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‘A Shadow in Time’ is one of William Basinski’s most powerful works

(Kelav Slavoran/Flickr)

(Kelav Slavoran/Flickr)

Ambient music is often a bit of a blank slate. Without a rhythm to follow, it can often settle deep into the background of a listener’s mind, blending seamlessly into their thoughts and actions. Its purpose, as outlined by the genre’s godfather, Brian Eno, is typically to become “part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain.”

With that said, the only context of most ambient music is the context in which the listener hears it. Aphex Twin’s 1994 landmark, “Selected Ambient Works Volume II,” came devoid even of song titles. Almost universally regarded as one of the greatest ambient albums of all time, the influence of its sparse, futuristic soundscapes can be heard in countless film and television scores, all of which seek to incorporate music seamlessly into the visual environment viewers are engrossed in.

The work of William Basinski however, is rarely without context. The genre’s foremost modern-day innovator aside from Eno, Basinski makes music that can indeed serve all the typical functions of the ambient genre—music for study, contemplation or merely a background pulse—but also contains something far more tangible.

Basinski was a deeply obscure New York avant-garde composer whose compositions and experiments went largely unnoticed until “The Disintegration Loops,” a colossal, sweeping work that he released in four volumes between 2002 and 2003. Just under five hours in length, it is comprised of a series of looped recordings of snippets of music from an easy listening radio station. Basinski had made the recordings decades before, but had done nothing with them until 2001, when he decided to take the old tapes and digitize them in order to preserve the strange snippets they contained.

What he hadn’t contended with, though, was the toll that 20 years of storage had taken on the tapes, which quite literally began to disintegrate as soon as they were played in the digital recorder. Basinski, stunned by what he heard, decided to replicate the process for all of the other loops, each of which had been similarly damaged. “The Disintegration Loops,” for my money one of the 21st century’s most powerful, thought-provoking works of art, forces you to view music through a physical lens, one that shifts and distorts without you even realizing it.

When listening to “A Shadow in Time,” Basinski’s newest work, one must contend with similar ideas. Each hovering slightly north of the 20-minute mark, the album’s two pieces shimmer and swoon, but also undergo radical transformations before slowly fading into silence. Like “The Disintegration Loops,” “A Shadow in Time,” released Jan. 20, comes loaded with a heavy backstory, one that the listener can choose to look past if they choose to listen to the album as background music, but one that proves hard to ignore if taking the album in on its own.

Basinski happened to create “The Disintegration Loops” in the early days of September 2001. He was immersed in the final stages of the project when hijackers flew two passenger jets into the World Trade Center on the 11th of that month, a tragedy he witnessed firsthand from his studio space in Brooklyn. Climbing to the roof of his building in the late afternoon, he placed a video camera on a tripod, and directed it at the smoke-filled Manhattan skyline for the duration of the evening. Stills from his footage were used as the covers of all four volumes, with each volume receiving a progressively darker cover.

Though some have accused Basinski of exploiting the tragedy on the basis of a dubious connection, the experience of listening to these strangely beautiful pieces of music physically fade away has always felt cathartic for myself and others touched by the album, assisting in processing the difficult, intangible ideas of loss, destruction and the passage of time. The two pieces in “A Shadow in Time” find Basinski returning to these themes, paying separate tributes to a friend and a hero, both of whom recently passed away.

The fearless spirit of David Bowie, a larger-than-life figure whose work changed the lives of so many, runs through “For David Robert Jones.” A moving eulogy for the rock legend, who passed away last January, the piece is based on a churning loop created from a tape that was apparently chewed up by Basinski’s roommate’s “big, fat motherf***** of a cat,” only to be re-spliced by Basinski. Around six minutes in, a brutish saxophone barges its way in, a nod both to the free-thinking sax work in Bowie classics like “Subterraneans,” and how Bowie influenced Basinski to pick up the instrument himself as a young man.

“For David Robert Jones” is as inscrutable as Bowie was himself, a bold piece that is both confrontational (in the spirit of its namesake) and melancholic. Just as he did on “The Disintegration Loops,” he uses something physical (the destruction of the original contents of the tape) to reflect the idea of loss. There’s still music on the tape, but it has been altered completely, just as our lives are so often significantly changed by the loss of a prominent figure in our lives.

Loss also looms heavily over the title track, which Basinski dedicated to a friend who committed suicide. A remarkable piece crafted with an archaic, Voyetra-8 synthesizer, “A Shadow in Time” is almost overwhelming in its beauty. Beginning with a rush of layered drones, the piece initially seems perfect for a montage of NASA photographs, practically asking your imagination to conjure up the most otherworldly landscapes it can picture.

Toward its conclusion though, it comes crashing down to reality. The drones become more subdued, and, with six minutes or so remaining, are overtaken in focus by a keyboard that croaks out a mournful refrain. Ever so slowly fading into silence, the refrain is a breathtaking conclusion to a piece that carries you from the ground to the stratosphere, to rock bottom again in just over 20 minutes.

Or, of course, it could just be the background to that paper you just can’t seem to finish, and an effective one at that. However, it’s difficult to ignore the storms of melancholy and loss that power “A Shadow in Time.” As perhaps his best work since “The Disintegration Loops,” “A Shadow in Time” is an album that proves Basinski’s worth not only as a composer, but an artist who can shift the way you listen to, and consider, music.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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