A Landscape of Decay

Re-exploring William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops

by Zachary Corsa

Disintegration is a subtle, whispering, barely-realized theme of everything we do in life. It’s as finely woven into the textures of humanity as birth, creation, war, sex and love. Every day things fall apart further, everything ages and decomposes in varying, but steadily advancing, degrees. Our cars, our homes, our bodies, all are showing wear as we use them and grow accustomed to them, the car starting to rust at the fenders and shift just a little bit rougher, the house settling into its foundation and the wallpaper beginning to peel, our bodies gradually losing the luster of prime youth, of their various functions and motions and eruptions as we advance towards our one common destination, a grave or an urn where we will decay even further, rejoining the earth again, to begin the natural cycle anew. And who wouldn’t feel a bit alienated in a country where a corporation nearly guilts you for not replacing your old gadget with a newer, sleeker version every six months? We are a nation, and a people, enthrall to the idea of decay. One might say the language and emotion of decay is stitched into our very bones.

It’s an idea that’s long appealed to experimental musicians, that isolated group of intrepid tinkerers who aren’t content with the expected melodic swing of the ‘song’ and the manipulated emotion therein. Experimental music largely rotates on the axis of how to to deconstruct what makes a song a song, and what better way to explore that than in the opposite of polished studio fidelity: the crumbling mechanisms of a recording process brimming over with errors. Experimental music often uses this as function for its form; the magnetic pieces flaking away on a warbling and warped cassette tape, the maxing out of a laptop audio signal until it degrades and shatters into furious, radiant splinters. No other visceral aesthetic is as aggressive in the message it broadcasts, that this technology is imperfect, as we’re imperfect, that these mediums and these sound-waves are being pushed to their absolute limits and failing there, and there’s beauty in that failure, beauty in the imperfection and flaws of man-made machinery, in a way that almost humanizes those flaws, makes them a character of the song as much as any melody, any run of notes. Experimental musicians don’t just embrace decay, they absorb it.

No other musician is as close to the technology of creation, and how it can be abused to glorious, dramatic effect, than a boundary-pushing avant-garde soundster, in mad spare-bedroom studio pursuit of that elusive and unique noise. Every act an experimental musician performs is an act of pure love, of utter blind devotion to tape hiss and capstans, to mixing boards and reels and EQ, to phantom power and condenser mics and on-board plug-ins. And what better, more delicious revenge on all of this intimidating and often oppressive equipment, haunting a musician’s waking moments with every step like some desperate and insecure ghost, than to push it to its peaks, damage and destroy and ruin it and revel in the gorgeously destructive results, the happy accident, the unexpected moment of ideal static.

Perhaps no one work exemplifies this theme better than William Basinski‘s timeless classic of decay, The Disintegration Loops, still the gold standard in tape demolition, and a crucial signpost to many of us who had our minds blown by the possibilities of experimental sound in college or soon after. Basinski’s work set a trend that had a sweeping ripple effect throughout the genres of drone, ambient and noise music that still resonates today, a scope of influence it shares with great albums of any genre. What makes The Disintegration Loops so breath-taking on its own terms is that Basinski takes this ideal of degradation one step further: this is technology eating technology, a malfunctioning digital snake eating its own tail and shedding its analog skin all at once. It’s a stirring example of the very breadth of the passage of time, of nostalgia, of death, and of relentless, sterile progress.

When Basinski began converting old cassettes of forgotten loops into digital format, the clashing of two worlds exploded, with one technology swiftly replacing the other as the standard bearer, and the other re-emerging as a fetish cult object, the collector’s vinyl of the new millennium. It was a classic and striking metaphor for the shifting of time and of technology, the advancement of days and the inevitable collapse of ancient structures and empires giving way to rising new totems before they, too, inevitably collapse and melt away. The destruction of these tape loops by the digital uploading process is a murder, a genocide, an erasing of a race of cassette technology by a stronger, more practical, more efficient and infinitely colder medium. The very nature of this destruction is violence; each sweep of the digital uploading flakes away more bits of magnetic material, shaping and shifting sound like an indiscriminately slicing stab-wound, a dramatic and unintended random editing. That we can delight in the result is cathartic, for this small-scale demolition is a reflection of a culture that no longer has tolerance for flaws, will only except perfect polished sheen without any under-current of error or mistake, of emotion or fear or love or longing or pain. It’s the grand statement of a new time.

How coincidentally interesting, then, that this album came about during the events of September 11th, 2001. The widescreen ambition of this album framed in the context of those events only makes the loops more compelling, imbued with an even more autumn sense of loss and passage,  a macroscopic and massive mirror reflection of the microscopic HO-scale world of this album. For what more dramatic editing was done that day than what was done to the iconic New York skyline (as the initial Pitchfork review of this album eloquently phrased it)? And how much has changed in our perception of ourselves, and other cultures, since? Our  cold technology has eaten the souls and hearts of our past.

When you’re listening to The Disintegration Loops, you’re listening to music that isn’t just decaying, but dying, slowly and torturously being killed off until its breathed its utterly last breath. Some loops draw out for a considerable length before collapsing in a haze of bursting static and hiss, while others linger only ten or twelve too-brief minutes before dissolving, like fireworks, having reached their apex, fizzling back to earth. You’re listening to the end of a generation in graphic form, a caving-in of principles and ideals, the new replacing the old in coup, in overthrow, in mutiny, and the destruction of the loops is the very sound of resistance, of rebellion, of clinging desperately to paradigm and status quo. The end of every loop has the unmistakable tinge of defeat, of slipping beneath water to drown.

The actual music in The Disintegration Loops is almost secondary, but is eerie in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. A few sparse synth notes churn for up to an hour with no variation in melody. Yet the fact is, the variation in the effect of the disintegrating tapes makes the effect itself the foreground, not the music being devoured but the crime itself, the actual devouring, the clicks and pops where the tape catches and you can actually feel it fighting, resisting the machine, scratching and clawing away from a rising tide of damnation. There is a lurid, voyeuristic, sinister quality in listening to these tapes being destroyed, one that results in an unexpected cataclysmic beauty that the loops on their own, bathed in polished digital sheen and edited free of imperfection, would never obtain. By transferring to a higher quality, Basinski has created failure, and martyred, even deified, his loops. The loops become an emblem from the age when the balance shifted along with the technology, avatars of yesterday. You don’t simply listen to an album like The Disintegration Loops, you experience it.

And the resulting bellwether effect of this album is incontestable, as well. In the wake of The Disintegration Loops came landmarks of experimental music that explore, albeit in smaller doses, many of the same themes Basinski was reaching for. Belong’s classic October Language boasts tracks that degrade into scattered static bursts in similar ethereal fashion, and Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath 1972 is even based on a similar concept, inspired by, in the artist’s own words, ‘digital garbage – like when the Kazakstan government cracks down on piracy and there’s pictures of 10 million DVDs and CDRs being pushed by bulldozers’. Such themes have only become more timely and apparent in the years since The Disintegration Loops, but it might not be a stretch to say that this albums and others could not have existed without its considerable, towering influence. Only an empire in decay could produce such art that reflects that decay so achingly, a swan song to cold winds of change looming on the frontier.

And when one considers also the rebirth of tape as both fetish kitsch object and preferred lo-fi aesthetic, it also brings home just how important this album really has been to a whole generation of sound makers, those among us who prefer the hiss and warble and click and pop of damaged and ruined tape, who traffic in sound degradation as a means of achieving mournful beauty and still tranquility, and those of us who run tape labels, as well, with nostalgia and an admiration for imperfection in a plastic surface world calling us back not just to cassette, but to scratchy Super 8 film, to blurry Polaroid and Holga photography, to tracking-damaged, pitch-warbling VHS. This is an era of looking sadly backwards, of revisionist history, when the dead obsolete technologies of our childhoods become crucial to sanely surviving in an Apple world that feels colder with every new sweatshop-fashioned model of iPhone. Basinski may have not intended to impart such lasting commentary on his community and beyond it, but nonetheless he succeeded not only in making a grand statement of his shifting, spinning times, but in producing one of the most influential experimental albums in history.

William Basinski’s work, including The Disintegration Loops, is available from the 2062 website.

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