William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops came about by happy accident. In the summer of 2001, the composer was engaged in transferring various “loops” – seconds-long snippets of symphonic music he had recorded in the 1980s – from analogue tape to a more durable digital form. As he converted these pieces, Basinski started to notice an audible deterioration: he had set the analogue tape to repeat indefinitely, and with each repetition, as the delicate tape ran against the capstan, a minute fragment of sound flaked away like rust. Running the process hundreds of times caused these distortions and defects to accrete, ultimately scouring the tape clean of music.
Over a relatively brief 10 minutes, the hazy “dlp 2.1” (sensibly, Basinski refrained from giving these pieces any more evocative titles than the blandest alphanumeric referents) swells and ebbs, then starts to drag on the outward flow, as if some cosmically vast body is rubbing itself raw against chafing constraints. The flute motif of “dlp 4” – one of few traditional instruments discernible in the hazy, shoegazy loops – has, in a little over 20 minutes, has been almost completely effaced, leaving a crepuscular soundscape of whispers, dots and static, from which the last fragments of music jut like sharp black stones interrupting an otherwise obliterative snowfall.
William Basinski began making these recordings in New York in the summer of 2001, and that September, his project newly complete, he stood on the roof of his Brooklyn home and saw the World Trade Center collapse, watched the pall of smoke and ash rise from the site of the disaster with monumental, inconceivable slowness.
Vast, wordless music almost always invites the adjective “filmic”, and it’s easy to imagine these pieces soundtracking awe-inspiring visuals, either macro – the slow bloom of nebulae unthinkable distances away – or micro: unvisualisably deep within the human body, DNA replicators spewing out chains of genes in which one “transcription error” can have catastrophic consequences. But it’s with a particular moment in history that The Disintegration Loops has become associated: Basinski began making these recordings in New York in the summer of 2001, and that September, his project newly complete, he stood on the roof of his Brooklyn home and saw the World Trade Center collapse, watched the pall of smoke and ash rise from the site of the disaster with monumental, inconceivable slowness.
With this ghastly coincidence in mind, the already beautiful “dlp 3” – a 40-minute piece based around what sounds like two notes of a trumpet voluntary slowed to funereal pace – becomes almost unbearably moving. It is impossible, knowing the history of the pieces, not to recall those images of Manhattan befogged by ash, or to hear, in the way the loop pauses to gather itself every eight or nine seconds, a painful breath being drawn, an onward struggle, a fight against the inevitable. The loop plays its own elegy, even as the technology slowly, unsparingly, destroys everything that has made it recognisable.
Ten years after he’d made The Disintegration Loops, Basinski – with composer and arranger Maxim Moston – transformed them into a live performance, originally for a performance in New York to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center’s destruction. The performance was restaged in August 2012 at London’s Royal Festival Hall as part of the Meltdown Festival (an annual music festival whose schedule is curated by an individual performer, this year Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons).
Attending the London show, which comprised versions of “dlp 2.1” and “dlp 1.1” performed by the 40-piece London Contemporary Orchestra, I found these live Loops pretty and enjoyable, but nowhere near as moving as the originals. To represent the degradations on the original tapes, musicians play progressively shorter snippets of their score, the result more of a stifling than a disintegration. The performed pieces fail to capture the eerie degradations of the original, resembling instead some midway point between an intricately repetitive Philip Glass piece and Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, in which various musicians “drop out” until only one remains playing. (Personal bias meant I was also disappointed that “dlp 1.1” was performed, as it’s my least favourite Loop, not helped by its melody, played on trombone, being rendered almost jolly here.)
What seemed to be lacking was some way of recapturing the random interventions of the original – indeed, for “dlp 2.1”, the blots and scrapes of the original disintegrations were represented rather farcically by a performer crinkling some cellophane in the background. Why not, I wondered, introduce some live interventions too, using electronics (these, unlike in a Glass performance, conspicuously absent) to loop and degrade the musicians’ performance alongside the, as it were, controlled demolition? To have produced a score capable of being replicated identically – cellophane permitting – in any number of performances seems antithetical to The Disintegration Loops’ unique appeal, and represents a mildly curious but superfluous postscript to a project whose gradual, awful fading to silence required no last word.
William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops forms part of the National September 11 Monument and Museum in New York. A 2012 reissue of the recordings includes vinyl editions of each piece, as well as recordings of two live performances, and additional written material.