For the last sixth months or so, people on the internet have turned their grief over the death of David Bowie into some wild assertions. The half-serious claim is that Bowie was the glue holding together the world’s geopolitical landscape, the universe, and even reality itself. There is some compelling evidence to support this, from the deaths of much-loved musical, literary, and cultural heroes, to instability and war on the international stage (Syria in particular now looks like 1970s Cambodia and 1990s Balkans rolled into one for Millennial news junkies), to the political events that may change Western democratic life as we know it.
A Shadow In Time is experimental process-musician William Basinski’s eulogy to Bowie, and its two tracks contain, quite appropriately, his most blissful (“A Shadow in Time”) and sorrowful (“For David Robert Jones”) work to date. It’s a kind of love letter from Basinski, one of avant-garde music’s greatest pop stars, to Bowie, pop music’s wildest experimental auteur — a study of their shared concern with how to make time, change, and death their own.
Bowie was always looking forward (even as he faced his own death on swansong Blackstar), but Basinski’s work has consistently inverted this impulse by using obsolete technology (old tape decks, analogue tape loops) and exposing pieces of organic sound (pianos, strings, rusty squeezeboxes) to time. The sounds gradually warp and fray, as they emerge, loop, and fade away.
Basinski’s work can be subjected to the same conceit as abstract painting — the (fallacious) notion that it’s difficult even for its admirers to tell the difference between two pieces. Bowie’s music, however, is known precisely for its unknowability — the fact that he never looked nor sounded quite the same in any of the many versions of himself he put on show, even though you can instantly tell who is singing, which song, which record, which version of Bowie it is.
On A Shadow In Time, Basinski tries not merely to locate Bowie’s ghost in the machine, but to find its cross-dressing, orange-haired, anisocoric-eyed soul locked somewhere inside the hard electronic casing of the world. It gives us two variations of Basinski’s mourning, both of which take sudden turns around the six- or seven minute-mark that reshape the whole piece: the breakdown of the sounds on “A Shadow In Time” and the addition of the jarring sounds on “For David Robert Jones.”
The title track is one of the most straightforwardly engrossing pieces Basinski has ever put on record. Its layers of bass tones, ambient synthesizer sound, and distorted high-frequency squealing place it somewhere in between Brian Eno and the work of minimalist microsound producer (and Basinski collaborator) Richard Chartier. With a piece made using ancient synthesizer technology and not tape loops, it feels like the slabs of sound have been placed on top of each other with the aim of producing specific bodily effects — not the vague promise of comfort and well-being that you get in New Age music, but a compromised kind of bliss laced with fear. It’s a version of the sort of anonymous “wallpaper” music Eno always wanted to make, but it’s so richly detailed and so conflicted that it feels less like staring at wallpaper and more like charting all the cracked bits of beautiful plasterwork in a collapsing house. Later in the track, the piece suddenly changes, turning back on itself, collapsing without decaying.
“For David Robert Jones” is quite different. A typical Basinski tape loop, it starts off beautifully, with droughts of choral sounds that lift up and drop suddenly down, but it ends up being one of the most dissonant and conflicted things we’ve heard from him yet. He has sounded melancholic and plaintive before — they may well be the most characteristic emotions associated with a Basinski piece — but he’s never made anything quite like this. There is, as the Gospel of Matthew (2:18) has it, lamentation and weeping and great mourning. And nobody feels any comfort.
It’s as if Basinski is fully addressing, for the first time in his music, the conflicts that come with being wracked with grief. It doesn’t rear its ugly head until six minutes in, and it mourns, gnarled and distorted, despairing in its own ugliness. And that dissonant grinding sound we hear could come from anywhere. A deformed guitar? A withered saxophone? A mangled trumpet? It could be a reference to Bowie’s experiments with synthesizers. It could just as easily be a portion of the triumphant riffing on “Ziggy Stardust” or “Rebel Rebel,” “Sound and Vision” or “Heroes” (which isn’t really so triumphant at all) heard now as never before, as if there was something dreadfully wrong, as if all the fire in the world has been dampened, as if all our best laid plans are ruined, as if all hope is gone. That hope is maintained only by the looping choral figure behind it, but they are never truly in accord with one another.