Willie Reviews William Basinski’s “On Time Out of Time”

Willie Reviews William Basinski’s “On Time Out of Time”


I love immediate sensory proof of outer space—touching a moon rock at the museum, watching an eclipse, or even seeing dashcam footage of a meteor hurtling through our sky. It’s a humbling thing to be confronted by the great big world out there. The number one curiosity for me, however, is to hear the sound of space. Wouldn’t it be satisfying if our soundscapes on Earth were a reference for all the sound in the universe? Maybe an amateur like me could pore through the data and hear the sound of bugs on Saturn’s moons or an avalanche on Mercury or a fire burning on Mars! I’m certainly not alone in these delusions, so there is a market for fans of space noise. The ultimate set is the two and a half hour NASA Voyager Recordings from 1992, which introduced the whooshing landscape of our solar system and carried the dramatic subtitle “Symphonies of the Planets.” The record is excellent ambient music, and it sure does sound cold, but it’s too good to be true. Despite the name, the release is no more affiliated with NASA than I am (I am not affiliated with NASA). They’re science fiction, not space archive, and they are heavily manipulated versions of public domain recordings. The truth is that it’s easier for humans than machines to tug on human heartstrings. Even the most prominent and mysterious sounds in the real recordings are caused by interference from other onboard instruments. That low pinging you hear? That’s a motor, not a space alien.

It’s not surprising that we’re so eager to believe in the faraway winds and chimes of the great void of space, so I had to take a moment and do some research before listening to William Basinski’s On Time Out of Time. The album uses “exclusive source recordings from the interferometers of Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, capturing the sounds of the merging of two distant massive black holes, 1.3 billion years ago.” Importantly, this isn’t sound that we can hear. It’s a wave that’s similar to sound, but it’s helpful to analogize it this way. It’s high level, groundbreaking, Nobel Prize-winning physics that is mostly beyond me, but the presence of a gravitational wave caused by two black holes merging is identified by an incredibly short chirp amidst the detector noise (I think there’s at least one sample like this hidden in the music, though I could be wrong, but let me know if you hear it!). I don’t know exactly how Basinski’s exclusive recordings sound, but I think this is an okay starting point. What makes this project a success is that he never overstates the authenticity of it. He lives in the staticky world of the detector, not a false drama. The suggestion of black holes is enough, and the heart of the piece is in the mundanity of the detector’s noise. Around it, he builds a slow-motion space battle.

On Time Out of Time was originally created for a 2017 installation, but as a standalone it takes on a complex narrative all its own. Out of the sound of a tinny room, using the baseline readings of the interferometer, it pulls dings and sonar beeps together throughout its first section. It’s entirely still and it drones, handling erratic ticks and bumps as they pop up. The second section introduces a metallic pitch that asks a slow question and starts to inject a real narrative. If the first act is Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, all chaotic and billowing, the second is The Unanswered Question. We notice whenever the ringing stops and we’re alone again in empty space. Basinski fills out the mix with every high and every low frequency, meaning tone and oscillation are what stand out. Ever so slowly, the drone becomes a recognizable keyboard harmony, breaking through the resting space static. This comes to the fore in the third section. The soundscape lightens, becoming warm and mysterious—a novelty after countless depictions of the frigid “beyond.” As time presses on, and with every repetition, what initially stood out as coincidence—maybe frequencies colliding—starts to reveal itself as intentional interplay. The keyboard becomes the lead, with a clear left hand part and right hand part. At the height of this, in the fifth section, almost all extraneous detector noise is clipped off and a bassy synth plays the most melodic stretch of the piece. For me, it was a spaceship trudging through thick space. It’s hard to tell how fast it’s moving in the infinite scale of the space around it, but there’s something going on. Maybe it’s shooting a slow laser beam, smashing stars and asteroids. If the start of the piece primed the listener for a scientific endeavor, it was for this payoff. A dark whimsy appears, and it’s a delight. Before dissolving into static at the end of the seventh section, the drones fade out in an assuredly major way. The spaceship gets smaller and smaller, then disappears.

The other track on the record, “4(E+D)4(ER=EPR),” keeps many of the same sounds, but has the bones of a slowed down synth part from a breakbeat hardcore track. The same comfortable up-and-down is there, but it’s stretched over nine minutes. It’s somehow a lighter take on the same subject matter, and contrasts with the infinite scale of the previous piece, which is four times longer.

Being that Basinski’s mode of production has for so long been reworking found materials, this record seems capable of reintroducing space in a new era of research. It’s beyond our solar system and beyond much of our imaginative capacity. It’s not even sound. The work being done by scientists at LIGO is incredibly intangible, so those researchers are also eager to find sensory parallels. This record is a physical object that combines both measured data and the free-roaming content of our heads when we think about space. These pieces are ones you can touch like a space rock and consider directly against your ear.

Score: Being picked up by a passing spacecraft.