REVIEW: William Basinski, Claire Rousay at Thalia Hall
William Basinski arrived in Chicago at Thalia Hall last Wednesday evening as part of his “The Last Symphony” tour. Opening for him was Claire Rousay. The concert was seated, providing an appropriately contemplative and intentional atmosphere for the performances.
Originally from Texas, William Basinski is an experimental-ambient composer, sound artist, and classically trained clarinetist and saxophonist known for his work with reel-to-reel tape decks, tape loops and found sounds. Starting in the late 70’s he began building a massive repertoire of compositions incorporating these techniques in conjunction with various electronic instruments. He eventually relocated to both San Francisco and New York, the latter in which he co-ran an arts space and studio called Arcadia with his partner James Elaine. Fast forward to the early 2000’s, Basinski began creating masters of his archived works, and while doing so he found that the old tapes would gradually decay as they played which thus became the concept for his seminal four-part album series “The Disintegration Loops”; finishing the recording process on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the album artwork depicts the New York skyline captured by Basinski during the event, and the album itself is dedicated to the victims of the attacks.
Into the 2000’s and 2010’s, William Basinski moved to Los Angeles and continued expanding his archive. Some of his most well-known works include 2003’s “Melancholia”, 2009’s “92982”, 2017’s “A Shadow in Time”, 2018’s “On Time Out Of Time” and 2020’s “Lamentations.” He has also collaborated on works with other composers including Lawrence English (“Selva Oscura”) and Janek Schaefer (“…On Reflection”). Basinski’s most recent release is “The Clocktower at the Beach”, originally recorded in 1979 when he was living in San Francisco.
Claire Rousay is a Los Angeles-based experimental artist known for her immersive ambient soundscapes that obscure the lines between everyday life and music. She utilizes both acoustic and electronic instrumentation as well as field recordings and found sounds to convey personal, intimate snapshots of emotive introspection. Rousay’s debut album “Blip” came out in 2017 and her most recent release “Sigh In My Ear” dropped this past August. Her lovely set on Wednesday comprised layered, meditative drones that coincided with samples of anxious and socially commentative dialogue. She left the stage periodically during her set before returning, ultimately making her final departure at the end while a humorous automated monologue about life in Los Angeles played for a few minutes even after she was out of sight.
William Basinski sauntered on stage and warmly greeting his audience before beginning his set, which consisted primarily of material from his 2020 album “Lamentations”; among the pieces he played were “The Wheel of Fortune” and “O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow.” Vibrant light displays embellished Basinski, shrouding him in flares of deep red and rays of sunny orange. He performed not one but two encores; the first was a cover of David Bowie’s “Subterraneans” featuring contributions from Alvo Noto and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, and the second was an extended version of his popular piece “Melancholia II.”
I got heavily into ambient music during quarantine, with William Basinski became one of my favorite artists out of that camp; “The Distengration Loops” I had on rotation constantly as a sort of personal soundtrack as I coped with feelings of existential dread through chaotic times. That said, getting to see William Basinski perform live was a mesmerizing experience. He’s got over four decades of sonic art to dive into so there’s always more to explore from him; plus, he seems like a really cool guy to hang out with.