Everyone and I Stopped Breathing: William Basinski at the Met

Reviewed in this essay:

“Remembering September 11,” a concert by the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 11, 2011.

William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (2002)

William Basinski’s epic four-disc masterwork The Disintegration Loops emerged in 2002 with two backstories. First, Basinski, a little-known classically trained composer, was digitizing analog tape loops of twenty-year-old recordings when he noticed that he could hear these tapes physically degrading. As the iron oxide particles were, little by little, being scraped off the magnetic tape by the playback instrument, gaps began to appear in the music. Basinski recorded what he called “the death of this sweeping melody” as it gradually metamorphosed into silence. This recording became “dlp 1.1,” the sixty-three and a half minute opening track of The Disintegration Loops.

The second backstory takes place on September 11, 2001, as Basinski witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center towers from his roof in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Basinski and his neighbors listened to “dlp 1.1” while watching the cloud of fire and smoke overtake and irrevocably change Manhattan’s skyline. The Disintegration Loops’ four discs each bear a photograph of that skyline taken from Basinski’s roof at a different time that day.

In the spirit of these backstories, the Wordless Music Orchestra premiered composer Maxim Moston’s orchestral adaptation of “dlp 1.1” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ten years to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The program, entitled “Remembering September 11,” also featured pieces for string quartet by Osvaldo Golijov, Ingram Marshall, and Alfred Schnittke, each performed by a four-piece ensemble drawn from the orchestra’s ranks. The performance took place between two towering fragments of the Temple of Dendur in the Met’s Sackler Wing, a large auditorium-sized space devoted to housing the 800-tonne ruins of the classical Egyptian temple. More striking, however, were the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park that span the entirety of the Sackler Wing’s north wall: as we listened, we also observed the gradual darkening of an already grey and overcast day (the concert began a little after 3:30 PM). Though I did not overhear anyone speaking of it, a third spectre haunted the occasion: a “credible but unconfirmed threat” had certain parts of the city on lockdown all weekend.

To longtime listeners of The Disintegration Loops, it may seem illogical—perverse, even—to re-orchestrate “dlp 1.1” for live performance. But the ambiance of the concert helped to bridge the seeming incongruity of performing a recording-based work. The passage from natural to artificial light in the Sackler Wing called to mind another recent anniversary, the centenary of Marshall McLuhan, who proposed the electric light bulb as a technological medium and declared that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” The relay of media encountered in the Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance—from live performance to analog tape to digital recording to composition for orchestra and back to live performance—seemed to speak to a revised relevance for McLuhan’s media theory in today’s music-listening ecology.

In recording the sound of his tape loops wearing away and releasing them on CD, Basinski at once mourns and celebrates the disappearance of the analog sound object. In preserving these sounds digitally, he gives their disappearance an aesthetic afterlife. McLuhan’s theory of interrelated media, which observes how electric light enables the experience of other media (say, the printed word), becomes a lament in The Disintegration Loops. I hear ambivalence in Basinski’s CD recording of “dlp 1.1”: the evanescence of the analog gives way to the unvarying eternity of the digital. The beauty of the loop’s metamorphosis in Basinski’s digital recording-as-“composition” seems to counter the spirit of his original epiphanic experience listening to the loop’s disintegration as he recorded it.

Each bar of the original recorded version of “dlp1.1” repeats the same horn melody, while a keyed percussive instrument buried under the horn arrangement plays a shifting counter-melody. Consequently, not only is it almost impossible to hear the disintegration from loop to loop, the listener also cannot easily tell whether the end of a bar marks the beginning of a new loop or a continuation of the old one. A similar confusion accompanied the Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance; certain instruments dropped out of and re-entered the performance, causing the listener to wonder whether an instrument was supposed to represent the decaying music on the original loop, or the intrusion of the analog playback equipment. Most noticeably, the amplification of a ringing vibraphone fed back slightly, giving the instrument a hypnotic warbling sound. At the beginning of Moston’s adaptation, the vibraphone clearly played the counter-melody. But after the vibraphone disappeared and later returned, the feedback-enhanced ringing could have been interpreted as playing the sound of the analog tape warping, as can also be heard on Basinski’s CDs. Or perhaps what we heard was no longer even supposed to represent sound, the shimmering vibraphone now symbolically representing the physical contact between the playback equipment and magnetic tape. And, furthermore, the extended ringing of the vibraphone’s feedback loop before it disappeared into the air also might have signified the disappearance of the sounds recorded on Basinski’s tape loop.

This blurring in Moston’s adaptation speaks to what in Basinski’s first, lost listening experience could not be captured by digital recording. This is neither to privilege live musical performance, nor analog recording technologies over digital ones. Instead, in Moston’s adaptation, a confluence of media, technologies, sounds both musical and unmusical—even the physical space of the performance—together constitute an aesthetic listening experience. In contrast, the fluidity of the pristine digital music file, as transferred from CD to iTunes, from laptop to the portable listening device, produces the illusion that a piece of music will the same no matter how you listen to it.

I was anxious throughout the performance—not due to the terror threat, but indeed because of air travel: I had an 8:00 PM flight to catch and work the next day, and my partner Alex, who worries more about missing flights than I do, was waiting at a nearby café. I didn’t check my phone during the performance, partly so as not to disturb those around me, but also because I really didn’t want to know how late I was running. In an early article about Minimalism, the critic Alan Rich instructed: “One should not be lured into consulting his watch to find out where he is in this kind of music, because the information is worthless.” I didn’t check the time, but I did watch the players’ stacks of sheet music dwindle. Unfortunately, many of the instruments fell out of the composition well before the end of the piece, so this information was also worthless in a sense; but the ebbs and flows of anticipation and desire that it caused revealed another kind of value, what musicologist Susan McClary calls “structure that builds intensity through sheer repetition.”

The looming threat of the composition of course eventually did fall, while ours was averted—we made it to La Guardia an hour and a half before departure time. I could have predicted that at the beginning of the concert, just as I had predicted that the “credible but unconfirmed threat” should have been nothing to keep me off Manhattan’s streets that Sunday. What I didn’t see coming was the resonance of the Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance, which, it turns out, had nothing to do with the concert’s monumental occasion. As the composition developed staccato rhythms that represented the decaying of Basinski’s tape loop, the audience began listening not for music but for silence.

As the performance drew to a close, all that remained was an extended drone by the orchestra’s cellist: at long last and unequivocally, the sound of the bare analog medium. In true Minimalist fashion, that lone final drone presented the conditions for our sensation of time and space. As the bow scraped against its lowest string, slowly fading into silence, you could hear the tension in the enormous, packed room: the quiet stillness of not a single person shifting in her chair or soothing a lump in his throat sounded more than anything like the restraint and discipline of the musicians we had all been listening to for almost an hour. The physicality of the performers before us, and our collective recognition of our physical presence before them, restored to “dlp 1.1” what I imagine to be the poignancy first perceived by Basinski when he felt moved to record “the death of this sweeping melody.” The uniqueness of the performance was not in the notes we heard, but in the wordless sociability of this collective listening experience.

Because they change over time, analog recordings, whether on tape or vinyl records, can act like unique “performances.” For example, the rich sound of a new, previously unplayed vinyl record, if properly mastered, can make it seem like the musicians are in the same room as the listener. This, I submit, is an under-acknowledged aspect of the current vinyl cult: the physical life of the analog medium provides the occasion for social gatherings—concerts, if you will. The infinite and unvarying replayability of digital media cannot do the same. I see the social as Basinski’s mourned lost object as he compiled The Disintegration Loops. In freezing the metamorphoses of his tape loops in data, he betrayed the uniqueness of what he was hearing alone in his studio; the digital recording killed those melodies a second time. Even as it also gives these stunning metamorphoses an audience, the perfection of digital playback precludes anyone else from hearing that original, one-of-a-kind “performance.” For one afternoon, Maxim Moston’s adaptation and the Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance revivified those tape loops. The Disintegration Loops will die again when it is permanently installed, in whatever infinitely-replayable form it takes, in the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

As that last drone faded, long after I had quietly migrated from my seat at the back of the Sackler Wing to the standing room by the rear door, conductor Ryan McAdams held the orchestra at attention in complete silence for two minutes and fourteen seconds before laying down his hands and accepting the audience’s rapturous applause. Or so I read in The New York Times the next day. The tension was too much, and besides, I really had to meet Alex and catch a cab to La Guardia. Breathless and with my heart pounding, I quietly exited the Wing after twenty seconds of silence and ran out of the Met.