Filling the Eno Vacuum

Melancholy and the infinite sadness
photo: Caroline Bell

Bittersweet irony to picture underground New York composer William Basinski mid-Reaganomics, on his hands and knees dressed in his finery, rooting in the musty basement at EG Records HQ for his unsolicited demo of Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive, unheard at the time by head record exec Brian Eno. But as the '80s get excavated and renovated by the capricious Internet-crit age, Basinski has retroactively filled the vacuum of "the American Eno," infusing ambient conceits of random cellular processes with an intentionally elegiac melodicism.

Such reconsideration is ironically due to his most exalted, enduring work—the four-volume Disintegration Loops—being an archival disaster. The D Loops are exactly that, heavily burdened string motifs that shed their metal oxide in the digital-transfer process to reveal a reverberating abyss beneath as de-structure. Recorded music's most blatant sound-into-silence moment outside of pre-war shellac crackle, they also soundtracked his film of Manhattan's smoldering skyline from the September 11 dusk.

Digging deeper in the '80s dirt, Current 93's imprint presents Basinski's basement tapes of piano variations: Mistake Variations at first for a new-age demo or finger exercises by some The Days of Our Lives pianist; either way, the pathos burns like a will-o'-the-wisp through the analog tape's mist.

Alternate realities of piano cells slowly accrue to radiate red-level warmth in the vacuous darkness of the present. Call it incidental music for ghost towns, sunken submarines, or caves in the bitter wind of the ice age—which means the phantoms only sound primitive.

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