How Would You Analyze William Basinski’s “Cascade”?

It’s a beautiful, maybe melancholy piece of music.

But where does it begin and end? It’s as if this music has been going for a long long time. It has an oceanic quality.

It’s all about repetition. The music is built from a tape loop of a piano phrase.

We hear a subtle melodic movement within the loop–twice around a high place, twice on a middle plateau, and then down to a lower register. The piano loop seems to breathe.

Even if you wanted to (I don’t)–how would you render this music in notation? Maybe it would be a four bar phrase in b-flat minor, with important melodic notes (a-flat, b-flat, c, d-flat, f) with giant note heads and less important background ones written tiny.

The music sounds minor key (b-flat minor). But the sixth degree of the scale is never used. Instead we hear a lot of the fifth degree (the note f) which, when combined with the b-flat, creates a kind of I-V drone as one might hear in the background of say, Indian music. Those two notes–b-flat and f–together create a sense of stasis, as if to say: This music isn’t going anywhere–are you ok with that?

Back to notation: notation would imply that the piece is four bars long. But it’s forty minutes long. Why are we harping on its constituent repeating units?

More notation issues: the echoing haze of delay and reverb are a part of the piece, but how would one render that that that that? And the timbre of the loop is as if aged or degraded. It has sonic patina. How to render this quality?

The piece is forty minutes long but is it changing over this time? Is there a process to it? Does it do something? If so, what does it do?

One of the striking impressions I get listening to “Cascade” is its disconnect from other musics I’m familiar with. It has more activity that a simple drone. It is kind of minimal, but doesn’t seem to have an overt processual agenda. It is ambient, but not benign like so much music in that style. It’s not recognizably the sound of a piano–it sounds more like a zither. It doesn’t include singing. It doesn’t have a beat–though it does have a pulse. It doesn’t have a verse-chorus structure. It doesn’t have a lead melody, harmonic progression, or a bassline. The music doesn’t overtly reference other musics let alone a single tradition that might inform it’s making.

But still, “Cascade” has something: it has its own, maybe melancholy beauty.

What is this beauty the product of? What comes to mind when I listen is a machine aesthetic. We know that it was made out of a tape loop. This explains the repetition and the degraded sound. (An old loop.) But there’s more to say about machines. Machines shape us–something happens when we interface with them. Just take a look around you at all the people glued to their smartphones. The small screen is now a thousand worlds that hold our attention in a thousand ways, and there’s a look we sometimes have when beholden to the screen–something between a smile and serene focus. For me, something about “Cascade” captures the sereneness of our focus on the smartphone’s small screen endlessness. In short, the music holds us suspended.

I wish I could stop there. But “Cascades” includes its own unexpectedness. Thirty-five minutes into the piece Basinski fades out the loop and makes an abrupt key change. One loop has become another and the final five minutes is this new sound that slowly rises, falls, and disappears. Is this a cadence? A coda? A perfect ending? The music doesn’t say.

The point is that music built from just a few notes of a degraded four-bar piano bar loop can mean whatever you want it to mean.

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