A youtube clip of a sunset skyline and smoke, set to an ambient tune; this is the first track of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.
The birth of this ambient classic was unorchestrated and, to me, seems satisfyingly organic. The story goes that Basinski, a Brooklyn-based composer, took samples from an easy listening station back in the 80s onto magnetic tape reels. In 2001, he decided to digitise this music, converting it to a more modern format. Basinski left the reel running, only later noticing that the tape was gradually crumbling as it played. The fine coating of magnetised metal was breaking off, and the music was decaying slightly with each pass through the spindle. Since its first recording in the 80s, the tape had deteriorated to such an extent that fragments of iron oxide were spalling off the tape’s surface.
The music slowly, very slowly, was converting itself into dust, leaving spaces in the loop that only grew wider and more noticeable as the music revolved itself. Fragmented and ethereal, the tape wound itself into silence; all the music had disintegrated.
This first tape was one of six loops that suffered the same fate; it was recorded by the process that was catalysing its demise. Basinski released these tracks in a series of 4 albums in 2002 and 2003, to affirming reviews. ARTINFO claimed that the music was "the most important minimal compositions of the past decade”. NPR stated that it was “vital music for the human condition.”.
As Basinski notes in the liner notes, ‘The music was dying’. There are six works, each with its own repeating loop that ‘slowly deteriorates into oblivion’. The loops themselves are beautiful and fluid, yet it is the passage of time that acts as Basinski’s instrument (Pitchfork, 2004).
However, it is the second part to the story that immortalises the first, giving the music a further poignance; Basinski has said that he finished the project the morning of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. From the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn, he watched the towers collapse.
He recorded the last hour of daylight with a camera, later pairing the footage with the Disintegration Loops to create an elegy for that day, dedicating the music to the events. The stills from this footage are used for covers for the CDs. It is strangely fateful that after its 20 year gestation period, the music should crumble into silence on a day that saw such disintegration and collapse in the world that surrounded the artist.
It seems that it is a composition of fitting theme and weight to be paired with the 9/11 attacks, with its precise documentation of the warping effects of decay. If you enjoy ambient music, I recommend a listen to the album; if 1 hour seems daunting on first listen, The Disintegration Loops III “dlp 4” is 20 minutes long; the breakdown of tape occured faster, and is easier to follow. You will find yourself examining each new cycle to discover what is left and what has vanished.