It should be obvious that technology has the power to dramatically change the face of music. The electric guitar gave birth to modern blues and rock and roll. Drum machines gave us hip hop and house. And affordable digital audio software has given rise to bedroom producers. These were all purposeful developments, though. While some of these things arose out of unintended uses of that technology, the musicians themselves were usually pursuing a specific artistic goal.
That’s not necessarily the case with William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Its origins are neither an intended consequence or a purposeful misuse. Instead its existence is almost entirely an accident resulting from Basinski trying to transition from an analog world to a digital one. And yet, it completely changed the face of ambient music and stands as one of the most important musical works of the 21st century.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. That tragic event and The Disintegration Loops are indelibly linked. David Wexler’s new documentary Disintegration Loops, which debuted at SXSW last week, explores that connection in great detail. But the four volumes of Loops are also undeniably part of a world that was increasingly digitized.
Basinski said during an interview that the music heard on The Disintegration Loops dates back as far as the 1970s when he began snatching clips of audio out of the airwaves. Many of the loops were “basically Muzak” being broadcast from the top of the Empire State Building. They were “all the Mancini and Mantovani versions of the American popular standards with all the syncopation taken out: no lyrics, unless there were oohs and aahs and just string galore.”
The idea was to try and recreate the sound of a Mellotron. “I love string sounds and I wanted a Mellotron, he said, “but of course I couldn't afford one of those. And I knew they were made with tape loops. So I thought I could maybe try to make my own Mellotron by grabbing little bits of the string interludes on some loops and, and then change the speeds and see what happened.” The goal was never to actually build a full instrument, though. “I'm not that kind of a geek,” he added. Instead it was about capturing the essence of that iconic tape-based keyboard.
What eventually became The Disintegration Loops, however, didn’t really start taking shape until nearly 20 years later. “When CD burners came out, I got one and I started pulling out all this old stuff to digitize it because I knew what happens to old tape. And these tapes were used when I bought them in the late '70s.”
The story from here has been told countless times, but it’s worth recapping. In the summer of 2001 Basinski was at a particularly low point, in debt and in danger of losing his loft and Williamsburg studio, Arcadia. But rather than sit and worry all day he dedicated himself to this archiving process and got to work pulling old loops off a boom stand in his studio and recording them to CD.
That first loop “was so grave and so fabulous and just what I needed and started tweaking the Voyetra synthesizer and came up with this randomly arpeggiating sort of French horn countermelody. And I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be great.’ So I started recording. I didn't know what was going to happen. And eventually I started to realize something's changing and I'm looking at the Studer [tape machine] and I can see dropouts happening. There's dust going into the tape path. And I'm like, ‘Oh my God, what's going to happen.’ And I check my levels to make sure it's recording and just like, ‘OK, let's see what happens here.’”
That dust was the magnetic coating of the tape coming loose from its plastic backing. As the tape passed over the play head repeatedly it gradually scraped loose the oxide layer causing audio dropouts, slowly changing the loops over time.
Eventually Basinski “started to realize, ‘Oh man, this is not about counter melodies... This is doing its own thing. I need to be in here and pay attention and make sure the levels are good and we're recording this because this is a one-time thing.’ So after that there were no more counter melodies, it was just let the tapes do what they want to do, pay attention and capture it.”
By his telling, there was a profound realization during the process. “Here I was reading this Zen Buddhism book before, he said, “and then as this was happening and I was realizing what was going on, basically I'm recording the life and death of each of these melodies.” But he was also capturing the death of a media format and a particular moment in time as one technology gave way to another.
Basinski finished recording The Disintegration Loops on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was around this time, he says in the documentary, that he realized they were “an elegy.” And he cemented the connection between the music and the tragedy of 9/11 by pairing the four volumes with still images taken from a VHS recording of the towers captured from his roof that day.
But even without the spectre of 9/11 looming over it, there’s a strong sense of unpredictability and anxiety underlying The Disintegration Loops. That unease reflected not only America’s newfound vulnerability and the uncertainty of Basinski’s personal life, but also a world entering a new millennium. A world increasingly connected by emerging technologies like cellphones and the internet. The dot-com bubble had just burst, but it was clear we couldn’t put the digital genie back in its bottle. No one was quite sure what would come next.
Whether or not he was explicitly thinking about the role of technology in the album’s creation or success is besides the point. And Basinski even admits that he tends not to dwell much on the technical side of things. When asked if technology has always been part of his creative process he said, “in a way, because I use machines, but, “as far as me and gear, I'm not a gear head. I never was. I use what I use and I have a bunch of old broken shit and some new stuff.” (That said, he did eventually get his hands on one of the new digital Mellotrons.)
Not all of Basinski’s works rely on “old broken” and outdated technology. He sees his artistic medium as being time itself in some ways. And he uses whatever tools are at his disposal in that pursuit, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO. Basinski’s father was a contractor at NASA so his fascination with space runs deep. And when the opportunity presented itself to work with recordings of the gravitational waves first detected by LIGO he jumped at the chance. On Time Out of Time is an album essentially 1.3 billion years in the making, built around the sound of “two massive black holes, basically fucking each other to death,” as he puts it.
...two massive black holes, basically fucking each other to death.
Of course, Basinski’s most influential work is undeniably The Disintegration Loops. And it’s hard to overstate its impact. He’s far from the first person to work with tape loops or to explore the ephemeral nature of sound. But, his influence on modern ambient music is unmistakable. Musicians like Amulets and Instagram artists such as Blankfor.ms have turned aging Tascam PortaStudios from something garage bands record demos on into highly sought after instruments in their own right. Even gear makers have cited his work as inspiration, including Brian Hamilton of smallsound/bigsound who directly credits the album in the creation of his Fuck Overdrive pedal.
David Wexler’s documentary doesn’t explore The Disintegration Loop’s broader influence. And it doesn’t offer any grand revelations. But, it was created entirely during the pandemic. The interviews are all recorded over Skype or Zoom. And as we stand at another moment in history filled with uncertainty and anxiety, now seems as appropriate time as ever to revisit a work that turned out to be the ultimate reflection of our collective unease.