William Basinski, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham at St John's, Hackney

William Basinski at St John at Hackney
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All rights reserved
William Basinski, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham 
(St John's, Hackney on 20 March 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

There was a sprinkling of magic in the air at the final concert in William Basinski's Arcadia season, which more than lived up to the promise of the previous evening's conversation between Basinski and Rhys Chatham.

The combination of Basinski's haunting tape-loop based work, Vivian and Ondine, and the shared focus of the duo of Rhys Chatham and Charlemagne Palestine made for a moving, gently balanced serving of vital spontaneity and careful moderation.

Vivian and Ondine, composed in 2007, takes 'an incredible, peaceful ambient loop as the basis of the main theme,' as Basinski explained when discussing its inclusion in the veteran's healing program at Strawberry Flag in LA, to which he randomly adds alternate themes from a box of a dozen other tape loops, 'beneath the threshold of the main theme'.

The impact was gradual, an incremental build up of a soft, yet insistent, echoing phrase with suggestions of a sub-aquatic atmosphere that washed through the vast nave of the church. Its genesis has a strong family connection for the composer, linked with the births on the same day of Basinski's niece, Vivian, and his cousin's granddaughter, Ondine, and he describes the work as 'a wonderful, nurturing, amniotic soup' with associations with birth, rebirth and flows of nutrients.

Quietly busy, manipulating the strings of tape and electronic processors from the desk centre stage, Basinski introduced light clicks and short, indistinct sampled vocal and orchestral interventions alongside the repeated, welling hums that progressively gained in intensity. The hypnotic rhythms, with a life of their own, were eventually faded out, eliciting the poignant sadness of an indefinable loss, leaving only echoes and a memory.

Chatham and Palestine started from a different point, quite literally, up beside the organ console in the corner of the rear balcony. Palestine, originally trained as a synagogue cantor in Brooklyn, activated a bagpipe-like organ drone and intoned with a wonderfully appropriate sense of vocal modulation, mirrored by Chatham's high-register, constrained vocal chants and flute phrasing.

Palestine's turquoise and red technicolour garb made an eye-catching contrast with Chatham's all black attire. Each donned a striking hat - red trilby and black fedora, respectively. There was sense of the pied piper as they exited the balcony with Chatham playing the flute, to descend the staircase to the auditorium level where the stage and piano were festooned with Charlemagne's signature soft toys and fabric swatches.

The generosity of spirit which defined their duet tracks back to their early acquaintance in the 70s when New York's experimental music scene was emerging as a major creative force, although both are now based in Europe, Chatham in France and Palestine in Brussels.

As the organ drone slowly subsided, loops, accents and pulses blended in a beautifully contained meditative dialogue. Chatham's live sampling and intuitively placed statements on a variety of instruments (flute, trumpet, pocket trumpet, electric guitar and vocals) merged with Charlemagne's poised, minimalist (despite his insistence that he is a 'maximalist'!) piano repetitions. With a final burst of energy they ran back up to the balcony where Palestine activated the church's organ to summon up its deeply majestic, near anarchic resonances with a masterly touch.

Back onstage they encored with an enchanting, wacky duet on hand-held soft toy keyboard instruments to leave smiles on everybody's faces.

Earlier, Ex-Easter Island Head had kicked off with their well-disciplined rhythmic trio performance on percussion and solid-bodied guitars.

William Basinski's Arcadia season was supported by Art Assembly and Sound and Music

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