William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is one of the most well-known and critically acclaimed ambient works of all time. In the vein of Brian Eno, Basinski made a number of ambient recordings from unconventional sources, such as shortwave radio and delay loops. Stored on magnetic tape for years, Basinski later found that this tape had physically decayed and would continue to do so when played. He recorded hours of this playout, documenting the slow deterioration, and then processed the result with reverb.
Approximately five hours of music was made in this fashion, spanning four CDs. Each piece is a short ambient melody that continuously repeats as it slowly falls apart into crackling and static with breaks of silence. These wind up forming new patterns and rhythms. The first piece, Dlp 1.1, is over an hour of music made from just a few seconds of tape. Thus, at first blush, these recordings seem highly repetitive but they are not – variations are constantly forming and falling apart.
Basinski was putting the final touches to these recordings on the morning of September 11, 2001. From his home in Brooklyn, he was able to watch the aftereffects of that day’s terrorist attacks. On his rooftop, he filmed the giant clouds of smoke billowing from lower Manhattan and listened to his recordings while watching the horror. The slow and inevitable fading of the music matched that of Ground Zero in an unintentional and frightful manner. He dedicated The Disintegration Loops to the victims of the attack.
I initially listened to all four Disintegration Loops in the mid-2000s, shortly after their release. The sheer length of the set was (and still is) intimidating. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, finding myself intrigued not only by its origin story but also the material itself.
As noted, the nature of each recording changes at a glacial pace. By the two-thirds mark, the patterns are clearly staggered. After that, the ambient melody fades and the tapes have broken down to the point that they are largely supplying a wavering sequence of beats. The overall volume dips, but with some amplification a constant background hum can be picked up. The end result is dramatically different from the beginning. The use of silence, though perhaps initially inadvertent, cannot be historically separated from that of John Cage. Indeed, the last minute or so of Dlp 1.1 is virtually inaudible, a fitting resolution.
The progression from ambiance to percussiveness to nothingness continues for the other three of the Loops.
Due to its unfortunate juxtaposition with 9/11, The Disintegration Loops has introduced many to the notion of ambient music. And when listened to in the context of that day’s events, one cannot help but hear the darkness. While much of the darker side of ambient music evokes haunted landscapes of the far past or distant future, Basinski’s work reminds us of the human capacity for destruction in today’s world.
In 2012, the four original recordings were re-released with two live orchestrations on an additional CD. This marked the 10th anniversary of the recordings, which have now become an unlikely culture-bearer.
Basinski had planned on touring in support of its 20th anniversary, but he canceled his appearances due to the ongoing pandemic. Currently, he is attempting to reschedule for next year, though a September 11 performance of these pieces is expected to take place in New York.