoing sound.The layers of her voice melt together over the course of each song until they become obscured by generation loss and turn into an abstract tonal wash. A music critic’s glib analogy popped into my head: “It’s Enya sings My Bloody Valentine!” Which is unfair to Barwick, Enya, and My Bloody Valentine all at the same time, but it does reflect some of the character of the overwhelming sonic impact of Barwicks performance, and she didn’t even need to get dangerously loud to achieve that effect.
William Basinski’s music embraces may of the signifiers of the ‘new classical’ music that grew up in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. He has embraced Steve Reich’s tape loop techniques without apology, and the minimalist repetition of Philip Glass, Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. It is a mark of his singular talent that he’s anything but a “me too” artist; no one else is doing what he does. His Disintegration Loops albums comprised the exact same technique for every piece: he plays tape loops that gradually degrade in sound quality as the oxide flakes off the tape. And yet he created music that is emotionally haunting, beautiful, and austere.
His performance started with two tape recorders playing seemingly pre-disintegrated loops of short piano phrases. I have no idea what he was doing technically to achieve the effects that came out of this simple setup. Obviously the loops were of different lengths, so each time through the loop, one phrase would coincide with a different part of the other loop. But either through subtle digital processing, or EQ tweaks, for the 10 minutes or so the loops played, the static method yielded a ‘never the same stream twice’ constant, rippling change. I suspect that some of the things I heard were happening in my own head; repetition does that to you–you start hearing things that aren’t there.
The second part of his performance was digital, but had the same warm, out of focus low fi quality. It was based almost entirely on a very simple loop of a half step descending resolution–from F sharp major to F Major–that phased and morphed for roughly twice the length of the first piece. I don’t know how long he performed because at some point my eyes closed and I passed into a hypnotic trance, suspended on the cusp of that dissonant resolution. When he finally finished it, I was startled. I could have stayed in the place Basinski took us forever.