A Quietus Live Report – William Basinski & Fennesz at St John in Hackney Church (July 17th, 2013)

The beautiful, lofty interior of the lovely St. John in Hackney church in Clapton was a fitting location to drink in the subtle, gentle tones of both these heavyweights of ambient music. Their sets were considerably different (and I should imagine that Helm – whose opening performance I sadly missed – also served up something wildly at odds with what came afterwards), but both reverberated around the hall, textures seeming to drift off the walls and out of nooks and crannies organically, meaning even the quietest moments in Basinski’s rendition of ‘Nocturnes’, from his recent album of the same name, were loaded with a palpable physicality.

When I last saw Fennesz, at last year’s OFF Festival in Poland, his set was probably the most intense, brooding and overwhelmingly noisy one of the entire three days, possibly even outdoing headliners Swans. In Clapton, he opted for something more nuanced, building a complex piece around a foundation of throbbing bass drones, its wobbly sound suggesting Fennesz owns one of Throbbing Gristle’s Gristleizers. After an initial phase of drifting textures, he settled into a form of melancholic ambient drone dominated by shimmering synths and a ghostly sampled choir, redolent of his 2008 album Black Sea’s grim, windswept melancholia. If the driving industrial intensity of his set in Poland was, for the most part, absent, it was replaced with a slow-burning blend of quiet and loud, as texturally elegant as it was unpredictable, as Fennesz dropped in robust guitar riffs bolstered with blissful feedback. Despite a rather aimless closing segment, the set, settling in the interstices between noise, drone and ambient, but impossible to clearly pin down, displayed Fennesz’s sonic dexterity to the full.

William Basinski cuts a striking figure as he takes his seat behind his laptop with his towering hair and smart black get-up. The forty minutes of ‘Nocturnes’ seemed to stretch and expand, the sound enveloping the inside of the church like a blanket. Performing in almost total darkness, Basinski made good use of sparse visuals which, projected against the back wall of the church, reflected the moody atmosphere of the music, as gossamer images of the full moon faded in and out of a blurry haze. Unlike the more straightforwardly emotive pieces on his Disintegration Loops series, ‘Nocturnes’ is ambiguously pitched somewhere between mournfulness and pent-up anger, a slow-burning mood piece that’s as spectral and dark as its title suggests. Basinski barely moved a muscle as he built up the loops incrementally before doubling back on them and allowing them to dissolve into the ether, with a sense of tension seeping in when the sounds dropped out altogether, leaving brief, beautiful moments of silence. ‘Nocturnes’ is one of Basinski’s most minimal pieces, and it was hard not to admire his single-minded determination to reproduce it in full, even as the glacial pace clearly caused some attendees to fidget in their seats.

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