William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops
A bit of background is necessary for anyone coming to William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops for the first time. Having unearthed in 2001 a set of analog tape loops from his archives (produced in 1982, the tapes had lain undisturbed in Tupperware containers for close to two decades), Basinski discovered that while playing them, the tapes were, in a sense, dying because the magnetic material containing the sounds was flaking off during playback (to preserve what he was hearing, he recorded the sounds onto CDs as they played) and turning the music to dust. Then, on September 11th, Basinski witnessed the morning's events from his roof in Brooklyn, a mile away from the World Trade Center, and proceeded to watch the fires burn into the night with The Disintegration Loops playing in the background, the scene in front of him perhaps already forming itself in his thoughts as an inextricable part of the work. Originally released in 2002 and scheduled for 2012 induction into the 9/11 Memorial Museum, The Disintegration Loops re-emerges in a limited-edition box set that includes pretty much every key artifact associated with the project.
What justification is there for reissuing it? To begin with, the original recordings have been remastered, plus they've never before been available in vinyl form (apparently, the box set is the first and only time the material will be offered in that format). The set also includes The Disintegration Loops film on DVD, the remastered recordings on 5 CDs, and a 144-page full-color book featuring photos and commentaries, as well as background info by Basinski himself. Antony and Current 93's David Tibet contribute heartfelt texts to the book, but it's the words of Michael Shulan, Creative Director of the Memorial Museum that capture the experience concisely: “9/11 was a shattering day, and a shattering experience, but the way people reacted to it was uplifting and life-affirming. All of this is present in The Disintegration Loops. It is there in the terrible beauty of the smoke and dust-filled sky over Ground Zero as the sun slowly sets and the frame slowly darkens, and in the music, which simultaneously consoles and unsettles as it slowly degrades.”
Musically, the collection totals more than five hours of material, the longest sixty-four minutes (“Disintegration Loop 1.1”)—in fact, closer to ninety-eight if its second and third parts are included—and the shortest eleven (“Disintegration Loop 2.1”). The loop pieces are supplemented by two live orchestral renderings of “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” a forty-two-minute version performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 11, 2011 and a fifteen-minute version realized at The 54th Venice Music Biennale on October 18, 2008. As well-intentioned as the live performances are (and valuable, too, in that both were previously unreleased), they're secondary to the original recordings, even if they're certainly interesting enough in their own right. A challenge for the orchestral treatments is that they must contrive the impression of decay in their arrangements, whereas it emerges as a natural outgrowth of the tapes. Even so, it must have been a profound experience for attendees at the NYC event, an indication of which is suggested by the reverential two-minute silence that follows the performance's final notes. It should also be said that the box set is conceived with the completist in mind, as those of a less obsessive bent will likely find their appetites sated by a smaller slice of the five-hour pie. The set clearly isn't designed for listeners with short attention spans.
Not surprisingly, it's “Disintegration Loop 1.1” that's the project's foundation: buttressed by a percussive flourish, the stately brass fanfare trudges along, its mournful song intoned incessantly within a fog of blustery, pock-marked static. Decay, so gradual in its emergence it verges on imperceptible, erodes the material until all that's left is a mere skeleton. All six settings follow a similar pattern: a simple, elegiac theme repeats at a crawl, deteriorating and breaking apart (“Disintegration Loop 4” especially, where the theme collapses minutes before the piece ends) before vanishing altogether.
While it's wonderful to have all the various stands of the project come together in one set, it's ultimately “Disintegration Loop 1.1” coupled with the video that is the project's own Ground Zero—a mesmerizing piece that can prove transformative, especially when it's impossible to keep thoughts of mortality and life-cycles at bay during the playback. The idea of pairing the video with the music was obviously a masterstroke: experiencing the music's dissolution alongside the gradual darkening of the Manhattan sky and the ultimate fade to black is affecting, and one comes away from it soothed by the lulling rhythms and the peacefulness of the display—despite knowing that such seeming calm appeared only hours after the devastating attacks, the collapse of the buildings, and the unnecessary deaths of thousands. The theme of decay resonates at multiple levels, naturally, but the fact that the material is being re-introduced years after its original release reminds us that even the greatest calamity can begin to fade when time advances and connections to events, both psychic and physical, wither.Admittedly, those of a more cynical disposition might accuse Basinski of opportunism and of exploiting tragedy for personal gain; undoubtedly, his project has acquired a stature it wouldn't have had the 9/11 events not happened. Yet, all questions of motive and profit aside, the musical material still stands as the ideal soundtrack for the event, a work that rather than exacerbating the horror wrought by the imagery provides an antidote to it. The Disintegration Loops is a salve that helps make still-open wounds more endurable and reminds us that despite such carnage hope survives.