If there is an award for The Saddest Music In The World, I present it now and forever to William Basinski's Disintegration Loops. This isn't music that makes you weep; this is music-as-weeping, the sound of the lament of the universe itself, sorrow on the order of Miles Davis's "He Loved Him Madly". Some of the impact stems from the concept, both in its scope and execution, but at the end of the day (or the end of days, ha ha), it's the sound itself here that causes the tears to be shed. Anything more lachrymose than this wouldn't leave an audience behind to appreciate it.
The making of the Loops is itself already the stuff of legend, and adds its own elegiac frisson to the end result. In 2001, Basinski was in the process of attempting to salvage some old recordings made onto analog audio tape, all made from snatches of music recorded in the 1980s from some easy-listening station. One common form of damage to such recordings is for the magnetic ferrite (which holds the tape's signal) to flake, crumble, or peel off the plastic substrate, either because of abrasion from playback or because the glue holding on the ferrite has grown brittle with age. Playing back the tapes caused the rot to only accelerate.
But the resulting sound — like that of an ancient lacquer recording, or the audio for an also-crumbling film — was haunting. Basinski decided to preserve the new sounds he heard, generated by the decay of the old ones, and set to work creating loops from the tape. With each successive pass of the loop, the ferrite flaked off all the further, leaving a little more of the music to go missing. Treated with reverb, and edited together into four volumes lasting roughly an hour each, they evoke a sense of loss that extends out to encompass everything that might be in reach.
Basinski was still finishing the project on September 11, 2001. He lived in Brooklyn at the time, and from the roof of his apartment he and friends gathered to watch, aghast, as the Twin Towers imploded and the dust wandered across the whole of the city through the rest of the day. With a video camera, he captured the last couple of hours of daylight with the smoke still in the air, and set it to the music he'd created. Stills from the video adorn the four volumes of the Loops releases on CD, and on the collected box set re-released later on. Done wrong, it could have seemed tasteless or opportunistic, but the tragedy and the music already seemed to complement each other, and it allows Disintegration Loops to sit comfortably next to John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls or Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, other great music (and of wildly different intents, origins, and end results) inspired by the tragedy.
The mantras used for each track — some as long as an hour, some only a few minutes — all stand apart from each other, but all share the same flavor of absolute loss. The opening loop, my favorite, is little more than a two- or three-note horn passage, with what sounds like a hit of strings somewhere in there. (I suspect it was slowed down a great deal from the original recording.) It's the sound that brings most to mind Basinski on the rooftop, watching one world vanish and another one come into being. Loop 2 from disc 1 — a mere ten minutes to that first one's hour and change — is little more than a sustained pulse of a chord, an icy shimmer of stars instead of a warm sad sunset.
Disc 2 sports two loops of about thirty-five minutes each, the first being a continuation of loop 2, revealing even more cold character as it drops off to almost total silence. Loop three is another three- or four-note motif along the lines of the first loop — warm and lovely, and somehow even still lovely after the decay sets in, in much the same way a beloved face you remember is still the same face even when it's cracked with the wrinkles and wax-melt of age.
On disc 3, loop 4 (20 minutes) is the lushest and most romantic of the loops so far, with enough notes in it to almost qualify as a song unto itself, if a very limited one. (Anyone doing detective work to figure out where the loops were harvested from would most likely have the best luck starting here.) But then the decay catches up to it, with shocking results: the beauty we knew becomes nothing more than a string of sputtering crackles, like someone gradually slicing swaths out of a painting. Loop 5 has a sweetness and lightness to it, and the way it falls apart is more of a slow fade than a death by a thousand cuts.
Disc 4's loop 6, my other personal favorite, brings back the trumpet sound of the first loop, but with a looming grandeur to it. Over the course of forty minutes, we hear it change — not disintegrate entirely, but simply grow weathered, like a good piece of furniture or a well-worn and also well-cared-for leather jacket. It has withstood where others have succumbed, something we hear in two short reprises — encores? — of loop 1 that close out the disc and the entire project.
Would that Basinski had not already set images to his music, another way to do that comes to mind: Bill Morrison's astounding film Decasia, which does for film what Loops does for sound to some extent. Composed entirely of pieces of dead or dying nitrate film stock found from various archives, the corruption of the imagery is made uniformly eerie by Michael (Bang on a Can) Gordon's clangorous, dissonant score. As much as I loved that film's union of soundtrack and image, I couldn't help but imagine an alternate version that paired the collapsing images with Basinski's also-collapsing sounds.
Listening to Loops end to end over the course of a couple of days, though, allowed me to see an interpretation other than the obvious one. No question exists in my mind that Loops is a paean to the impermanence of all things, like the sound of the Gion Shōja bells evoked in the opening lines of the Tale of the Heike. But under it all there is also a message of endurance and renewal, that while the sounds may (and do) die as we hear them, they can also be reborn at any moment as we choose, and once heard, dwell within us always.