‘Lamentations’: William Basinski’s tribute to the ghosts of this world

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 4:42pm

NOSELL

Temporary Residence Ltd.

I have always wondered what was going on in William Basinski’s mind on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment as he photographed and filmed the plume of smoke still billowing long after the Twin Towers had collapsed. Did he know that it would become the cover of his magnum opus The Disintegration Loops? Did he understand what he was about to contribute to the ambient field? Maybe he did — apparently, he finished the project that morning. If I were a betting man, I would say that he sensed the connection the moment he decided to pick up his camera. Just thinking about the content — recordings of tape loops that disintegrate over time — it’s not hard to see parallels between the album and the disaster slowly dissipating in the wind. In many ways, this project catalyzed the direction of Basinski’s work for the next two decades. It built an identity surrounding the idea of art as a self-destructing force. His sound managed to change in subtle ways across the years, fluctuating between serenity and harshness. In recent years, he seems to have found a special middle ground where the two can exist in a quasi-superposition. However, on his newest record Lamentations, Basinski hearkens back to the core of what made The Disintegration Loops so groundbreaking. Both Lamentations and The Disintegration Loops are more phantasmal than musical, living on as the ghosts of human experience.

From the very first track off Lamentations, we get a premonition of death. It begins with a haze that gets punctured with ominous tones that seem all too familiar to the church bells after a funeral. Except, in classic Basinski fashion, they are slowed down and self-destructive. The rest of the album exists in a zone of periphery, a place that is at once entirely removed from reality but is also entirely dependent on it. It’s as if he took the sounds across human life and removed all context until only remnants of emotion were left, effectively injecting it with concentrated ectoplasm. On a technical level, all of his typical tricks are at play. He uses recordings and samples from deep within his arsenal to build the foundation of the album. At this point he brings out the scissors, pliers and matches, ritualistically cutting, stretching and methodically burning away at the foundation. Coincidentally (or in Basinki’s case probably quite intentionally), this process tends to describe what the music does to the listener. It forces us to drop all conceptions of our own memory or identity and look at them through a lens of externality.

There’s a concept in both music and larger philosophy called hauntology, which refers to the return of something from the past, typically in the form of the ghost. In terms of music, this is generally used to describe vaporwave and its corresponding subgenres. The style can be seen as the reformation of the dead sounds of ’80s and ’90s consumer capitalism, but Lamentations and the works of William Basinski feel like they are born out of the idea. It’s probably not even intentional on Basinki’s part, but his music almost constantly feels like there is another entity behind the sounds — a memory. 

On the third to last track “All These Too, I, I Love,” the album takes one final shift. For the first time, there seems to be a moment of something different, perhaps even warmth. I can’t say it’s hopeful or sanguine because for as much warmth that appears to be going on, there is also a definite sourness as well. It acts as a confluence of all emotions, an apotheosis. For a brief moment, the music and sounds seem to remember themselves, like an old picture whose subjects wake up. It is at once beautifully profound and horrifying, like something has happened that should never happen. However, like every other song on Lamentations, it slowly fades and deteriorates to nothing. And yet, like every other song, the feeling stays with you. It haunts you. The album was only part of the experience. The important part is what comes after. Because to Basinski, existence means nothing, but persistence means everything.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at gadband@umich.edu.

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