Perfect Sound Forever


The Unintentional Politics of The Disintegration Loops...
Two Decades Later
By Tom Spargo

Sitting on the rooftop balcony of his Brooklyn apartment early on 11th September 2001, the experimental composer William Basinski was to witness first-hand the catastrophic attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Although he was just one of many that experienced the attack first-hand that day, Basinski's experience was particularly unique. Earlier that very morning, he had finished recording a new experimental musical project, The Disintegration Loops. Although certainly originating from a generic millennial sense of existential unease, Basinski had no way of knowing that his new music would become forever entangled with a single catastrophic event that would, to no small measure, redefine the geopolitical fault lines of the new century.

Basinski's inspiration was largely the result of chance. While attempting to digitalize old master tapes from the early 1980's, he was shocked how this act of preservation was also profoundly destructive: by repeatedly running tape through a tape player, over time the magnetized ferrite began to detach from the polyester backing. As the physical damage began to accumulate on the surface of the tape, multivarious cracks, pops, and distortions become increasingly prominent until the original recordings were almost completely decayed and unrecognizable. Rather than despairing, Basinski used this as inspiration for new musical form that sought to create art out of this very impermanence. His themes were destruction, disintegration, and decay, but little did he know that these themes would become so politically and culturally relevant in the new century. From the vantage point of today, his music seems nothing short of prophetic.

The Disintegration Loops is extremely minimalist in nature - literally a few hours of seemingly endlessly repeated and ever decaying snippets of 'found sound.' Nevertheless, it is packed full of sonic detail. Upon deep listening, each crack and pop that accumulates comes to seem like an extra percussive layer of sound, a rich speckled timbre. Despite its heavy subject matter, this music is not hopelessly nihilistic. The Disintegration Loops professes that art, music, and life can be found anywhere, even in the midst of destruction. Music can still exist even where sounds have disintegrated into nothingness. All that is required is a listener.

As chance had entangled his art with global geopolitics, Basinski actively embraced the political implications of his work. The cover art for the series of four Disintegration Loops albums was a photograph taken by Basinski himself depicting the damaged smouldering New York landscape in the late afternoon. For each volume, the photograph uses a progressively dark colour filter, so that by the fourth volume, it is almost completely black, the colour having disintegrated not dissimilarly to the music contained within. Furthermore, Basinski included a dedication to the victims of the attack in the album's liner notes. In 2011, a live orchestrated performance was held in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art to mark the ten-year anniversary of the attack. In 2012, a memorial 9-LP box set of the album was also released.

Art that is conceived as political from the outset is very common. In the modern English-speaking world, the African-American civil rights context is probably most familiar, producing songs such as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright." Thinking more broadly, similar political intentions can be found at the heart of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 memorialising the 'Babi Yar' massacre in Ukraine during the Second World War, the anti-Vietnam war protest songs of Bob Dylan, and more recently the Pussy Riot feminist collective whose politically radioactive punk condemns Putin's regime in Russia. All these examples began their life as political, and unsurprisingly they continue to be so. The Disintegration Loops is therefore quite different as it was not conceived in political terms, but rather had politics, almost unwillingly, bestowed upon it. What makes The Disintegration Loops such as masterpiece is its ability to endure its own politicisation, to grow ever more relevant as time goes on. Politics has only enriched the Basinski's project.

Not all music ages well when an unexpected political context is introduced. Take Brian Eno's famous Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Polydor, 1978) for an example. It is no secret that Eno's minimalist experiments were a significant influence on Basinski. However, the comparison has an even deeper connection, namely that the subject of both Eno's famous Music for Airport Lounges and Basinski's The Disintegration Loops are broadly the same: aerospace travel. In Eno's case, it was the relaxing, if somewhat mundane, character of pre-9/11 airport departure lounges, whilst for Basinski it was, almost entirely unintentionally, the experiences and memories of commercial aeroplane hijackings by terrorists. While Eno's album did not quite pioneer the concept of ambient music - arguably traceable back as far as the idiosyncratic composer Eric Satie in the late nineteenth century, but certainly fully formed by the era of commercial background music produced by Muzak since the mid-1950's - Eno's Music for Airports did widely popularise the term and give the concept credible artistic weight. As Eno states on the liner notes of his record, the purpose of his ambient music was to be a 'background feature in the environment' intended specifically to 'induce calm' and provide 'a space to think'. It was purposefully 'lightweight' so as not to intrude into the listeners awareness and had to be 'as ignorable as it is interesting' to accommodate a variety of modes of listening and multiple levels of (dis)engagement. In 1917, Satie had signalled similar intent for non-intrusive ambience when he coined the term 'musique d'ameublement,' or 'furniture music'. It was Eno who realised this ambition and made it accessible to a mass art-consuming audience.

The point here is not to dismiss Eno's work as antiquated, naive, or ill-intentioned. The point instead is that only in a pre-9/11 world could an airport be seen as an ideal location (indeed, the starting point) for the genre of popular ambient music. It was a world in which conveyor belt X-ray bag scanners, 100ml liquid bottles in clear plastic zip lock bags, hostile passport control, full body strip searches, and xenophobic fellow passengers with nervous glances were entirely absent. Only in this context could apolitical ambient music and airports mutually compatible. Modern geopolitics has reduced Eno's album to merely a collection of pretty sounds; as a political concept, it could not have aged more poorly. Yet Basinski's resonates more profoundly than ever.

An example of an album that that has, similarly to Basinski's The Disintegration Loops, been unintentionally enriched by politics is Gavin Bryar's The Sinking of the Titanic. Inspired by the story of the string quartet that continued to play onboard the Titanic even as its hull was slipping into the icy Atlantic waters, Bryar's masterpiece blends the lush harmonies of classical string sections with the emotive resonance of ambient drones. But its parallels to Basinski do not end there. Composed as a memorial album to the Titanic in 1969, a rich array of new meanings was bestowed upon it by the external political events of that very year: the significant US military escalation in Vietnam, a proliferation of anti-war riots within the US, and, perhaps most poignantly of all, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. These events made the album more conceptually rich and politically immediate, no longer just about a single boat but about an entire nation - an entire planet. It became a lament to the death of the idea of progress in human history, a prelude to the idea that the future may not necessarily be better than the present.

Fast forward to our current situation in 2023. When put in dialogue with current geopolitical and environmental contexts, The Disintegration Loops, just like The Sinking of the Titanic, holds up amazingly well. With Putin's vicious invasion of Ukraine, scientific warnings of impending environmental catastrophe going unheeded by both corporates and governments, a rise in global populist politics, and the ever-present threat of (another) global pandemic, things certainly to look bleak. However, this current situation means - indeed, it demands - that we as contemporary listeners be extremely intentional about the way that we continue to actively listen to Basinski. The Disintegration Loops is not a historical artefact consigned to a box labelled 'the past'; it remains a politically alive, and is best listened to in dialogue with present political events. Very, very few albums continue to remain this powerful so many years after their original release.

Also see our 2015 article on The Disintegration Loops

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