Selva Oscura by William Basinski & Lawrence EnglishRelease date: October 12, 2018
Label: Temporary Residence Ltd.
Selva Oscura presents us with two lengthy ambient drones from two giants of the genre working together for the first time. William Basinski and Lawrence English have crossed paths many times before reaching this point, yet as much as their collaboration feels in some way inevitable it remains equally mysterious. These pieces were worked on simultaneously by the pair in L.A. and Brisbane. Due to the chaos that reigns in my own head I can’t help but imagine them sending files back and forth adding to and editing an increasingly unwieldy mass of material. Fortunately trust, economy and what they refer to as “intensely reductionist approaches“ prevail resulting in two slowly unfolding, subtly shifting, soundscapes.
A couple of intriguing photographs of the two of them are circulating to accompany the release. In one they look like battle worn industrial provocateurs, in another like two aging rockers who just bumped into each other in the toilets at Selfridges. There are truths in both readings. As I have learned from experience, the apparent blank formlessness of ambient drone shares some of the confrontational qualities of abstract painting for the unsuspecting audience. Basinski and English are rock stars in their own cloistered world of course and the genesis of this project was in their regular chance encounters in various parts of the world. The jolt of strangeness comes from the contrast between the vivid personality of the image and the quietness of their steady, limitless music. Music that reveals so little of itself and next to nothing of the artists behind it, creating open spaces for the listener’s mind to wander. Basinki even seems to have left his signature loops to one side here and a series of elliptical tones and textures approach and recede.
‘Mono No Aware’ embodies this calm stasis charged with possibility, while ‘Selva Oscura’ is somehow tougher and more foreboding. The title Selva Oscura apparently derives from Dante’s Inferno, it translates as twilight forest which, being both a landscape and a classical reference, offers a perfect two for one on the thorny issue of how to write about it. Ambient music is often discussed in visual rather than sonic terms, the natural world (landscape, ocean, weather) is a favourite for helping us do this and they’ve handily provided us with one to consider here. On the classical tip I’m invoking Heraclitus’ dictum that “no man ever sets foot in the same river twice” in regard to the ambient listening experience. It’s possible to make that argument for all music, to a degree, but ambient has an expressly active relationship with where and how you listen to it, to who you are and how you feel, to what you bring to it yourself.
I bring something slightly Lynchian to this record, night time forests and those queasy industrial drones hovering on the cusp of comfort and disquiet, of the strangeness in the familiar. This sense is not as strong perhaps as when the saxophone loop appears on ‘For David Robert Jones’, Basinski’s Bowie tribute off his last album, but it’s there. For Basinski and English the idea of the twilight forest “metaphorically speaks to both those who find themselves on the unfamiliar path and more explicitly the nature of losing one’s way in place and time.” The music is like mist hanging in the forest, its hazy outline hard to determine, even as you’re stood right within it you only perceive it at a distance. It fades in and out as if it’s hardly there at all, but you can still get lost in it.