William Basinski: “The Disintegration Loops I”
“You are slowly being destroyed. It’s imperceptible in the scheme of a day or a week or even a year, but you are aging, and your body is degrading. As your cells synthesize the very proteins that allow you to live, they also release free radicals, oxidants that literally perforate your tissue and cause you to grow progressively less able to perform as you did at your peak. By the time you reach 80, you will literally be full of holes, and though you’ll never notice a single one of them, you will inevitably feel their collective effect. Aging and degradation are forces of nature, functions of living, and understanding them can be as terrifying as it is gratifying.
It’s not the kind of thing you can say often, but I think William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops are a step toward that understanding— the music itself is not so much composed as it is this force of nature, this inevitable decay of all things, from memory to physical matter, made manifest in music. During the summer of 2001, Basinski set about transferring a series of 20-year-old tape loops he’d had in storage to a digital file format, and was startled when this act of preservation began to devour the tapes he was saving. As they played, flakes of magnetic material were scraped away by the reader head, wiping out portions of the music and changing the character and sound of the loops as they progressed, the recording process playing an inadvertent witness to the destruction of Basinski’s old music.
The process may be the hook for this sprawling four-disc set, but the loops themselves are stunning, ethereal studies in sound so fluid that the listener scarcely registers the fact that it’s nothing but many hundreds of repetitions of a brief, simple loop that they’re hearing. I imagine that life within the womb might sound something akin to these slowly swelling, beauteous snatches of orchestral majesty and memory-haze synthesizer. The pieces are uniformly consonant, embellished with distant whalesong arpeggios and echoing percussion.
In essence, Basinski is improvising using nothing so much as the passage of time as his instrument, and the result is the most amazing piece of process music I’ve ever heard, an encompassing soundworld as lulling as it is apocalyptic. A piece may begin bold, a striking, slow-motion slur of ecstatic drone, and in the first minute, you will notice no change. But as the tape winds on over the capstans, fragments are lost or dulled, and the music becomes a ghost of itself, tiny gasps of full-bodied chords groaning to life amid pits of near-silence. Some decay more quickly and violently than others, surviving barely 15 minutes before being subsumed by silence and warping, while the longest endures for well over an hour, fading into a far-off, barely perceptible glow.
There is another, eerier chapter to the story of the Disintegration Loops— that Basinski was listening to the playbacks of his transfers as the attacks of September 11th unfolded, and that they became a sort of soundtrack to the horror that he and his friends witnessed from his rooftop in New York that day, a poignant theme for the cataclysmic editing of one of the world’s most recognizable skylines. Removed from the context of that disaster and transposed into the mundane world we live in every day, The Disintegration Loops still wield an uncanny, affirming power. It’s the kind of music that makes you believe there is a Heaven, and that this is what it must sound like.”