on reflection by William Basinksi & Janek SchaeferRelease date: April 29, 2022
Label: Temporary Residence
William Basinski & Janek Schaefer release their collaboration on reflection. The five tracks are closely similar, the most prominent sounds being gentle piano motifs, with other hums here and there, and the faint intrusion of field-recording-ish sounds, like the klang of a distant bell, indistinct crowd noise, even traffic, whispered bits. It’s a pleasant but somewhat insubstantial release, like a 20-second soundtrack to a ‘slow hazy waking-up’ scene in a movie expanded to forty minutes.
It’s not really the kind of album to dissect the tracks separately as they all stick to a set menu of sounds and structures (they don’t even have distinct titles other than ‘on reflection (part x)’. The third has a bit more droning ambience foregrounded, with the piano taking a back seat to the humming and murmuring, with some birdsong and vague everyday noises, but even so, separating tracks seems to miss the point of the whole piece. Instead better to think of the recording as a whole as a kind of aural air freshener to be wafted around your living space, with the divergent responses that might imply: genuine appreciation of a pleasant, pastel-flavoured room enhancer, or annoyance at an ersatz attempt at mood engineering.
On one listen it’s exquisitely designed, calming furniture music, on another, it’s insubstantial, pleasant random nothingness… such is the tricksy place of ambient music as an experimental form. It perhaps goes beyond the places where we judge (or just enjoy) music as art: this is almost high-concept gone (very) low-stakes. There’s an open-ended debate for me when listening, between the separate questions of, on one hand, what kind of atmosphere does this provide for me as a listener, whether attentively absorbed in the sound or using it as functional background? And on the other, what choices were made by the artists and do they just end up seeming kind of arbitrary? As if they could have come out with essentially the same album if they’d put everything backwards or upside down or even made it with vaguely similar but completely different sonic ingredients. It’s all so slight and meandering, it bugs me to think… why this plink/muttering/hum and not another? Which of course can be asked of any music, but there’s a sense of aimlessness about it here. Or maybe aimlessness is the aim…
Aside from just forgetting about any of that overthinking (an entirely valid response), one route out is to have a really fixed idea of how the sounds will combine or be produced. which of course Basinski found on Disintegration Loops, which you could hear doing exactly what they said. I was even a bit disappointed with some of Steve Reich’s famous tape loops because they’re presented as copied tape loops set at slightly different speeds and left to go in and out of phase- but some have more meddling and fiddling and messing around, which detracts from the stark, rigorous clarity of the concept. Anyway, to these ears this record is floaty ambience without a grounding idea: nice enough but not especially interesting. Perhaps the purpose isn’t about being interesting. Fine; I’m still not interested.