Ambient and experimental composer William Basinski is likely best known for The Disintegration Loops, the most melancholically beautiful piece of ambient music I’ve ever heard. The story goes that Basinski had been transferring an old magnetic tape to a digital format, but as the tape played over and over again, it physically disintegrated, leaving the short, 10 second or so sample to deteriorate, a grain of sand at a time, to complete silence over the course of an hour. The project was completed on September 11, 2001, before Basinski and friends watched smoke from the World Trade Centers through the twilight hours from their rooftop in Brooklyn. The music subsequently became the soundtrack to footage of that event. Some patience is required to endure an hour of a single sample repeating over and over, but the emotional payoff of the effect, which settles in slowly but surely, is certainly worth the time.
Basinski’s newest project, A Shadow in Time, consists of two tracks, each just over twenty minutes in length. The first, “For David Robert Jones” (aka David Bowie), echoes The Disintegration Loops in structure, looping a few samples that have been treated so heavily with reverb effects that they feel as if they’re artifacts being pulled from somewhere in the distant past. Early in, a mysterious and haunting saxophone sample makes an appearance and lingers throughout. The song gradually gets louder and spacier, building so slowly and organically the effect is hard to notice. The saxophone gradually dulls and disintegrates, and soon the song becomes swallowed by a vast an ominous ocean of deep bass tones. The piece then spends its last few minutes fading out.
The piece feels like an eerie black and white image that morphs and changes slowly, becoming something much darker and scarier so subtly its nearly imperceptible. Its worth noting that between the song’s title and the prominent saxophone, which was Bowie’s signature instrument, the song is both an homage to the late singer’s death and an interpretation of him reaching out to listeners from beyond the grave (not that Bowie hasn’t already done that), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sample was pulled straight from a Bowie song.
The second track, from which the album takes its name, immediately juxtaposes itself with a bright bell tone and horns before evolving into another dreamy, cavernous and ominous soundscape. Soon distorted fuzz and oscillating bass fill in around high string notes and creepy, echoing ‘everyday’ noises as well as mutated bell and organ sounds. Late in the song, old, vintage pianos that sound as if they’re peeling away from a decrepit wall plink soft, pleasant melodies, an effect similar to the repurposed 30s and 40s dancehall music on The Caretaker’s outstanding An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. The bass relinquishes its grip on the track, and the ghostly white noise, ever present, finally subsides to end the piece on an optimistic note.
The project represents long-form ambient music done very well. The music moves along at a glacial pace, but that’s kind of the point – to show how sounds and moods can evolve through a single note here, or a subsiding effect there. The title also hints at what I think is the predominant theme of the record, the passage of time and the ability to capture snapshots of it. The first song is a swelling, black and white glimpse of Bowie from his earlier years or from the afterlife. The second is a representation of how time heals and soothes traumatizing events until they’re nothing more than a memory.
I could have done with a little bit more variety – 3 or 4 songs, at 15 minutes a piece or so, may have really elevated this record for me. But the project still works well in two parts. The first sees time as a continuous loop, the second demonstrates gradual growth and decay. Both songs are equally evocative and haunting. While more goes down in “A Shadow of Time”, I think I prefer the staggering bass and sad, wandering saxophone from “For David Robert Jones”. The project truly does feel like a cousin of An Empty Bliss, both in its instrumentation and its focus on the past as subject matter.
I would actually recommend A Shadow in Time as a starting spot to someone unfamiliar with the ambient genre. While the magnum opuses of Tim Hecker and John Hopkins can be overwhelming in their breadth and complexity, A Shadow manages to be straightforward without sacrificing production value or emotion. Though not particularly ambitious, this is one of the most satisfying and thorough ambient projects I’ve heard in a long time, and I anticipate coming back to it throughout the year.