Encounters: William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops

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It was mid-summer, and the evening sky was a deep cerulean blue despite the late hour. From the living room of my old Glasgow flat, I looked down on the Maryhill Road as it ran towards St George’s Cross subway station.  A month to go before my dissertation was due, and I was spending many summer evenings like this one, alone, working late by the disappearing light of the day. Imagining all I was missing out on, the warm evenings spent with friends in the pubs and the parks, I took solace in the company of an old friend – music.

During this time, as I was trawling through the myriad albums proffered by YouTube’s algorithms, I came across a piece of music which affected me as intensely as any ever has. Having just reached the end of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, I clicked randomly on the first related video. The thumbnail image displayed an evening sky that mirrored the bruised blue of my own Glasgow dusk. Unlike the view from my window, however, the image showed a silhouetted cityscape with a cloud of dark smoke billowing from the bottom right to the top left of the scene. The music, when it played, was striking in its sadness, a devastating loop of orchestral horns fit to accompany some earth-shattering tragedy. My concentration slid steadily into the sound, and my focus shifted farther and farther away from my work. Eventually, I closed my books altogether. The music was too tragic, too mournful, to be relegated to the background. My gaze shifted from the evening sky onscreen to that outside my window. I listened, and waited for the night to creep in.

The piece was William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, and my reason for outlining the above scenario is to emphasise my unfamiliarity with the music when I first heard it that evening. Afterwards, while I was reading up further on the artist, I found a comment on an online forum that disparaged the work as pretentious trash, praised by critics and posers but not actually liked by anyone. Nobody, asserted this anonymous commenter, listened to The Disintegration Loops unaware of its backstory and the context behind its inception, and ‘fans’ of the work were clearly more enamoured with the mythology of the piece rather than with the music itself.

I, according to this logic, was the anomaly. When I heard The Disintegration Loops that evening, I had no idea of its backstory, nor had I even heard of William Basinski as an artist. And yet, the music had profoundly moved me, even considering the daunting form it took – a single, seven-second musical phrase, looped continuously for over an hour in length. Still, I wondered: What was this mythical backstory the commenter was referring to? And how could my knowledge or ignorance of it have shaped my engagement with the music itself? I needed to dig deeper.

The story begins in the 1980s. Classically trained musician William Basinski is experimenting with found sounds in the style of John Cage and Brian Eno when he creates a series of tape loops, captured from easy listening radio stations. Setting them aside, he doesn’t touch the loops again for over a decade; that is until the late summer of 2001, when he begins the process of digitizing his stock of old tapes for posterity. By this time the tapes have physically deteriorated, and as Basinski begins to record them onto CD, he notices that the magnetic particles on the tape ribbons where the audio information is stored are slowly beginning to disintegrate. He decides to continue the process nevertheless, digitally recording the changes made to the music by the physical erosion of the tape. It sounds like the music is falling apart, cracking and crumbling as the magnetic strips are slowly destroyed. Though the tapes are now physically useless, Basinski has managed to capture a digital recording of the sound created by their destruction. The Disintegration Loops are born.

Fast forward to the morning of September 11th, 2001. Basinski is watching the events of that day unfold across the East River from the rooftop of his apartment building in Brooklyn. With dusk approaching, he sets up a video camera on the roof and films the smoke from Ground Zero billowing up and over the lower Manhattan skyline. This is the footage that will go on to accompany ‘dlp1.1’, his first and most famous loop in The Disintegration Loops series. It is also the one I discovered for myself that summer evening in Glasgow.

For me, the first Disintegration Loop, ‘dlp1.1’, is perhaps the most powerful meditation on death I have ever encountered in any art-form. While Basinski’s other loops in are no less affecting (‘dlp 3’ and ‘dlp 6’ being other personal favourites), none are quite so funereal and haunting as that first in his series. The deterioration of the moaning horns, crawling feebly towards their own demise, is a sound I find incredibly tragic. It puts me in mind of a childhood memory I have of being moved to tears by the lyric in the song ‘American Pie’, when Don McLean sings of “the day the music died”. As a child, the idea of music dying seemed apocalyptic. Music represents that part of us that transcends rationality, something that we can all relate to without being fully able to comprehend why. In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “without music life would be a mistake”, and he was right. To lose music would be a spiritual loss, a loss of part of our humanity; a world without it would be emptier, and us, as listeners, would be reduced to a more basely material existence.

The Disintegration Loops is probably the closest I will ever come to hearing music actually die. With today’s technology, it is easy to forget the precarity and fragility of artistic works. Whether it be film (itself a medium grounded in the idea of preservation), music, the plastic and visual arts (see Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ for more on this), or even literature – we are blessed in our age of digital and online libraries to no longer have to concern ourselves with how and where we store and preserve artistic texts. For most of the twentieth century music was distributed on tapes, CDs, and records, all of which could be easily misplaced or broken.  Before that, music was something only heard if you or someone else knew how to play it, with sheet music being the only means of distributing new works to the masses. Throughout history the physical object has stood in for music’s ephemerality; hence the symbolic significance placed on the organized record smash. Like book burning, the destruction of the record, the physical object, is mostly incidental; it stands in as a symbol for an idea, and its material destruction functions as an allegory for the erasure of that idea from history.

That The Disintegration Loops testifies to this inherent fragility of music is what makes the piece feel so tragic. Unlike, say, the static representation of a painting, music can only ever exist as a continuum, in perpetual movement. Alan Watts said that the purpose of dancing is the dance itself, and the same can be said for music. We cannot control how we consume it, in the same way that we can choose to spend hours examining a single painting, deciphering every inch of its canvas. To play a song is to move continually towards its conclusion, and to try to avoid this only destroys the pleasure of listening. By pausing and rewinding a track, we break off the rhythm that compels us to listen in the first place. The Disintegration Loops embodies this movement towards finality in a quite literal sense. Marching helplessly and futilely onward, the strength of the horns begins to diminish, the recording starts to sound feeble, and the musical phrase as a whole is reduced to a shadow of its former strength.

This is why I hear The Disintegration Loops as a meditation on mortality. It’s relentless movement forward is the innate cause of its disintegration, thereby reflecting our own absurd trudge through existence. Our bodies grow old and weak not in spite of life, but because of it. Like the physical disintegration of the loop, which is so gradual that it only becomes apparent when you skip through the track at intervals, we also notice ourselves grown older only when we compare our current selves with snapshots from the past. Though not apparent on the physical level, each day we grow older, and only by looking back across the years do we come to recognise our own steady disintegration in our own march through time.

Any meditation on death is also, by default, a meditation on absence. In the video accompaniment to the piece, the silhouettes of the Twin Towers are noticeable by the very fact that they are not there. Huge material objects, there at the beginning of the day, gone by the end of it. Only the billowing smoke testifies to their former presence; like a ghost, visible, but not physically there. The scattered debris tells us something once existed in this empty slot on the skyline, but the fact that something so grand and so materially huge can just disappear is, for us tiny mortal beings, much cause for existential dread.

9/11 is obviously a challenging subject, and any attempt to engage with it artistically is like planning a disco in a minefield.  Basinski’s piece has come under fire from many who view the composer as having profited from tragedy. With the music even being used to soundtrack a room in the 9/11 museum, it is perhaps not hard to see their point. Basinski’s work predated 9/11, after all. It was not created in response to the event, but was conceptually tacked onto it in the aftermath. By being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, Basinski ensured his music was forever linked with that day, and this was unquestionably a catalyst for his subsequent recognition and successes.

Questions regarding the ethics of art in the context of 9/11 are of course not limited to Basinski. One cannot forget the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who went so far as to call 9/11 one of the “greatest works of art ever”, and whose name was subsequently tarnished before his death in 2007. While his claim was most likely hyperbolic, the furious response it garnered highlights the enduring questions we have regarding the relationship between ethics and art: Can tragedy ever be aesthetic? Is it perverse for art to respond so directly to human suffering? Or, in contrast, is the commemoration and immortalization of an event not a sign of respect, in the manner that intricate statues are constructed to commemorate the deceased? I have neither the time nor the gumption to approach such questions here. But the fact remains that the ethical limits we place on artistic responses to human tragedy remain forever tenuous.

For me, The Disintegration Loops are poignant not because of their relationship to 9/11, but because I hear in them a reflection on death in a broader sense. While this may sound incredibly bleak (and congratulations to anyone who has stuck it this far into the article), I do not think the point of a Memento mori is to depress. In most cultures, after all, the mourning of death is usually coupled with a remembrance of the life of the deceased. In order to die, we must first have lived, and that in itself is worth celebrating. So, conversely, we can only live fully while the fact of death hangs over us like a Sword of Damocles. Life and death are not in opposition, but exist beyond duality, inextricably tied to each other. This is why, in the face of death, the need to create is so natural. We defy our own mortality every time we bring something new into the world, giving birth to children or creating works of art so that part of us might endure when the whole of us cannot. It is an act of humility to realise that every book ever written will one day be forgotten, every song recorded will disappear, and every shred of evidence that we as individuals ever existed will be lost. And yet, still, the urge to create remains. In the space of absence created by death, something new must always arise.

For me, this is what The Disintegration Loops attest to – the eternal cycle of destruction and creation. With dusk setting in over New York, Basinski captured a day that was, in many ways, wholly unlike any other – but which was, in other ways, just the same. The sun set and the next morning came. The earth span and the cycle continued. Just as it always will, even after we as a species have disappeared and someone or something else has settled in to replace us.

That summer evening, as I listened to the first Disintegration Loop, ‘dlp.1.1’, I felt overcome with a feeling of loss. For over an hour I sat and watched the day turn to night as a pink dusk set in over Glasgow. The darkness closed over the city like a comforting blanket, and as the music faded to nothing, and silence reigned once more in the darkness of my living room, I felt as though part of me, the part of me that had never heard The Disintegration Loops, was gone. I knew – and this became disappointingly clear after subsequent listens – that my first encounter with that piece of music was over. To this day I have never enjoyed listening to The Disintegration Loops quite to the same extent I did that evening. Like a day coming to an end, or a life coming to its close, when we encounter a work of creation that moves us profoundly, its pleasure is always linked closely to its impermanence. A fleeting glimpse of something transcendent in a world of mundanity. The Disintegration Loop died as I listened to it and now, when I hear it, I hear only the ghost of that first listen.

Instead of mourning that loss, I wanted to reflect on my own relationship with creativity. As the music ended, and as my mind scrambled with ideas, I decided to pick up a pen and write down my sporadic, nonsensical thoughts. The void of loss was filled as soon as I began to write, and this article, born from those notes, is what eventually came of it. It is something that will die and be forgotten and quite possibly go unread by anybody except myself.  It is imperfect and most likely confusingly jumbled. But it is – and this even my overwrought perfectionism cannot deny – something new. I had brought a thing into being, and it had been born from that feeling of loss.

I want to conclude by saying that creation is an end in itself, and that choosing to create endlessly, refusing to get stuck in perfectionism or overthinking, is vital to the experience of being a human being. From a feeling of emptiness, there can be born a sense of wholeness when we place something new into the world. Destruction precedes creation; death beckons new life; being replaces absence. Night always leads into the break of day, and though the excitement of encountering something exceptional eventually recedes, its residue lives on in what we choose to make with it for ourselves.

Refuse to believe, therefore, that talent or skill or anything else is a prerequisite. Make things, and give them to the world, and let them die in the world rather than in the confines of your own head. And do that as much as you can, with whatever time you have to do it.

These are the lessons I try to remind myself when the absurd quest for the perfect sentence hinders me from turning an idea into reality. I do not believe that there is any objective criteria for measuring the movements of a human mind. To live is to create, and to overthink that process is itself a form of death. Mistakes, after all, only testify to the fallibility we all share.

Stay safe, wash your hands, and try to dedicate more time to making rather than just consuming. It looks as though we’re all going to have some extra time for ourselves very soon. At least we have the choice of deciding how we use it.

Love, DA.

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