Album Review: A Shadow in Time by William Basinski
Excellent, Based on 10 Critics
The Line of Best Fit - 85 Based on rating 8.5/10
This summer, I was fortunate enough to take some time out and embark upon a four month stint travelling around Asia. As expected, there were many memories made, however one that clearly sticks out in my mind was fearfully clinging to the seats of a rusty old school bus as we pummelled through potholes and screeched around hairpin bends into the oncoming traffic en route to Pokhara, Nepal. In an attempt to distract from the travel sickness and the ominous feeling that at any moment the driver would leave it too late to take a corner, consequently plunging us over the cliff edge to our hideous deaths, I turned to one of today’s most prominent ambient composers: William Basinski.
I once read somewhere that the ancient Greeks had two different words for ‘time’. The first was chronos: sequential clock time measured in hours and seconds and minutes, the regulating rhythm of departure boards and microwave ovens and TV schedules. The other was kairos: time experienced and time lived, the wispy spine of memory and nostalgia. You suspect many musicians think their job to be craftsmen of the former, structuring songs to fit into pre-prescribed three-and-a-half minute containers, quantising beats to metronomic precision.
Best known for his Disintegration Loops series of albums from the early 00s, New York-based avant-garde composer William Basinski sculpts samples, drones and feedback loops into soundscapes rich in melancholic atmosphere. The two tracks on his 23rd album include a eulogy to David Bowie, For David Robert Jones, that’s rather less literal than Lady Gaga’s Grammys tribute and all the more powerful for it. Its eerily distorted saxophone, a nod to Low, takes six minutes to surface, but then takes centre stage, a mournful motif subtly evolving over the next quarter of an hour.
While nostalgia has undoubtedly been an active component of human life since time immemorial, the recent digitization of culture means that the things one experienced yesterday or years ago are more readily available and tactile than they might have been when committed to memory. (Comedian Patton Oswalt coined this concept “Etewaf”, meaning: “Everything That Ever Was — Available Forever.”) This creates a false sense of security with memory—we no longer have to commit things to memory because we have things that will remember for us. The uneasiness of cultural memory has been uniquely tackled by brilliant musicians like Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never and the electronic wizard James Ferraro.
For the last sixth months or so, people on the internet have turned their grief over the death of David Bowie into some wild assertions. The half-serious claim is that Bowie was the glue holding together the world’s geopolitical landscape, the universe, and even reality itself. There is some compelling evidence to support this, from the deaths of much-loved musical, literary, and cultural heroes, to instability and war on the international stage (Syria in particular now looks like 1970s Cambodia and 1990s Balkans rolled into one for Millennial news junkies), to the political events that may change Western democratic life as we know it.
William Basinski's method of unearthing musical loops from his previous, unused works, then warping them into novel recordings, puts life and death at the fringes of his art. On the two-track A Shadow in Time, the avant-garde composer is more explicitly obsessed with death. The 20-minute “For David Robert Jones” is a musical eulogy for David Bowie, referencing somewhat cheekily the birth name that the late icon abandoned when his career started to flourish.
In the fifteen years since William Basinski released the debut installment of his Disintegration Loops series he has been rapidly, and rightly, lionized. But for two decades prior to that, he was just another eccentric artist in New York, a tinkerer who built his own instruments, ran a venue and experimented insatiably with tape loops. He would tune in to the easy listening piped out by CBS and record snippets of it, creating a massive archive of schmaltz that, through the alchemy of sampling, could be transfigured into something infinitely more haunting.
Composer William Basinski's 2017 album A Shadow in Time contains two pieces, one of which ("For David Robert Jones") was commissioned by Los Angeles gallery Volume shortly after the early-2016 death of David Bowie. As with The Disintegration Loops, the 9/11 elegy for which Basinski is best known, the piece was created using decrepit tape loops that seem to call out like voices or melodies from the dead. Here, the main loop sounds like it could've been a fragment of some sort of cheery recording from the early 20th century, but here it's been faded and distorted beyond recognition into something ghastly and haunting.
Ambient music, like any form of abstract art, relies on context. In the absence of lyrics—and often rhythm or melody—something has to give form to the formless, a title card explaining that those fuzzy black rectangles are actually Nude Woman Lamenting A Dying Earth. It’s why so many ambient albums, beginning with Brian Eno’s genre-defining Discreet Music, attempt to establish the mind-set with which it should be approached.
William Basinski — A Shadow in Time (Temporary Residence Ltd)William Basinski has always worked with stillness. Not in an indifferent, uncommitted sense, but rather in that he allows, through sheer patience and doggedness, his music to impart its emotions without flinching. His pieces progress unrelentingly, through repetition, but unhurriedly, allowing the listener to delve into the depths of every sound at their own leisure, but never able to escape the full weight of the music.