How William Basinski’s masterpiece, The Disintegration Loops, captured a world crumbling around us in slow motion
Original release date: 2002-2003
When people are enduring a particularly emotionally intense event, their perception of time can begin to slow down. An event that passes in the blink of an eye can feel like it goes on for minutes. This neurological phenomenon is called tachypsychia, and it can come on when someone undergoes a near death experience, like a car crash. Scientists say that this temporary sense of “slow motion” is triggered when a person is bombarded with so much information at one time, their memories become more densely packed in order to process all the stimuli.
Tachypsychia has been rendered visually ad infinitum – just take a look at any car commercial that’s showing off the impressive reaction rate of their air bags. But a more unlikely, musical portrayal of the phenomenon can be heard in William Basinksi’s The Disintegration Loops, one of the most poignant, devastating pieces of ambient music that has come to serve the tragedy of 9/11.
In 2001, the New York-based composer Basinski was looking to archive some “sweeping pastoral pieces” that he had recorded in the 80s onto analogue tape. After one particular piece was looping for a while, he realised that the tape was gradually crumbling with each pass around the head of his digital recorder. The iron oxide particles that coated the plastic tape were turning into dust, and more gaps of silence were breaking into the piece of music.
Shortly after he digitised these new sound pieces, Basinski found himself watching the September 11 attacks from his Brooklyn loft, and started ideotaping the twin towers crumbling across the water. The next day, he reviewed the footage and paired it with his newly made sound piece, beginning to ascribe a new meaning to the music. The deteriorated composition, which was once an orchestral piece that stood for romantic American ideals, now represented one of the most cataclysmic and fatal events in the country’s history. It became “the soundtrack to the end of the world,” as Basinski once described it.
The following year, the tapes were issued as The Disintegration Loops, nearly five hours’ worth of extremely haunting noise, borne from audio snippets that were originally only five to 10 seconds long. The meditative four-part collection can be seen as a manifestation of the slow motion effect that happens in people’s heads when they’re processing and remembering instantaneous destruction. Dlp 1, a piece that’s over an hour long, tracks the gradual decomposition of an audio segment that once held the sound of a trumpet. Akin to the slow-burning mournfulness of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, Basinski’s work exhibits change in minute, almost imperceptible increments until the music no longer bears the imprint of an instrument. Instead it sounds like noises that you would hear in the world: the sound of a bomb exploding in the distance, a crashing wave, and eventually, silence.
“The deteriorated composition... now represented one of the most cataclysmic and fatal events in the country’s history”
Meanwhile, the emotional arc of Dlp 4 is more brutal, as it moves faster over the course of 20 minutes. As the sound of an orchestra begins to splinter apart, the resulting noise sounds like concrete collapsing – after all, it is the literal noise of the tape’s metallic material fragmenting. It evokes wondrous sense of loss, capturing the same sort of power of Vangelis’ rippling Chariot of Fire score, but none of its triumph.
Ambient music has always aimed to depict the human experience by capturing the sound of various environments, moods and feelings. But truly sublime ambient music also grapples with truths about the human condition on a more metaphysical or spiritual level. Disintegration Loops proves itself timeless because it confronts ideas of death, decay and cyclical change. And it also reveals a scientific truth about how humans remember loss: painfully, vividly, and sometimes supernaturally slowly.