William Basinski
ISSUE Project Room; Brooklyn, NY

“Drone music excels in creating and maintaining tension. It aestheticizes doom, opening a door onto once and future catastrophes, those that are imminent and those that, once believed to be imminent, are now detours in a past that turned out otherwise.”
– Joanna Demers, Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World

“Repetition is a form of change.”
– Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies

Ambient music can be as sterile as an operating theater. By comparison, William Basinski’s music is a thriving greenhouse. The experimental composer’s best-known works, the four-volume The Disintegration Loops, are lengthy studies romanticizing deterioration. Basinski discovered this territory by happenstance when digitizing some old analogue tape reels, finding that repeatedly playing back his source material subtracted layers of sound from the magnetic medium. Over many iterations, the spectral remnants became mysterious, even claustrophobic, a document of the music as it expired. Loops resonated with critics a decade after its release, with Pitchfork awarding the collection a perfect 10 on its reissue.

It’s hard not to anthropomorphize Basinski’s sounds, even to root for their survival. Personified as the music’s eventual demise, the increasing hiss, crackle, and noise can remind us of our own mortalities. Basinski released the first Loops shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it became a poignant elegy to the horrifying event.

Though Basinski wishes he could move on from this association, tonight he embraces it, performing just before the tragedy’s anniversary. The First Unitarian Congregational Society, in Brooklyn, N.Y., provides an appropriate space; with each step, groans lurch from the church’s ancient wood as it too plods toward its terminus.

Basinski is playing the inaugural event for Issue Project Room’s 2017 fall season and celebrating his new release, A Shadow in Time. He unfurls the 8-second loop of “For David Robert Jones,” a requiem for the performer most know as David Bowie. Basinski’s ceaseless looping becomes ritualistic in order for listeners to appreciate its half-hour degradation. The imperfect palette also upends the convention that loops remain static and unchanging, calling out this assumption as fundamentally absurd.

Ping! A soft bell decays into a deep reverberated tail and folds back into itself, colliding with the ambient rumble as if it were a wave cascading onto a shore. Basinski’s second piece, based off of “A Shadow in Time,” is as haunted as the first. The loop is indiscernible, so it’s easier to get sucked into its more uninhibited design. The piece builds, brooding with mystique as intermittent bass pulses inject gravitas into the melancholia. Basinski moves into a slow piano loop, its sadness communicated both by its minor key and by its destructed fidelity. It struggles to hold on, then begins to fade in the thick air. The audience is frozen, holding their breath. They’ve been transported from the concert venue to somewhere else entirely — caught in a sonic séance, adrift on some remote planet long after the last atom bomb has eradicated all life. The final sonic ashes become swallowed by the enveloping black of the church until there’s nothing left. Then, far off in the rafters, a single person begins clapping. Others follow, and miraculously the world comes back to life.

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