In the summer of 2001, Texas-born experimental composer William Basinski set out to digitize a series of analog tape loops he’d created in the early 80s from snippets of American pastoral music — the sort of lush, bucolic, orchestral schmaltz that might have scored a Reagan ad. The tape loops, however, abandoned in a closet since before the Gip declared “Morning in America,” had deteriorated in storage. As the first one spun around Basinski’s reel-to-reel, iron oxide flaked off the tape, leaving tiny fissures in the sound, gaps that grew longer with each pass over the tape head. “I looked at the CD recorder to make sure it was on,” Basinski said, “It was. So I just sat there, listening as this gorgeous melody decayed over a period of an hour in such a beautiful way.” At first, the effect was barely noticeable. A subtle clipping in the sustain of the strings, a hiccup of horns. Then the notes began to fray. Blasts of winds crackled and waned. Tiny spaces swelled into chasms. By the end, the looping refrain was mostly hissing silence, punctuated by little broken sighs of melody. The almost-bare tape made a sound like breathing, belabored but not panicked.
The result was a work of profound indeterminacy — on par with the chance music explorations of John Cage and Brian Eno. Basinski’s project is at once aleatoric and teleological, a willful stumbling toward silence. From the verdant optimism of the source music, Basinski had captured moments of tension and uncertainty, a schoolyard boast swallowed up by a gust of wind — a deflation, dramatized and magnified by the winding plod of decay. Every piece was ambient yet engaging. Cyclical but not redundant. Cerebral but laden with pathos. It was new. And good.