Ambient music, like any form of abstract art, relies on context. In the absence of lyrics—and often rhythm or melody—something has to give form to the formless, a title card explaining that those fuzzy black rectangles are actually Nude Woman Lamenting A Dying Earth. It’s why so many ambient albums, beginning with Brian Eno’s genre-defining Discreet Music, attempt to establish the mind-set with which it should be approached. This can be as didactic as Eno including a diagram of his equipment so you’ll appreciate the mechanics of what you’re hearing, or as impressionistic as a cover photo of blurry trees or stark, Brutalist architecture. It can mean inventing a full-fledged narrative, like The Caretaker’s evocation of nostalgia tattered by dementia, or giving interviews where you invoke some New Age ideal about the need for quiet reflection in a chaotic world. Whatever helps to differentiate your more purposeful, “serious” ambient music from the soporific wallpaper you hear at the health spa.
William Basinski arguably understands context better than anyone in his field. He first started making his tape loop experiments in the late 1970s (informed by Eno’s Discreet Music schematic), then spent decades tinkering with their sobering, staticky sound in underground art spaces, but he didn’t get much attention for them until 2002’s The Disintegration Loops became inextricably intertwined with 9/11. The legend behind The Disintegration Loops’ creation is inseparable from the finished piece: You can certainly enjoy it solely for its meditative, melancholy atmospheres, but it takes on extra dramatic weight knowing that Basinski’s old cassette loops of random Muzak, recorded as they crumbled on his tape deck in real time, completed their final limp toward oblivion just as the Twin Towers were collapsing outside his Brooklyn loft. That connection becomes even more poignant when paired with the album’s cover photo and accompanying video of a smoldering Manhattan skyline. Critics hailed the album as a timely reminder on the fragility—and resilience—of humanity, and today, The Disintegration Loops is regarded as a defining post-9/11 artwork; it’s since been performed by an orchestra at a 10th-anniversary wake and inducted into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
Naturally, linking something to tragedy like that invites controversy, and over the years, some have accused Basinski of exploiting 9/11, forcing that connection to fabricate some deeper meaning for—and draw greater attention to—a work that is, however moving, essentially just a collection of found sounds. There’s a similar, if smaller-scale, debate to be had about Basinski’s new A Shadow In Time, which has once again garnered a lot of preemptive press thanks to it being a partial “eulogy” for David Bowie. As with The Disintegration Loops, it’s up to the listener to decide whether that context feels genuine—and your enjoyment may depend on whether you feel the Bowie angle adds or detracts.
Superficially, “For David Robert Jones” bears little relationship to Bowie or his music. In fact, it evokes Bowie far less than it does Basinski himself. Composed of a crackling, circular orchestral riff—repurposed from tape fragments reportedly chewed up by a “big, fat motherfucker” of a cat belonging to Basinski’s roommate—the track resembles the stately decay of The Disintegration Loops more closely than any of his recent releases. It could easily be an outtake or sequel, were it not for the distorted honk of a saxophone that enters a third of the way through its 20-minute runtime, upending the mood.
There’s a slight nod to Low’s “Subterraneans” here, though really, any Bowie connection is primarily an introspective one. Basinski has said that Bowie inspired him to take up the sax as a young man, something that came full circle when Basinski joined U.K. rockabilly revivalists The Rockettes at a gig opening for Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour. So while the sax appears to be Basinski paying homage to Bowie’s influence on his own career, believing that requires the listener to have done their homework, and to interpret the song’s discordant choices as a sort of musical autobiography. Otherwise, you’re left with a piece whose watery tranquility is disrupted by some atonal bleating, and whose relationship to David Bowie ultimately feels as random as those flecks of static imprinted by some pica-suffering cat.
By contrast, while Basinski has said the A-side’s title track is also a eulogy of sorts, dedicated to the memory of a friend who committed suicide, it’s plenty affecting without the back story. It’s also the real reason to recommend A Shadow In Time to those who aren’t brought in by the Bowie factor—and even to those unfamiliar with Basinski’s work. Clocking in at just under 17 minutes, “A Shadow In Time” could easily go on for three times that, built on layers of twinkling, slowly shifting cosmic textures wrung from an old Voyetra-8 synthesizer that Basinski pulled out of storage, then allowed the celestial drones still lingering in its memory banks to dictate the song’s shape. For most of the runtime, that shape feels boundless—a vast starfield with no fixed point—but as Basinski gradually introduces rolling washes of tape hiss and distant howls, its hushed resonance begins to dissipate, its stargazing wonder slowly overtaken by creeping, sci-fi paranoia. It’s one of the most beautiful compositions Basinski has ever created, even without knowing the where or why behind it.
The extent to which Basinski’s music depends on some prescribed context is a question I found myself thinking about a lot during a recent performance he gave on a frozen December night, deep in the mausoleum of a Chicago cemetery. The chapel’s high ceilings and the snow-covered gravestones that surrounded us created their own frame of churchly solemnity, but then Basinski wandered out wearing sunglasses and a sparkly blazer, his impressive mane combed into a pompadour, and started bantering with the crowd like some jocular spring-break DJ. As he unfurled “For David Robert Jones,” the juxtaposition of that fun, flamboyant stage presence jarred with the song’s glacial, gothic creakiness, and within this unexpected context, I suddenly found myself questioning whether this droning, difficult music was really challenging and evocative, or if it was just a bunch of noise, cleverly packaged by a shrewd showman.
In the end, though, it can be both. Basinski’s work, like all ambient music, provides for endless, unresolved interpretation by its design—even when it tries to force its meaning on you. It’s ultimately up to you whether you choose to believe that “For David Robert Jones” is a deeply felt, if abstruse remembrance, or just an opportunistic piggybacking on Bowie’s memory—much as I ultimately had to decide to reconcile the silly, superficial distraction of Basinski’s shiny clothes with the more meaningful, ineffable effect his compositions have always had on me. That context is there to be applied or ignored; the emotions it provokes are what matters, and those can change with every new spin. For the listener who welcomes the space to ponder those contradictory feelings, A Shadow In Time gives you ample room to explore.