The haunting progression of ‘The Disintegration Loops’

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It starts with curiosity.

For some, just knowing the story of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is enough. In the late summer of 2001, Basinski began digitizing a collection of audio snippets he had recorded onto cassette tapes in the ’80s. When digitizing these tapes, they would slowly corrode after being scanned over too many times, creating the haunting, fading loops for which the project is named. He finished this digitization process on Sept. 11, in his New York City apartment. As the World Trade Center smoldered across the city, he played the music for his friends and recorded the wreckage as it burned.

The history of The Disintegration Loops is legendary. The sheer coincidence of its production has tied it permanently to Sept. 11. Its base subject matter, on mortality and inevitability, is tied to a moment that served as a turning point in American culture and politics. But that’s not all the project has to offer.

It moves on to skepticism.

The Disintegration Loops is long. Five hours long, if you’re listening to it all the way through. Early into the first listen, a decision has to be made: How far is the listener willing to go? It’s easy enough to sit through five or six minutes of repetition, but an hour? Five? The listener has to decide if the story behind Basinski’s music is more important than the music itself. 

The uncertainty of whether or not The Disintegration Loops is “worth it” to listen to creeps in. No one will know if a listener only played half of “dlp 1.1” before calling it quits. The idea is understood, and that should surely be enough. Listeners may convince themselves that consuming the piece in its entirety isn’t a necessity, at least not this time around. If one chooses to continue, however, the loops will be allowed to go uninterrupted on their churning, unending musical journey. 

Then it gets to the listening.

It is creaks ringing out through the hull of a washed-up ship. It’s the funeral chant of an alien civilization. It’s metal grinding against metal in an Oregon mill. It is, like all art, whatever you imagine it to be. At some point during The Disintegration Loops, the listener has to pay attention.

This is the magical section of the loops: when imagination takes over. The meaning of art exists in the mind of the consumer, and the actual sounds on the tapes can be anything the listener dreams of. And dreamy it is, halfway through the project, the music exists in a kind of limbo. It isn’t precisely the same sounds it started out with, but there is still a recognizable ghost in what is currently being heard.

At some point, the sounds become boring.

They have to, eventually. The Disintegration Loops is what some people might call the definition of insanity — the same thing over and over again. Other things happen while it’s playing and it becomes background noise, a drone to fall asleep to or just to have on for its own sake. It seems to go on forever.

But why is it boring? Basinski’s loops are like the procession of life. There are changes, but they’re not sudden and flashy. They are gradual, shifting and careful. The themes of mortality creep back into the mind, but in a new light. Only an hour ago the album was about eventually, inevitably vanishing into nothingness. Now it seems to be about so much more — it’s not an album about the eventual end, but instead one about the moments one hears in between. 

The Disintegration Loops is still an album about death. But that’s because it’s an album about life and time. To focus only on its bleakness ignores the beauty buried within. Something is actually, physically happening as you listen to the loops. The metal is literally disintegrating. Change is coming. This is real.

The sounds start to slow.

Time passes at a seemingly different rate than it once did. The music goes from a military march to the harmony of angelic choirs. For those who make it all the way through The Disintegration Loops, there are a hundred things to think about. The increasing frequency of quiet, dimming beats creates more moments of pause, demonstrating the power silence can have. There is more reflection — on the piece, on music, on art, on the self.

It’s hard to predict what someone will get out of The Disintegration Loops. But it’s hard to predict what someone will get out of life. And there’s a beauty in the ability to wax poetic about the ongoing stream of a few repeated seconds, looped over and over and over and over again. The music’s repetitive, soft, familiar nature becomes the ultimate drug for reflection and thought, if only given the chance.

The Disintegration Loops ends in silence. It’s ambient music, in its purest, most alive form.

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.