In advance of the live audio Webcast on September 11 at 3:30 p.m. at the Met Museum of William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops, the composer reveals the story behind his magnum opus.
In the process of archiving and digitizing analog tape loops from work I had done in 1982, I discovered some wonderful, sweeping pastoral pieces I had forgotten about. Beautiful, lush, cinematic, truly American pastoral landscapes swept before my ears and eyes. During the transfer process, as each of the loops played round and round on the tape deck, I soon realized the tape loops were disintegrating — the iron oxide particles were gradually turning to dust and dropping into the tape machine, leaving bare plastic spots on the tape, and silence in the corresponding sections of the new recording. I was recording the death of these melodies.
It was very emotional for me and mystical as well. Tied up in these melodies were my youth, my paradise lost, the American pastoral landscape, all dying gently, gracefully, beautifully in their own way, in their own time. Life and death were being recorded here as a whole — death as simply a part of life, a cosmic change, a transformation. When the disintegration was complete, the body was simply a little strip of clear plastic with a few clinging chords. The music had turned to dust and was scattered along the tape path, yet the essence and memory of the life and death of each unique melody had been saved, recorded to a new medium, remembered.
On September 11, 2001, I was on my roof in Brooklyn, less than one nautical mile from the World Trade Center: that which towered so far above every other skyscraper in New York City, my nightlight. My neighbors and I witnessed the end of the world as we knew it that day. We were in shock. We sat on the roof terrace in lawn chairs and watched the fires burning all day into night with The Disintegration Loops playing in the background. The human scale of the catastrophe we couldn’t even comprehend at the time.
In the next days and weeks, I watched as my friends and I disintegrated into our own personal loops of agony, fear and terror — each one happening on its own terms, in its own language, at its own pace. People’s hearts had been shattered and what cascaded down immediately was the selfishness, the arrogance, the ugliness. Yet what remained was the heartfelt compassion, kindness and love for each other which makes us human. An end of an era... a new beginning.