William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops I-IV
impossible: no one could create a script this contrived. Yet, apparently, it
happened. William Basinski's four-disk epic, The Disintegration Loops,
was created out of tape loops Basinski made back in the early 1980s. These loops
held some personal significance to Basinski, a significance he only touches
on in the liner notes and we can only guess at. Originally, he just wanted to
transfer the loops from analog reel-to-reel tape to digital hard disk. However,
once he started the transfer, he discovered something: the tapes were old and
they were disintegrating as they played and as he recorded. As he notes in the
liner notes, "The music was dying." But he kept recording, documenting
the death of these loops.
recordings were made in August and September of 2001. Now, this is where the
story gets impossible. William Basinski lives in Brooklyn, less than a nautical
mile from the World Trade Centers. On September 11, 2001, as he was completing
The Disintegration Loops, he watched these towers disintegrate. He
and his friends went on the roof of his building and played the Loops
over and over, all day long, watching the slow death of one New York and the
slow rise of another, all the while listening to the death of one music and
the creation of another. As I said, it's impossible. The music, however, is
beautiful, subtle, sad, frightening, confusing, and ultimately uplifting. What's
he created here is a living document: a field recording of orchestrated decay.
It sounds like nothing else I've heard, yet, at its core, it's the simplest
and most familiar music I can imagine.
four disks comprise six unique works. There is some overlap on the different
disks; in fact, the first work (which Basinski calls "D|P 1") begins
on disk one and ends on disk four. Some of the works are very long ("D|P
1" is over 90 minutes), while some are relatively short ("D|P 4"
is only 20 minutes). However, each of the six works employs a different, repeating
loop that slowly deteriorates into oblivion. The loops are very simple: a lush
string or synth melody backed by atmospheric arpeggio countermelodies. The melodies
are, as Basinski notes, pastoral: lush, simple works intended as idealized representations
of nature and beauty. In theory, then, this is ambient music: music designed
to set a mood, evoke a feeling (like a cinematic score), but one that is not
designed for deep listening. That, I'm sure, was Basinski's initial design when
he first created these loops in 1982.
time has slowly killed these loops and the pastoral (and ambient) ideals they
once represented. What we hear on The Disintegration Loops are not
poetic images of nature or beauty but nature and beauty as they truly exist
in this world: always fleeting, slowly dying. What makes these works so memorable
is not the fact that the loops are slowly disintegrating but the fact that we
get to hear their deaths. In a very real way, we experience the muddled, ugly,
brutal realities of life. What's more, these muddled, ugly, brutal realities
of life are, in their own way, incredibly beautiful, perhaps more beautiful
than the original, pristine loops ever could have been.
with any natural occurrence, these individual loops all die very individual
deaths. "D|P 3," for example, begins as a bright, bold, orchestral
melody that, over the course of 42 minutes, is slowly reduced to a sputtering,
churning blob of its former self. The melody disintegrates slowly, until, by
the end, only portions are audible; the rest is silence and noise. By contrast,
the longest piece, "D|P 1," because it is split into three distinct
parts ("1.1" on disk one; "1.2" and "1.3" on disk
four), actually dies three separate deaths. Each one begins as soft, warm halos
of sound, which then slowly mutates into muddled fragments. And then there's
"D|P 4," the smallest work. It begins as a full-fledged melody but
slowly devolves into chaos: silences slowly spreading across huge gaps in the
loop, while the muddled melody struggles on, barely perceptible, until it, too,
is silenced into oblivion.
is not ambient music; this is not one melody played over and over to fill the
background space of a Japanese restaurant. This is natural music: music created
from the elemental forces of life and as a testament to those forces. This is
the sound of entropy, the sound of life as it decays and dies before our ears.
And like all living things, these sounds struggle and claw for life with their
last, dying breaths. Their deaths are a memorial to Basinski's past. That he
dedicates these works to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is fitting.
I can think of no better tribute, no better response to a tragedy of that magnitude
than a work as beautiful and as fragile as this one.