Sentimental Duration

FT on William Basinski at Issue Project Room

William Basinski, Durational Performance for Suzanne, 2019. Performance view, Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, November 9, 2019.

WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, dreaming about New York and reading weeks-old issues of the Village Voice, the extended and even epic creative moments were the ones I most wanted to experience: La Monte Young playing the music he famously refused to release in recorded form; Lou Reed or Patti Smith performing multiple nights in intimate venues; spending a whole day at the Guggenheim watching Andy Warhol’s Sleep, 1963, or Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” 1994–2002. Before YouTube and file sharing, these adventures couldn’t be accessed secondhand; you just had to be there, which I wasn’t. I remember the agony of reading about Anohni’s performances with the Johnsons at Joe’s Pub when all I had to listen to was “Cripple and the Starfish” on a split single with Current 93. As it turns out, her first-ever performance as “Antony and the Johnsons” was an element of a 1997 installation by William Basinski. Though he became more widely known at the beginning of the new millennium for his four-LP The Disintegration Loops (2002–2003), Basinski was a creative force in New York for decades before that, performing with a number of bands and opening a studio and performance space—Arcadia, on North Eleventh Street in Williamsburg—that operated from 1989 until 2005, fueling and hosting the New York loft underground’s last wave.

Basinski’s November 9 show at Issue Project Room, billed both as a durational performance and as a retrospective, celebrated his career with a number of works (or excerpts) anywhere from three minutes to an hour long. Titled Durational Performance for Suzanne, the evening commemorated the tenth anniversary of the death of Suzanne Fiol, Issue’s founder and an ardent supporter of Basinski’s work. A journey through the artist’s creative development, the music began with simple drones and gradually grew more complex. An hour and a half in, the first bits of melody appeared, four notes in a descending minor scale, flickering thinly through the oscillating tones. Three hours in, the drones finally transformed into the eerie, melancholic loops for which Basinski is best known. Around 11 PM, five hours in, we were treated to the mournful, pulsating opening from volume one of The Disintegration Loops. The night concluded with a new piece of music.

The movement from drone to loop is a shift in temporality. The drone excludes measured time, forming a flat zone of perception that simulates and facilitates contemplation: Either you lose yourself in it or you experience every second individually as the relentless repetition of individuated moments rather than as continuous duration. The first few minutes of drone music are the most difficult, your attention constantly tries to shift. Once you reach a continuous plateau of perception, time melts away. As often happens to me at drone shows, in the first five minutes I found myself wondering how far I would make it into the performance. After that, the next fifty-five minutes washed past me, and when the piece ended with a round of applause I suddenly noticed that an hour had gone by.

A drone separates you from the world, demanding fixation; its primary qualities are continuity and intensity. Drones can be beautiful and fascinating and powerful, but they rarely evoke emotion, except indirectly, through reflection. A loop, on the other hand, gives birth to its own little world, a pocket dimension with its own moods and affects. The loop is the foundation of most contemporary popular music: Techno, hip-hop, and pop have all exploited its qualities.

William Basinski, Durational Performance for Suzanne, 2019. Performance view, Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, November 9, 2019. All photos: Cameron Kelly McLeod.

Basinski’s ghostly arpeggio piano motifs hint at Philip Glass’s looping repetitions but temper Glass’s aloof Minimalism with a calm, warm glow reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994). Often billed as an avant-garde composer, Basinski might equally be called an ambient or electronic musician if distinctions like that mattered. His work has a recurring watery theme—see Watermusic (2000), The River (2002), and Cascade (2015)—but the gorgeous projections by light artists Seth Kirby and Brock Monroe echoed the galactic themes of Basinski’s latest release, On Time Out of Time (2019), which includes the sound of black holes merging. Unfolding on the giant back wall of the theater to wonderful effect, less an ocean than a cosmic expressionism, the projections’ distorted fractality was particularly impactful during the opening drone section.

Any event of this length is a challenge to both its organizers and its audience—not only in terms of the intellectual demands on the spectators’ attention, but also on the most ordinary physical level: Where do we sit? Where do we look? When should we go to the bathroom? Arranged for a performance, the space was perhaps not ideal for an eight-hour durational experience. There was a semicircular carpeted area directly in front of the stage in which people could sit or lie on the floor, but the plastic chairs that filled the rest of the room started to get uncomfortable after the first five hours or so. Considering the state of the city and the arts, Issue’s need to fill the room is understandable.

During the first section, Basinski actively mixed and shaped the sound onstage, but for much of the night he seemed to be sitting with his hands in his lap, leaving the audience unsure of whether we should ignore him. Bookending the night with two “live” performances and sandwiching the retrospective between them would have helped the audience divide their concentration and absolved Basinski himself of having to sit onstage that long. In fact, he took frequent breaks, and why not? The evening was eight hours long.

Minor inconveniences aside, Issue Project Room’s commitment to this kind of long-form endeavor is remarkable, as is their ability to collect an earnest and committed audience in an often-cynical milieu. The projections and the enveloping temporality of the music require the kind of epic creative space that’s hard to imagine in New York today outside of large institutions and mega-galleries. In a patched-up old Brooklyn theater, coming and going as I pleased while the cold threatened outside, I felt like I was watching something I thought I’d missed.