William Basinski’s droney, disintegrating Bowie tribute — For David Robert Jones

Of all the tributes, cover versions and live celebrations of David Bowie around the anniversary of his death, this meditative piece by avant-garde composer William Basinski taps into Bowie’s unrelenting obsession with experimentation and reinvention.

Referencing Bowie’s real name, David Robert Jones is a 20-minute eulogy framed in Basinski’s most familiar process — recording of analogue reel-to-reel tape loops. It immediately evokes Basinski’s most celebrated project The Disintegration Loops, his melancholy ambient masterpiece pieced together by old tapes spooling and degrading in real time — with the actual ferric oxide on the reels physically flaking off until the recording seems to evaporate.

For David Robert Jones is ushered in on murmured drones impressionistic choral loops that gradually fray at the ends, and a disintegrating saxophone phrase that recalls Bowie’s mournful sax wailing on Subterraneans, the closing track on 1977’s Low. Over the piece’s 20 minutes, a sub-bass hum creeps in and the abstract voices gradually decay and flicker, bringing the sax to the fore, before the textures melt into silence in an extended fade.

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For many rock fans, the instrumental second side of Low is the point they unshackled themselves from Bowie — its ambient textures, drones and synth experiments a step too far from the hummable riffs and spectacular theatrics of Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and even the Thin White Duke’s streamlined minimal funk.

But there’s a reverence for Low’s side B among experimental artists and Bowie disciples, and Basinski’s tribute is all the more poignant for mining this landscape — and could even stand up as a companion piece to Bowie’s electronic experimentations with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in 1977.

For David Robert Jones appears on Basinski’s new album A Shadow In Time — out this Friday on Temporary Residence.

  • Aside: For an deep dive into the process behind Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, listen to this brilliant podcast by the folks at Radiolab.