William Basinski - On Time Out of Time
by Ed Graham and Tom Graham
“It’s a love story between two fucking black holes, creating a rift in space time with more energy than all the stars in the known universe.” - William Basinski
The use of tape loops has been a powerful musical technique since the second half of the 20th century. In the case of ambient and drone, fragments of sound are relentlessly overlaid to create dense sonic layers, pushing loops to their limit of recognisability. These loops are drawn out to breaking point, enveloping the listener in a thick and endless fog seemingly unrestrained by real time - an imaginary, yet vividly physical space whose expansiveness enables a pause to reflect, sheltered from the trappings and distractions of everyday life.
While we normally consider the effect that looping may have on us, and how the time that passes with the entangling of loops hypnotises us, what about the experience of time’s effect on the loops themselves? The American composer, William Basinski, inadvertently went beyond such traditional layering techniques by adding a further, more haunting dimension - the sounds of those loops breaking down over time. As Basinski was digitising a collection of analogue tapes, he realised that they had begun to physically disintegrate, which can be heard in the resulting recordings which formed his seminal album in 2001, The Disintegration Loops. A forlorn horn fanfare slowly decays over the course of the first piece, like a degraded memory gradually becoming cloudier and more inaccessible. Coincidentally, the recordings were finished on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, which Basinski observed from his apartment in Brooklyn. This harrowing context makes the tactile experience of the physical effects of time even more profound, and the exploration of the precarious balance between life and death all the more poignant.
Trauma could similarly be said to underlie the record Basinski released fifteen years later, A Shadow in Time. Basinski released the two-track LP at the beginning of 2017 and at the end of a year that most were eager to leave behind. The record was in part a self-declared tribute to David Bowie (the first track earnestly titled ‘For David Robert Jones’), yet the eponymously titled second track might be regarded as a broader registering of the seismic culture shifts and shocks of that tumultuous year. Overall, where The Disintegration Loops collapses under its sheer materiality, where it, um, disintegrates, A Shadow In Time expands, its tentacles unfold, striving for a new map of 2016’s late-capitalist sublime, where the rearing of Trump and Brexit were but spectacular, Cthulhu-like symptoms of a broader, deeper period of elongated crisis.
As with A Shadow In Time, Basinski’s latest album offers a more tumultuous depiction of time that departs from The Disintegration Loops. Split into seven sections (plus a “bonus”, '4(E+D)4(ER=EPR)'), On Time Out of Time in some sense follows a similar trajectory to A Shadow In Time’s aforementioned title-track, the album’s thunderous, ominous entrance swelling with angelic magnitude and intensity. But where A Shadow In Time was about the imminent sense of collapse suggested by that ominous shadow of a year, On Time Out of Time has a much larger narrative scope. A collaboration with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, the record is based on samples of gravitational waves, and literally samples the sounds of two distant black holes merging. As Basinski articulates in a recent interview, there’s a romanticism in working with sounds that travelled billions of years to come to earth: “It’s a love story between two fucking black holes, creating a rift in space time with more energy than all the stars in the known universe.”
This emphasis on a much longer temporal span can be seen in the context of a warming world, where time is felt at once more immediately and as more mappable. Notions of impending climate catastrophe are met with those detailing how capital has shaped the climate crisis over a deep time-span in and through the web of life. On Time Out of Time begins feeling both urgent and expansive - a warning signal for a critical situation quivers as the slow, deep pounding of a drum summons the weight of the entire cosmos. Then, the ethereal sound of a flute emerges, as if returning after light-years of being lost. After the bloating intensity of this first half ceases, a fresh set of loops emerge. They simultaneously contract and expand, an ominous thud reverberating as a much fainter melody echoes in the distance, like two passing galaxies disconnected from one another.
What sets this section, in particular, apart from Basinski’s earlier work is the way in which the melodies break free from the usual confines of the tape loop. They move with purpose and unpredictability, as if freeing themselves from the suspended moment and firmly attaching themselves to the world’s time course; there’s a sense that they’re going somewhere. It is perhaps here that we understand the title, “On Time Out of Time”, and how it performs the present crisis. On the one hand, we’re constantly on time, in a perpetual present. On the other, we’re faced with the gruelling sense that we are running out of time, as reports circle of humanity having just 12 years to avert climate catastrophe. Today, perhaps time is not so much out of joint as too in joint; our on-timeness and out-of-timeness are two temporal axes that never meet, drifting alongside each other like two parallel lines. Present-orientation and a sense of the future cannot be synthesized in a meaningful way, as time oscillates between intense activation and sheer exhaustion - between the collective addictions of consumerism and social media, and the resignation that "there is simply no alternative".
Ultimately, if The Disintegration Loops is about time eroding and fading with a whimper, slipping through our fingers like the decaying of memories with age, On Time Out of Time approaches loss as something more final. Time swells and intensifies, locked onto a trajectory towards impending climax and apocalypse. When the loops of Basinski’s older work return in On Time Out of Time's closing track, they don’t so much disintegrate in a process of mourning as calmly circle the void.
What makes Basinski’s music so compelling is that it resonates with the everyday concerns that lurk in the back of our minds - gradual or sudden loss, political unrest, environmental collapse all billow in the background like the persistence of a drone note. But, the worlds Basinski creates for us to reflect on these ideas have changed with each album, becoming both more familiar and more unsettling. In The Disintegration Loops we were able to experience loss while safely suspended in a loop that drifts apart. Now, in On Time Out of Time, we confront these worries head on, staring into the face of our impending fracture with no way of ignoring it. Brian Eno once said that ambient music allows us to connect with “the futures that didn’t materialise, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the ones we have agreed to live in.” What’s shocking about On Time Out of Time is how it confronts us with our disjointed world, all too real to bear.
Words by Ed Graham and Tom Graham