Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Basic Channel - BCD

I’m writing about albums this year, older albums (meaning: not released in the last year or so) that I’ve listened to over and over and thought about and want to talk about.  This is the first one: BCD by Basic Channel

This isn’t what they’re known for. Basic Channel made a name with their singles: 9 of them in 2 years (’93 and ’94), vinyl-only techno tracks that gave new meaning to the word “minimalism.” These were tunes that went on for as long as 20+ minutes, often with nothing but a few throbbing synthesizer lines and maybe (not always!) a backbeat. This being techno, you could say that they were meant for club use, for DJs who would only play out a few minutes of them—the “important parts”—or layer them with other tracks. And that’s just what Scion did in Arrange and Process Basic Channel Tracks, layering the singles into a dense, hypnotic DJ set.

But that’s only half of the story. Sure, tracks like Enforcement and Phylyps Trak cry out for club use, but how does something like Presence fit in? Sure, you can layer it with other tracks to add atmosphere, but is that really its purpose? 20 minutes of slow, beatless crescendo is overkill for any DJ. No, this is stuff you have to hear at home, on its own terms.

The old cliché is that techno is for club or party use, that its long, repetitive, rhythmic tracks are nothing but fodder for DJs—good for dancing, maybe, but not much else. Basic Channel’s music turns that around: beat-driven as some of their work is, many of their releases just don’t work on the dance floor. A piece like Lyot Rmx is hardly danceable at all. It’s subtle, slow-moving, full of meticulous detail that only careful listeners catch. Basic Channel singles are the equivalent of minimalist art—Judd, Morris, and the like. They strip music down to its barest form: space, rhythm, bare suggestions of melody.

BCD collects some of these singles—not in their full form, but as “edits.” Some of these versions are only a few seconds shorter; others lose ten or more minutes. In some ways it’s a loss—the music is worth hearing in its full form—but in other ways it’s an improvement. Basic Channel is a lot to take in at once, and BCD really pulls the listener in. It’s still not conventional music, but it’s structured like a standard album: it opens with a long crescendo from silence, clearly an intro; it takes stylistic detours (the harsh noise of Mutism); and it ends with an almost joyful ending: “Radiance III,” the final track, sounds like a cross between a choir and a church organ, building into one of the album’s most straightforward beats. More than any other point in the Basic Channel oeuvre, it’s a structured experience.

John Cage is famous for a piece called 4’33”. Its rules are simple: the performer takes an instrument and does not play it. He or she keeps on not playing it for 4 minutes and 33 seconds; after that the piece is finished.

So it’s a silent piece, you’d think. But Cage’s point with the piece was not the silence but the noise: the sound of the audience coughing, clearing throats, moving in their seats, or the sound of passing cars or planes outside the performance space. That is, all the sounds you hear during a normal concert that you try not to think about, that you try to tune out to focus on the music.
Cage’s music makes those sounds into the main part of his music. His later works made use of randomly-chosen notes and sounds not normally considered musical—an obvious example being Imaginary Landscape no. 4, a piece written for 12 portable radios. The results aren’t often easy to listen to (Cage would have argued they demand a new kind of listening), but they are intriguing: Cage reaches for new sounds and new ways of music-making with real boldness.

And John Cage would have hated Basic Channel. He was deeply critical of recorded music, after all—he said it “substitute[d] artificial music for real music, and it makes people think they’re engaging in a musical activity when they’re actually not. And it has completely distorted and turned upside down the function of music in anyone’s experience” (quoted in this essay, and heard in a documentary on John Cage). Thinking of Cage’s own work it’s not hard to see why: recorded music strips out the sound of the audience, the sound of the environment, the sound of anything but the performance itself. It’s exactly the opposite of something like 4’33”. Cage's works are focused on the very noises that recorded music excludes.

But anyone who listens to records knows this isn’t the whole story. After all, what's the first sound you hear when you put on a vinyl records? Clicks and pops. Or a cassette? A low hiss. Even digital copies have noise: CDs skip, mp3s suffer encryption errors, web streams pause and restart. If the recording itself is free of noise, the playback adds sounds of its own. Recorded music doesn’t get rid of this noise: it only moves it from the recording to the playback.

John Cage blurred the line between noise and music, but Basic Channel’s work does the same thing in  a different way. Take a piece like Quadrant Dub I: its first sound on CD is of a cassette-like hiss, a low white-noise blur. Or listen to the way Radiance I hisses and pops like a very old record. Basic Channel’s music isn’t just aware of the noise of playback: it absorbs the noise, emphasizes it, mimics it. It breaks up the line between noise and the music itself by placing the "noise" within the music itself.

Like John Cage. But where John Cage’s work emphasized live performance, Basic Channel’s music embraces performance in all contexts: home listening, of course, but also public listening, the experience of the DJ who layers and remixes. Because unlike Cage's work, the noise doesn't depend on the performance context: it's fixed in the music itself. And thus even if the music is remixed, altered, or taken completely out of context, the noise remains. If you find noise irritating, it's unbearable; but if you're interested by the sonic possibilities it offers, it's fascinating.

This brings me to one last thing about Basic Channel: the connection to dub reggae. Dub is a style of reggae that emphasizes remixing, emphasizes taking an old track and turning it into something entirely different. Basic Channel were very influenced by dub, and went on to start a project called Rhythm & Sound, which was essentially an exploration of the dub reggae sound. But even in BCD you can see that influence in Quadrant Dub I, which is a radical remix of a track they had earlier released under the alias Round One—I’m Your Brother. (The similarity is more obvious in an earlier remix of the track.) Basic Channel’s work, like dub, explores the recording process by reprocessing recorded music. Where many 90s “techno remixes” were nothing more than the original tracks with beats tossed on top, Basic Channel’s remixes  changed the sound entirely—often so much they were unrecognizable.

Anyway, here are a few articles on Basic Channel and John Cage that I’d recommend:

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