“A Shadow in Time” by William Basinski — An Album Review

At its best, the music of William Basinski is to be experienced as much as it is meant to be listened to, and “A Shadow in Time” is no exception. Basinski employs his most popular compositional element, the tape loop, to pay homage to David Bowie for all of his years of artistic inspiration. A couple of measures of music is repeated for the entirety of each piece, but Basinski’s music thrives because of its ability to create hypnotic repetitions feel as if they have a personality and atmosphere of their own.

“For David Robert Jones” crescendos into existence seemingly out of nowhere.  The first loop begins quietly, delicately, as if it is whispering to you from inside your own mind. It ascends slowly, as so much of Basinski’s work does, before it consumes your being. Imagine yourself at a funeral. You are sitting in a rigid wooden pew and you cannot seem to decide if you want to cross your legs or not, but you realize every movement comes with the cost of disrupting the solemn heir of quiet sniffles that echo through the church. Beams of sunlight illuminate the stained glass windows that line the sanctuary, but they bring no warmth with them. The room is filled with a cold atmosphere that only loss can bring. A minister approaches the pulpit to give the eulogy. His dialogue expresses an empathetic sorrow.

As he speaks, the room begins to blur around you, creating a feeling of you being isolated in the church. The preacher’s voice becomes an indiscreet murmur in the background. In the back of your head you know why you are at the funeral, yet you are taken to a place of solemn introspection. The memories of your deceased loved one begin to fade as your own questions of life and death wash over you.

The transcendental experience of “For David Robert Jones” is simultaneously substantial and subtle .The tape loop seems to lift your spirit from your body, while the gentle drone that underlies the melody keeps you grounded in reality. Right when the ambient escalation reaches its peak, a murky, but equally piercing saxophone enters the texture. At first it seems interruptive because its meandering melody disturbs and distracts from the transcendental qualities of the piece, but in fairly short order it too finds its place in the soundscape. The saxophone is represented by the preacher who begins his sermon at the funeral, before he is gradually tuned out, becoming just as much a part of the background noise as the soft sobs and the creaking of the pews. Once again, the listener finds themselves in a place of solemn introspection.

Perhaps the saxophone represents more than just the voice of the minister, but also is dedicated to David Bowie in a more direct way. Throughout his discography Bowie was known for the use of jazz and rock instrumentation alongside each other. This is especially true on his most recent, and ultimately final album, “Blackstar”, which was released in the same month of his death. “Blackstar” was one of Bowie’s most experimental works, utilizing the saxophone  for noisier passages, that sometimes even descended into the realm of free jazz. The saxophone in “For David Robert Jones” functions in a similar fashion.

The most surprising moment comes at the piece’s conclusion. The carefully curated soundscape, which is one of Basinski’s most nebulous, gradually begins to reach sonic clarity. The tape loops slowly fades, and the distortion is removed from the soundscape, leaving the listener with the saxophone in its original timbre, and it is revealed that the drone that was keeping the audience in reality was in fact a guitar. As the effects are removed, the listener begins to engage with reality once again, just in time for the eulogy to conclude. Basinski uses the same instrumentation that David Bowie used, but used with a different vocabulary, molding the instruments to fit his own aesthetic intentions.

“A Shadow in Time” showcases a different side of Basinski’s ambient compositional prowess. The piece does utilize loops and repetition, however, the heart of the piece focuses more on a single drone. While “For David Robert Jones” eases its way into existence, almost apologetically, “A Shadow in Time” spastically bursts from the silence that was left in the wake of Bowie’s ambient eulogy. It feels like a different vocabulary, forcing the listener to transition from the comfortable repetition of the tape loop to the disjunction that occurs at the beginning of the piece. Warm chords, that are reminiscent of a horn fanfare, develop slowly through their progression, while indistinguishable metallic sounds disturb their atmosphere. Once again, the piece crescendos in a way that dominates your existence, but the metallic noises that keep shimmering over the rest of work give the escalation a quality that Basinski himself describes as “celestial”. This kind of drone does not lull its listener into the “amniotic bubble” of existence. Instead, Basinski transports you to a place that feels like a product of his own apocalyptic fear. The drone eventually gives way to a cascading piano, that is only interrupted by several small electronic buzzes. It is a serene moment that comes as a surprise. A moment of solemn acceptance, while sorrow still lingers in the air for the deceased. It is the “amen” at the end of the funeral.

“A Shadow in Time” exhibits William Basinski at his best, utilizing his unique ambient language to pay tribute to David Bowie. The beauty of this project is not only its subject matter, but also the dichotomy of Basinski’s ever evolving compositions. The musical vocabulary of this album is both simple and complex, comforting and anxiety ridden, sorrowful and hopeful.  Plenty of people have paid their regards to Bowie, yet Basinski’s transcendental ambient tribute is unlike anything else.

Written by Phillip Greene

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