There are moments that bring the realization that everything must change. The announcement of a birth, a partner taking one knee, a layoff, an arrest. As life shifts and transforms, it becomes obvious that we are woefully unable to tell the future, that we must simply adapt to the new niches created for us. Twenty years ago, the Twin Towers fell. In short order, everything changed. Landlines tapped, foods renamed, wars waged, nativism raged. As a young nation lost one of its greatest symbols, it flailed, searching for a way to process the profound sense of loss and anger that blighted its vision. After an attack on its very sense of being, by an enemy zealously portrayed as a distinct “other,” who were we? The Disintegration Loops, the magnum opus of the American-born avant-garde composer William Basinski, came to embody that search for identity in insurmountable grief.
The creation story of The Disintegration Loops is one that has been repeated so many times that it has passed from story, to legend, to myth. Basinski discovered a box filled with magnetic cassette loops deep in the bowels of his Brooklyn loft, and, seeking to preserve them, began digitizing them. The tapes, recorded some twenty years prior, contained slowed samples of Muzak interspersed with baleful arrangements of synthesized instruments. As the tapes were fed through machinery, they slowly began to shed their ferric skin, small mounds of white powder appearing beneath them. Rather than stopping the process, Basinski allowed the tapes to decay, recording their decomposition.
Shortly after its completion came the attacks of September 11. Toxic smoke billowed over the skyline of the United States’ most populous city, low flying planes coasting above skyscrapers. Basinski and his friends set up a tripod and video camera to record the carnage, blaring the sound piece over the speakers. Suddenly, the music had purpose. Stills from that video were used as the album artwork; the hourlong video was set to the initial track. The Disintegration Loops became an elegy for the day, the attacks, the lives lost, the change that was yet to come.
To listen to TDL is to be immersed. The first track, “dlp 1.1,” clocks in at an astonishing 63 minutes, nearly a fifth of the total runtime of the album. A French horn arpeggiates over a languishing, shimmering landscape of strings slowed to a glacial pace, carrying a vision of triumph after a long, bitter battle. Yet, as they rewind and replay, melancholy begins to overtake the piece. We have won, but, my god, what have we lost? It takes several minutes for the first elements to disappear, and with every re-listen, I find myself noticing new elements to the tracks. Melodies begin to fade into memories of themselves, pieces drifting away bit by bit, then more rapidly as the more stubborn pieces of tape become loosened by the crashing of their surrounding filaments. Silences dominate the pieces; I catch my breath, listening to what fills the gaps that are left behind. The laughter of the child down the street, the cicada droning outside my window, the rumble of the Mustang that circles the block every few hours. Though the music distorts and decays, new melodies write themselves into the piece. Memories fade, but we carry their spirit with us.
Twenty years on, I cannot help but to reflect on how different our world has become.
I was five years old when the towers fell, and I would be lying if I said that I remembered the events of that day with any clarity. In all reality, I was probably running through freshly cut grass, remarking at how the green always dyed my clothes so brightly (to my innocent delight and the eternal frustration of my mother). Life did not really seem to change all that much, because I never remembered anything different. The eager relinquishing of our privacy online and on the telephone seemed normal. The relationship between government and citizen was one of suspicion and monitoring. I was ten years old before I set foot on a plane, but still I removed my shoes, emptied my pockets, stepped through the metal detector, and, later, the x-ray.
We created ICE and DHS, fledgling departments that are now so inseparable from the American psyche that suggesting they may not be necessary constitutes an attack on the country itself. Within hours, the very fabric of our world was altered. America, the fabled land of freedom, had become a garrison. Its citizens became enemies of the state. Toddlers became flight risks because the blessings of their names and blood became markers of suspicion. To this day, police departments across the nation use counterterrorism tools against ordinary civilians for minor infractions.
We were told that to stamp out terrorism, we must invade the Middle East. We would liberate the people from tyrants, install democracies to give them power. They had weapons of mass destruction, and an imminent threat lay just beyond the horizon. In order to protect ourselves for the greater good, we simply had to give up some of our freedoms to preserve freedom. Any dissent was tantamount to treason. Artists and politicians were cast out of the public consciousness for speaking against the warmongering tilt our nation had taken. Every adult at the time told me about how unified America had become in the face of grief. We set aside differences to root out the evil that had wounded us so deeply. We worked to improve the world, they told me. To be united in madness is still unity, after all.
Compare that to the, well, everything about or current world. In the face of a pandemic with a body count many orders of magnitude greater than the tragedy of 9/11 , the same people that gave up many freedoms for the nation now refuse to do the simplest of tasks to save the lives of their neighbors. Post-9/11, it became the fashion to emulate the lives of special operatives; many of the more right-leaning people I grew up with made it a point of pride to state that they would happily take a bullet for their country. Now, the same ones refuse to take two shots to the arm. Fires and floods ravage the lands, a virus hangs in the air, the earth trembles beneath our feet. Catastrophes compound like some especially vivid verse from Revelations. Still, we are divided, with no clear enemy against whom to direct our animus, so we direct it against our neighbors. The technological advancement we used to counteract terrorism cannot be found or funded to counteract climate change.
The artists who work within the many movements of the avant-garde are often consumed with a desire to make sense of the illogical new worlds in which we find ourselves. When the ways we speak to each other fail, when tradition has become a hindrance to creation, it is the role of the artist to find new ground that we can share, new words in new languages to convey new concepts. Destruction and decay are normal parts of life, embraced by those who see a world in flux, who are ready to adapt and cast away those traditions that no longer benefit us. The artist places a torch lit by the past into our grasp so that we may illuminate new paths forward. Rapid industrialization, technological growth, and unfathomable tragedy often leave us not knowing how to move forward. Who will we become when the music stops playing? As the silences build, punctuated with staccato bursts of a melody long fallen out of tune, what will we sing?
As I sit here, playing the last few minutes of The Disintegration Loops, I hear the sound of the neighbors playing volleyball across the street in the crisp autumn air, a dog barking at some unknown party, and the wind rustling through the still-green leaves on the trees. Our world has gone through madness few could have ever imagined. Still, life goes on. We will build new monuments atop the rubble of our yesterdays.
“We couldn’t believe it. We were all in shock. There was no news, just people babbling on the radio and idiots babbling on the television. We went downstairs and put on the music. It was like—
This is the greatest show on Earth. Armageddon, here we go.” – William Basinski
The Disintegration Loops I-IV can be found on Spotify: