William Basinski
“dlp 4”
The Disintegration Loops III (2003)

(Inspired partly by this, this response to it, and also this response to that…)

A big part of me believes that if you have to know a back story (or an interlinear narrative) before you hear a song or before a song makes sense to you, then the song has failed. I know music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but extra-musical culture can absolutely be a crutch by which artists prop up uninteresting work. The difficult thing about The Disintegration Loops is that the story both within and without the music is all about death. Mark Richardson’s right: death is inherent in the music, whether or not you hear the magnetic flakes disappearing into a cheap reverb as chintzy. But Chris Ott is also right: the story of 9/11 and Basinski’s supposedly serendipitous aligning of his cruddy old loops with a national tragedy (so that it’s difficult for the listener to take one without the other) is underhanded and disrespectful. Remember that album by The Caretaker that sampled old 78s and looped passages from them to make an album about Alzheimer’s and, implicitly, the slow waltz toward death? That to me is a way of doing what Basinski did with the Loops without involving a death that’s in many ways too big for a piece of loop music to bear.

Art that deals with tragedy and mortality is 100% limp in the face of actual death. This spring one of my closest friends and his fiance were killed when a semi truck rear-ended them while they were taking a cross country trip on his motorcycle. Am I going to slap their picture on a 4-CD set of some echoey drones and act like I’ve done something profound, as Ott says? The song I listened to when I was mourning Robert and Jess was “Waitin’ for A Superman” by The Flaming Lips, and every time I listened to it I felt guilty. I was angry at myself for latching onto this dumb little song weeks after the fact and trying to make it into a montage of my sadness because I remembered how blank and grey and useless all music suddenly sounded when it first happened. They sang “Amazing Grace” and some other hymns at his funeral and I couldn’t bring myself to join in because the hurt was too great to try and squeeze it into a catchy melody. Deathly somberness demanded more than a piece of music could give it. A couple weeks later, though, when I was starting to feel normal and could once again pretend trivial things were more important than they are, I let that damn Flaming Lips song get the best of me. It made me feel weak.

The Disintegration Loops have been placed too close to their back story, too near to the heart of that immediate silence of loss and death, to be as celebrated as they are. By all rights they should be academic listening exercises. If you can, as Richardson says, hear them without thinking about 9/11: good for you. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to do than you might think. In order to understand what you’re hearing on the Loops recordings, you have to understand how the sound was made, and you can’t really receive that information without also hearing about how a national tragedy was unfolding while Basinski was recording it. You’re told this music is about death before you have a chance to suss it out for yourself. This shows us the dangers inherent in process music: it can take away your ability to address what you’re hearing and force you to reckon with a story instead, one that in this case might hit such a deep nerve that attaching a piece of art to it becomes suddenly inexcusable.