On September 11, 2001, much of the world woke up to images of New York’s World Trade Center in flames. Images of the now gone Twin Towers with two burning holes in them are branded into the global consciousness. In the aftermath of it all, stories of fateful coincidence and pure luck began to emerge. People missed flights that were subsequently hijacked, sick days were had and so on. Among these stories is one from ambient/experimental musician William Basinski and his album ‘The Disintegration Loops’.
‘The Disintegration Loops’ actually consists of four albums released between 2002 and 2003. Significantly, the albums consist of tape loop recordings that were played over an extended period, resulting in the gradual intensification of noise and cracks as the tape naturally degraded. Basinski, who pursued studies in jazz saxophone and composition at the University of North Texas, stumbled upon this phenomenon when he endeavored to convert his earlier recordings from magnetic tape to the now prevalent digital format.
Drawing significant inspiration from iconic minimalist artists like Steve Reich and Brian Eno, Basinski embarked on his journey in 1978 to craft his distinctive musical language, employing tape loops and vintage reel-to-reel tape decks. In line with the legacy of his musical idols, Basinski meticulously cultivated his unique transcendental sound by skillfully juxtaposing brief looped melodies, fostering the emergence of intricate feedback loops.
In his exploration of the effects of tape deterioration, Basinski discovered that the ferrite had become separated from the plastic backing as it passed over the tape head. Displaying the depth of his inventive approach, this Texan artist subsequently extended the playback duration of the loops, causing them to deteriorate further. Consequently, this process gave rise to an increased presence of cracks and voids within the music. To enhance the sonic experience, he would later apply a spatial reverb effect to these sounds.
In a profoundly significant moment of musical history, Basinski completed “The Disintegration Loops” on the morning of September 11th, 2001, in New York City. While witnessing the tragic events of that day, he found himself on the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment building, alongside neighbors and friends, as the city’s emblematic symbol of the American dream, the World Trade Center, tragically crumbled into itself.
Subsequently, Basinski captured the aftermath of the attack on film during the final hour of daylight from a rooftop. On the following morning, he played ‘Disintegration Loop 1.1’ as a soundtrack to the eerie stillness that enveloped the city in the wake of the tragedy, a state it would struggle to recover from. Images extracted from Basinski’s footage served as the album covers, and only a few weeks later, he offered a dedication to the victims in a postscript found within the liner notes. He elucidated that “the events infused new significance into the musical compositions born from the studio’s process of gradual decay just a few weeks earlier.”
During an interview with Texas Monthly in 2021, Basinski disclosed that on the day when the planes struck the Twin Towers, he also received an eviction notice from his landlord. He reminisced, “I felt utterly despondent.” Basinski’s life partner, James Elaine, who was employed in Los Angeles at that time, was deeply concerned for William’s well-being. He recounted, “I distinctly recall consoling him over the phone on that day and the following day. He was clearly in a distressing state, and I was deeply worried, engaging in heartfelt conversations with him.”
Basinski, along with his neighbours and friends, spent the entire day on the rooftop, observing the unfolding nightmare from every vantage point. They found solace in the sound of “The Disintegration Loops” playing loudly through a set of speakers as the tragic events unfolded. This serene atmosphere was only disrupted when “the girls downstairs became overwhelmed and requested that I turn it off.” It was during this moment that he captured the aftermath on his video camera.
In the years that followed, William Basinski has performed ‘The Disintegration Loops’ in many settings including with the London Contemporary Orchestra, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at in Hobart, Tasmania at Dark Mofo in 2018.
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