William Basinski looks back on ‘Disintegration Loops’ and dying media

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.

Disintegration Loops reels

William Basinski / David Wexler

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.