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‘A Shadow in Time’ is a eulogy for the past

| Wednesday, February 1, 2017

ShadowInTime_bannerLindsey Meyers

A memory is an echo. Powerful events and acutely felt emotions are burned into our minds; people and places trigger them and they repeat. Sometimes the recollections haunt us, like tragedies we cannot get out of mind. When this happens, the repetition is slow and torturous. We relive the experience in all of its intense detail. An echo is also a memory; the loops recur lest we forget.

The relationship between repetition and memory is the subject of William Basinski’s acclaimed oeuvre. With “The Disintegration Loops” (2002–2003) he used deteriorating cassette loops to emulate the arduous burn of traumatic memory in the wake of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center; the loops’ slow yet peaceful disintegration into silence symbolized the imminence and inevitability of death more broadly. The pieces’ emotional power and transcendence have since reaped critical acclaim, and the collection is likely to remain Basinski’s most recognized work and his magnum opus.

“The Disintegration Loops” deserve mention in a review of Basinski’s recent output because, like “Loops,” his newest record “A Shadow in Time” is also inspired by death. Released hardly over a year after David Bowie’s passing, the two-track album is a solemn eulogy for the late artist. In fact, Basinski is so forthright as to name the first piece “For David Robert Jones” — using Bowie’s birth name to title the commemoration.

The piece itself mimics his earlier work in one key way: the presence of ethereal loops as the building blocks of ambient drone. The entire track is composed of two loops; it begins with a single one, which swells in volume while remaining blurred and distant in the soundscape. Near the 6-minute mark, the second loop — a funerary guitar melody — descends over the piece. Their tempos are not aligned, and they seldom harmonize; the final notes of the guitar melody warp uncomfortably into dissonance, as though the instrument were going out of tune.

Unlike “Loops,” however, this track does not slowly crumble but rather fades out almost imperceptibly. This is surely intentional, representing timelessness — the endurance of Bowie’s legacy — as opposed to the brittle fragility of disintegration. But the mourning also goes on.

Halfway through 2016, many jokingly theorized that David Bowie had been, in the words of one fan, “the glue holding the universe together.” These comments were made in response to the months of ongoing violence and political turmoil across the globe that incidentally followed the musician’s death. While the observation is lighthearted, it illustrates two important realities: first, the special place that Bowie occupied — and occupies — at the heart of popular culture; and second, the prevailing sense of uncertainty that has carried many fearfully into the new year.

Basinski sympathizes with us, in both regards. The record’s second, eponymous track is an eerie lullaby, the drone’s gentle evolution peaceful and ominous at the same time — like a fatal fall reproduced in such slow motion that it plays out like a graceful dance. And the oppressive sense of uncertainty is the shadow in the track title, which the tragedies that marked the late year have cast over us.

A few nights ago, I had a nightmare in which, as a result of our conflicting political views, my closest family members shunned me during a rare visit. On waking, I felt an enduring, quiet horror, which then followed me throughout the day. The track “A Shadow in Time” was an unexpected comfort. Feeling Basinski also struggling with contemporary uncertainties, the subtle tensions on the track became an empathetic gesture. They say misery loves company, but Basinski’s record finds desolation seeking understanding.


Artist: William Basinski

Album: A Shadow in Time

Label: Temporary Residence

Favorite Track: “For David Robert Jones”

If you like: Stars of the Lid, Brian Eno

4/5 Shamrocks

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