Your heart beats faster and faster as someone bangs on you apartment door. You pull yourself up from your bed and stumble over to answer and tell whoever decided to wake you up to leave. The landlord could be at the door about to give you an eviction notice, or it could be non one, just a wake up call to remind you of the project you need to finish: Transferring your old tapes of piano loops into a digital format. But it’s you friend, and they’re yelling at your. The World Trade Center. It’s burning. You run to the roof in disbelief, breathless as you stop at the edge and see the Twin Towers falling, dust coating the skyline.
This is what happened to composer William Basinski on that ill-fated morning. He ran back to his apartment a few minutes later and started to play what would become ‘Disintegration Loops.’ At nearly four hours, ‘Loops’ is an album based on repetitive loops of reel-to-reel tapes as they disintegrate. Still, while most people listen to capital P-O-P pop music, ‘Disintegration Loops’ goes unheard. Of course it’s not anything the general public would listen to regularly; again, ‘Loops’ is four hours long. Most music critics, though, consider it a classic, a powerful work that transcends genre and politics because of its emotional resonance.
The history of ‘Disintegration Loops’ actually started in the early ’80s when Basinski began experimenting with piano compositions that he had committed to tape. He was a classically trained musician, and his projects centered around the manipulation of reel-to-reel tape decks, and the melancholy that such a process could provide a listener. He ended up creating a large archive of this works centering around loops, delays, static, and found sounds, then stored it away. In August 2001, after suffering from creative block, he decided to transfer the works into a more compatible, digital format. While recording, he found that the old tapes were destroying themselves, so he captured everything: His own music decaying in real time.
‘Disintegration Loops’ could soundtrack any disaster because of the spectrum of emotion the slowly decay captures, but its specificity to 9/11 synthesizes the tragedy to its many parts. Essentially, Basinski is dealing with the many complexities of ambient music. Ambient music is about the individual, and the feelings from the wordless genre are whatever the listener wants them to be; but ‘Loops’ needs to be about something larger, right? Not necessarily. Remember the saying “more than the sum of its parts”? If you apply that to any album, any song, apply it to ‘Loops.’ Ambient music is so much about self-reflection manifested through sound that covering the entire spectrum of emotion over four hours is setting the bar that much higher for the genre (where ‘Loops’ stands virtuallt alone). ‘Loops’ succeeds because of its unique relationship to the listener.
‘D|P 1’ starts muddled and distance. The distance grows over the course of 63 minutes (the album’s longest track), and the subtleties get heavier and more burdensome, like billowing wreckage falling over itself as each note carves out small caves of sound. By the 40-minute mark, you’re engulfed. ‘D|p 3’ sputters and spits as the sunny orchestral melody disintegrates, similar to day turning into night, or to death proceeding life (ashes to ashes, dust to dust); in more succinct terms, orchestrated decay.
Actually, Basinski is more of a documentarian than composer. In fact, ‘Loops’ is powerful because of its natural state: Constant decay. The album’s form has no true function other than to move forward, get to the end without help. ‘D|P 4’ and ‘D|P 5,’ for instance. The tracks bleed out as the magnets on the tape fall away and crumble. There’s nothing to salvage. I guess you can call ‘Loops’ a force of nature?
Yes, ‘Disintegration Loops’ is a capital I, capital A Important Album, but the perceived emotional center makes it much more personal, a collective experience of time and place. To commemorate the 10th anniversary, in 2011 the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a live orchestra perform selected works of ‘Disintegration Loops.’ It’s been over 10 years since Basinski played a demo of ‘Loops’ for his apartment complex as they watched the World Trade Ceneter fall, and it’s still being played to this day. The six tracks are still as poignant as they were on that morning.
The four album covers are still frames of a video Basinski’s friend took of the Brooklyn area from morning until evening. The photos crystallize the passing of time. This simplicity comes through in the songs: Hypnotic, meditative, solemn, sending the listener to a place of self-reflection. ‘Disintegration Loops’ is essential because its emotion push, the catharsis, the ability to let the listener relive the tragedy of 9/11 but never enter the realm of reality. A proper memorial.
Please listen here and here to a couple of the tracks to remember, and pay tribute. Never forget.