I first encountered Basinski's sublime sine-wave symphonies and majestic dirges in 1998, when Germany's Noton label reissued his 1982 opus, Shortwavemusic, on clear vinyl. From the first needle drop on the sidelong "On a Frontier of Wires," the music plunged me into a sound world of unearthly desolation. The track somewhat resembled early Tangerine Dream's eerie synth wails, but Basinski's dusty-stylus thud rumble and whorls of ectoplasmic drones took it into much deeper and scarier realms. The B-side's three cuts lay the foundation for Coil's frighteningly frigid music for playing in the dark, blooming into shimmering miasmas of Plutonian desolation.
Those savvy Germans at Raster-Noton also saved The River from obscurity in 2002 (originally recorded in 1983). Disc one sounds like a motorboat sputtering down said body of water while the music from The Titanic lugubriously foghorns in the distance. Disc two is a Vaseline-lensed keyboard mantra flaking at the edges, conjuring an elementary-school alarm bell dissolving in mercury. It's unspeakably forlorn and affecting.
Silent Night (on Basinski's 2062 Records) may be the easiest entry point for novices. Featuring lilting, Eno-esque synth drifts submerged in a well-modulated cricket chorus, it's simultaneously chilling and comforting, like blankets of snow covering you for your final sleep.
But Basinski's greatest acclaim has come from the four-disc Disintegration Loops series (also on 2062). The back story is, just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Basinski--who saw the WTC topple from the vantage point of his Brooklyn home--was transferring music he'd recorded in 1982 from analog to digital tapes. Upon playback, the tapes' iron oxide had succumbed to time's ravages, adding an elegiac patina to what were already mournful synth exhalations. Twenty years after its creation, the music had taken on an eerie resonance, soundtracking a modern tragedy ex-post facto. DL III is particularly disturbing, its tranquilly beautiful synth (or is it a string section?) motif cutting out like a cell-phone conversation with bad reception. The eroding drones could be interpreted as both symbolic of classical music's waning from popular consciousness and of the erosion of America's sense of security. Special mention must go to DL IV, which contains perhaps the 20th century's most gorgeously morose loop, a somber, gentle fluctuation of violins fluttering like the flag of a defunct country. It's poignant enough to be Purgatory's ultimate Muzak--(de)composition at its finest. DAVE SEGAL