There’s nothing darker than uncertainty, nothing more terrifying than being presented with something you don’t understand, nothing more uncomfortable than waiting for the inevitable, nothing more defeating than searching for something that doesn’t exist, but there’s certainly more to what makes William Basinski’s Nocturnes eerie, unnerving, fraught, and confounding than could be summed up by musical notation or by a deconstruction of texture: this is the music of an extended moment; this is everything that exists inside a single note, inside an individual texture.
Rarely does music consistently inspire a specific reaction, especially more atmospheric and musically ambiguous compositions, regardless of external context — ambient music, after all, should subject itself to the context wherein it is played, amplifying, as opposed to altering, a specific character of space’s general tenor — so it struck me as a unique characteristic of these compositions that, regardless of where I listened to them, how loud I listened to them, what I listened to them through, what my state of mind was when I listened to them, or why I chose to listen to them, my personal and instinctual reaction remained unaltered. The emotion responses outlined above were inspired by a singular image: first track “Nocturnes” is the discovery of something completely alien yet perceivably true and real, the artificial sustainment of this pocket of truth, and the subsequent and inevitable self-destruction of this truth, while second track “Trail of Tears” is the aftermath of a failed truth, the affect, the following analysis, and the resulting awareness.
While this process may read as a singular interpretation of Basinski’s work, the music’s ability to evoke this sequence of reactions speaks to something much more universal: the album — like most tape loop compositions — deconstructs an elongated moment, and Nocturnes’ deconstruction of the eternal present seems to be reflected in the narrative that I couldn’t help but experience while listening to it. By eternalizing and internalizing the ephemeral present, Basinski has created a macro documentation of the infinitely micro; he shows that a moment is not elemental but progressive and consists of a series of subtle steps. The following is an attempt to outline these stages as they are represented in Nocturnes’ extended moment:
[ “Nocturnes” ]
Revelation: At the very onset of the composition, there is something disorientating and alien about the set of sounds that isn’t yet melancholic; in fact, it’s actually closer to excitement. This excitement stems from the discovery of something familiar enough to grasp and foreign enough to warrant inspection: it’s the combined pull of our inherent joy in reality imitated and our congenital curiosity. Basinski attributes the sense of difference that leads to the music’s ability to embody a new frontier to the fact that the attack of each piano stroke had been cut out, leaving only the note’s body and decay: it seems that the perfect way to mimic the unfamiliarity of discovery is to present notes without introductions, like observations without origins or incidents without precedence.
Interrogation/Intervention: It’s also ingrained in our culture to desire profundity in a new discovery: it needs to somehow be made true, sincere, and substantial/universal for it to made important. This process of extracting the meaningful from the potentially mundane is reflected in both the sonic progress of this piece as well as in the process through which the piece was created: while the composition was completed many years ago, it wasn’t until now when Basinski was able to distill the music into what he felt was its intentional or true form by editing out something that he got “carried away with.” The track contains a meaning now that it didn’t initially, and the process of creating meaning can be both heard and felt — Basinski’s revisitation becomes part of the actual and mimics the way we intervene on the imperfections of a discovery.
Extension: The sounds of the initial excitement begin to strain under repetition and alternation, and a discomfort, closely related to pity, takes weight through a prominent motif that sounds like a dyspneic machine: this is where the contrast between Nocturnes and his seminal masterpiece, The Disintegration Loops, is most clear. While The Disintegration Loops was a living, breathing, decaying document that displayed mutability in its truest form, Nocturnes artificially sustains what that document allowed to decompose: if The Disintegration Loops was the sound of life, then Nocturnes is the sound of life-support. The same can be said of the manufactured meaning in the composition: we grasp onto any flash of certitude and attempt to sustain it as long as possible, both living off of it and artificially keeping it alive.
Replication/Repetition: This meaning, like the loops of sound, are kept alive for a long time (over 40 minutes), and while this reproduction and distribution of truth in order to establish its veracity is also typical of almost any discovery, the very concept of repeating a truth as it relates to the composition warrants an analysis that I’ll leave to Jonathan Boulter and Joel Faflak:
The logic here is simple. On one hand, repeating something means affirming the truth of its existence in the first instance, not unlike the signifier assuring us of the reality of the signified to which it corresponds. A repetition of an idea suggests consistency, continuity, and assurance that the idea has intrinsic value. […] On the other hand, to repeat something is intrinsically to admit that it might not be right in the first instance. If it was, why repeat it? Between the original and its copy emerges a certain anxiety about the repetition, a lingering doubt about its efficacy.
Dereliction: These truths simply don’t stand up to this scrutiny and proliferation; eventually, anything that is placed under that much weight will collapse. In the track’s final moments, loops fall away without remnants until the last and most resilient sonic components fall into silence, illustrating the finite nature of any discovery. Were the album to end with “Nocturnes,” it would seem as though these truths are merely discarded and their meaning forgotten, that this process is cog-like and without real advancement, but the following composition realizes the aftermath and proves its importance.
[ “Trail of Tears” ]
Lamentation: We mourn these moments; they don’t pass us by unrecognized or uncontemplated; they don’t lose meaning the moment that they lose relevance. While “Nocturnes” features sounds that imitate the labored breath of life extended, “Trail of Tears” presents the overly human moans of bereavement: it sounds like the repercussions of someone spending a lifetime convincing themselves that “everything is okay,” only to find themselves at the eventuality that it isn’t. This is the tormented dejection of a theological rejection — and to think, according to Basinski’s concepts of the extended moment, that one goes through this anguish with such startling regularity.
Revisitation/Clarification: The moans stop for the midsection and give way to a tranquil(ish), swirling drone. Appropriately, during the album’s most ambiguous segment, the most important question is being asked: how does one gain from this experience? As the whirr continues, you can hear the grasping at sonic straw — remnants from earlier in the composition present themselves but never truly formulate into their earlier cohesive strains — until these anecdotes cease and the piece approaches an elemental silence. If silence is clarity, and clarity is just another form of elusive truth, then Basinski proves that these kinds of absolutes are beyond our grasp, the silence being denied by the onset of the song’s final section.
Realization: There’s something darkly triumphant about the track’s concluding motif, like a triumph commingling with a funeral march. This is because these moments of fleeting truth are neither epiphanies nor entirely failed insights; they are solely reminders of the desert of the real itself. When the replications eclipse the actual incident of acuity, the notion of the “real” is forgotten. The comfort of an elemental reality is replaced by the comfort of multiplicity; the search for a defining perspective is replaced by the understanding of perspective relative to time, space, and individual. It’s a triumph for the postmodernist point of view; it’s a funeral for “truth;” it’s the coalescence of decay and bloom at the end of an instant.
All that being as it may, a question still lingers: why call the album Nocturnes? If day is reserved for the conscious self, then the night must be the domain of the subconscious: this sequence of movements is our perpetual night, our subconscious’s snowballing of every perceived instant. Nocturnes is the dark side of the moment; it’s the side that’s invisible to our conscious selves; it’s the side that inspires speculation; it’s the side that’s entirely ambivalent to observation; it’s the side that avoids mapped definition. Nocturnes is both the inherent indifference to “Truth” and “Reality” and, simultaneously, the source realization; it’s the cantabile, the unchanging repetition that accompanies the fluctuating dynamics of perception — it’s an illumination of the hidden capacity for beauty and mystery in every fleeting instant. Or it’s just looping tape — but I suppose that depends on how you spend your moments.