William Basinski and Janek Schaefer, ". . . on reflection"
There are several William Basinski albums that I absolutely love, but his various collaborations are rarely as compelling as his solo work (the leftfield Sparkle Division being a notable exception, of course). The fundamental issue is that Basinski's finest moments tend to be an intimate distillation of a single theme to its absolute essence, which does not leave much room at all for anyone else to add something without dispelling the fragile magic. While it is unclear if Janek Schaefer is unusually attuned to Basinski's wavelength or if the duo simply waited until the path to something lasting and beautiful organically revealed itself, I can confidently state that the pair ultimately wound up in exactly the right place regardless of how they got there. If I did not understand and appreciate the sizeable challenges inherent in crafting a hypnotically satisfying and immersive album from a mere handful of notes, I would be amused that Basinski and Schaefer first began working on this album together all the way back in 2014 and that the entire 8-year process basically resulted in just two or three simple piano melodies. In fact, I am still a little amused by this album's nearly decade-long gestation, but that does not make the result any less impressive. Significantly, " . . . on reflection " is dedicated to Harold Budd, but an even closer stylistic kindred spirit is Erik Satie (albeit a blearily impressionistic channeling of the visionary composer's work rather than any kind of straight homage).
The opening ". . . on reflection (one)" lays out Basinski and Schaefer's shared vision in gorgeously sublime fashion, as a simple and tenderly melancholy piano melody languorously and unpredictably flickers across a barely audible backdrop of room sounds. Naturally, things are deceptively far more complex than they initially seem though, as it soon sounds like two or loops of different lengths are all playing at once. A lingering haze of delay and decay gradually adds some muted streaks of color, but that is just icing on an already perfect cake, as I could listen to the melodies lazily intertwining forever. In a general sense, the piece calls to mind the delicate prettiness of a music box melody, but beautifully enhances that illusion with weighty emotional depth and seemingly endless variations in the shape and emphasis of the shifting patterns.
Significantly, an interest in Zen Buddhism helped lead Basinski to making The Disintegration Loops a few decades back and it feels like that influence directly or indirectly led to this album as well, as there is a very natural and liquid ebb and flow at work, as well as a meditative spaciousness: absolutely nothing here feels hurried, forced, or conspicuously manipulated. Obviously, that is a sneakily difficult effect to achieve without haplessly blundering into forgettable "ambient drift" territory. In fact, the following ". . . on reflection (two)" initially feels like exactly such a misstep, resembling an Erik Satie piece dissolved into hazy, twinkling impressionism. As it turns out, however, Basinski and Schaefer just chose a more slow-burning trajectory than usual, as it soon feels like I am blissfully floating through a three-dimensional dream space while constellations of piano lazily form and dissolve around me.
Unsurprisingly, the remaining three pieces can be described as variations on the same themes ("deploying a delicate piano passage from their collective archive, Basinski and Schaefer weave and reweave in numerous ways"), but it is one hell of a theme and the five pieces add up to quite an immersive, beautiful, and poignant song cycle. If I had to choose a favorite piece, I would go with ". . . on reflection (four)" solely on the grounds that it sounds almost exactly like the already great opener, yet stretches out even longer and is texturally enhanced by a helpful chorus of chirping nocturnal birds. If "more of the same, but longer" seems unambiguously welcome (if not actively enticing) to me, I feel quite comfortable in proclaiming . . . on reflection to be an ingeniously constructed minimalist masterpiece.