The Disintegration Loops

Collected Works: Music


The Disintegration Loops

by William Basinski

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A cloudy electronic tone rises above an ambient soundscape. We hear an A push up to a B flat, swell, then fall back in melancholy, touching transiently upon the G below. As the motif repeats, hisses and crackles begin to impinge. Where the music was once smooth, scratches appear. Ridges of surface noise expand to form gaping abysses, into which all else is dragged. After an hour, only a low hum and two pulsing beats, as if a pair of footsteps, remain audible above the haze.

The first airing of The Disintegration Loops took place on September 11th, 2001. As the World Trade Center fell to the ground, William Basinski and a group of his friends convened on the roof of their New York apartment building. Sitting in silence, they watched the smoke billow before them, the scene soundtracked by sombre tones. The project had been started two decades prior, but completed only earlier that day.

In their first incarnation, the pieces existed as magnetic tape loops, which Basinski painstakingly converted from analogue to digital. Each time a loop passed over the tape head, though, a little more material was erased. The act of transferring the music from one format to another was slowly destroying it. It may have been updated, compatible with technological developments, but the work regressed to nothingness in the process.

Inextricable from the context of its impromptu premiere, this deterioration becomes a potent metaphor: a poignant counterpoint to the fragility of geopolitics, or to human decay. It is an elegy for a world in which the twenty-first century was still young, and the term ‘post-9/11’ was yet to exist. Buildings may have been rebuilt, lives commemorated, but Basinski’s scarred tape reminds us that some damage cannot be undone.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can listen to 'd|p 1.1' here. If you would like to know more about William Basinski, a good place to start is through interviews, a selection of which follows, all dating from around the tenth anniversary of the work's release: by John Doran for The Quietus; by Lars Gotrich for NPR; by Emilie Friedlander for The Fader; and David Cotner for Animal.

Sasha Frere-Jones has also written an article on Basinski's tape art for The New Yorker. Ellis Jones delves deeper into The Disintegration Loops with his essay on insecurity and fear for Music & Politics, while Eli Stine analyses the music here.

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