William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops contains the most striking intersections of memory and forgetting that I have ever come across in music. The story of this collection is well-known by now, and begins with Basinski making these loops in the early 1980s from snippets of classical and easy-listening. In 2001, while he was transferring the loops to a digital format, the magnetized metal was eaten up from the tape as it passed through the reader head. Basinski let the tapes run to record this tension between preservation and destruction, resulting in engrossing music born of a process of inadvertent subtraction and the devouring of mnestic traces.
The context of this process was 9/11, and stills from the video that Basinski made from his rooftop that day comprise the covers of the records. The skies went dark, the day ended, but the music remained with the ruins and trauma.
I heard the first two loops (there are nine in total) for the first time in the spring of 2004, after purchasing the cd at the Bent Crayon in Cleveland, Ohio during a visit there with my friend “Medina” Jim, who also bought the record. This immediate sharing with a friend was beneficial, as it took me awhile to come to grips with all that was entailed in the backstory, process, context, and imagery. Making it through the first loop, “d|p 1.1,” which is a little over an hour long, took a few attempts, unused as I was to listening to gauzy drone and long-form experimental music. But that first full listen was a powerful experience which clued me into the enterprise of deep listening, and discussions with Jim helped to flesh out what we had both found in the music.
This was around the time, too, that I started to become interested in memory and to see opportunities of discussing art from that angle. In addition to getting into Basinski’s music, seeing Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour for the first time played a major role in the development of this interest, all of which helped me to make a little sense of the few years after 9/11. But I still cannot listen to “d|p 1.1” that often. Simply put it is just too heavy, and in an hour-straight sitting the horn sounds move far, far beyond melancholy.
Recent mornings spent with the 40-minute “d|p 6,” however, have reignited my interest in The Disintegration Loops, particularly how the listening experience utilizes an active forgetting. I have found this particular loop endlessly repeatable.
What are the mechanisms of forgetting at work here? There is a mechanically-forced oblitus in the degradation of the tape, first of all. This destructive element is an expansion of absence through subtraction from the loop rather than addition (an alternative recording could be imagined based around, for instance, an amplification of the scraping of the metal from the tape, which would lend itself to a more noise-oriented result). If the loop can be considered a mnestic trace to be repeated endlessly, with a requisite balance of integrity and minor variation, then what we are left with is the sound of a progressive forgetting of that trace as the loop subtracts from and degrades itself.
It is no stretch to say that this sonic experience of forgetting operates beyond a concentrated, metaphorical parallel to mortality. Because the destruction focuses your attention on an instant by instant basis, deep listening encourages you to try and remember what has fallen away, notice the subtle changes, and monitor the absence. This data – lost and retrieved and lost and retrieved again, both instant by mnemonic instant and long after the piece has finished – has no place to go, hanging as it is from a loop that is skeletal and spectral from the beginning.
The flipside of this mechanical process is the forgetting of the human touch in the actual composition. Basinski did not play this music; he recorded, sliced, and manipulated it to create the loops, and the source music and original musicians have long been forgotten. This is one step removed from a traditionally “authentic” musical creation (an issue comprising a different discussion). Additionally, what matters are not the original loops, made by Basinski with a different intention (whatever that was). What matters now is how the loops were once again given over to a machine, which led to the devouring process, and thus the forgetting of the human touch is doubled. But at the end of each loop, should we assume that the tape completely ate itself up, resulting in a silence that would semi-neatly mark an endpoint, or should we assume instead that this was Basinski’s choice, to finish at 52:21 or 20:07, to cut the loops that could go on for longer? We forget these questions of the process – in part as a result of the hypnotic effects of listening to such music – and thus the forgetting of the human touch is tripled. So while memory resides in the narrative and the historical context of the music, forgetting dominated the process and the end result, and forgetting continues to dominate the listener’s response.
The loop form itself is an ouroboros of memory and forgetting. The loop remembers and/or forgets only itself, and it can add to and/or subtract from only itself. It is self-sufficient and fully integrated, and it maintains its integrity despite external manipulation. Furthermore, the loop induces the listener to forget – a structured song seems passé except as a brief respite from the power of the loop; other loops are unnecessary (at least for today); and why remember what is outside the window, which has already been folded into the loop anyway?
Have you ever repeated a song for hours, do you have what I would call real repeaters? Such songs function similarly to loops but operate on a more limited scale. Their extension is not necessarily infinite, closely measured as it is via the repeat button or the repeated pressing of the “previous” button on a device (the difference of these gestures, of course, marks the desire for repetition – there is planned repetition and there is more spontaneous repetition, respectively). Such repetitive engagement may cause you to forget where you are, untethering you from any one place in favor of an internal navigation, or it may fully root you in place, especially if the song’s repetition is guiding recollection and nostalgic reverie.
But as responses to “traditional” songs, these acts of repetition are all on the listener-end. The loop, on the other hand, is composed on the creator-end to submit the listener to repetition without question. The loop becomes the location of the listening experience, and that’s why music such as The Disintegration Loops can apply as well to images of space (with a kosmische approach), cities (with cycles of frenetic social energy), and nature (with a slower sense of wonder that the music attempts to “culturize”). Loops can put you to sleep (i.e., invite you to drink from the river Lethe), or keep you going for hours in a trance state with their utilization of longer finite measures as impetuses to forget everything else. For example, “d|p 6” has a length of 40:37, which for the melodiousness and length of its base loop seems even too short. This in turn qualifies it as a real repeater and encourages the foresight of planned repetition, i.e., the pressing of the repeat button on my player, which loops the loop infinitely.
I have read about live performances of The Disintegration Loops here, which sound captivating and bring up a different set of mnemonic issues. In “d|p 6” there is a definite rhythm at work with the percussive echoes, which makes it all the more intriguing, and as a drummer, I can picture playing a pattern that would work sufficiently. Subtraction from such a rhythm that was never fully there in the first place, diffusing the pattern gradually throughout 40 or so minutes, this would help to signify the role of forgetting in the live setting. Keeping time while inserting longer rests and more silence as well as decreasing volume and minimizing form would surely be an exciting challenge. A mechanical stiffness would be needed, too, paralleling the mnemonic interplay of machine and human that is at the heart of the piece, and further reflecting the emulation of the metronome that a drummer interminably struggles for and against with degrees of musicality, sweat, and imperfection.
There is no better example in music I know of interactions between memory and forgetting than in The Disintegration Loops. Perhaps extended free-jazz or noise jams would offer other possibilities, but those types of music operate with a different set of dynamics revolving more around improvisation, addition, stamina, and collaboration. While playing drums and utilizing such dynamics, memory functions as technicality (i.e., “chops”) and as the driver of both improvisation and collaboration, while forgetting works towards the potential of playing in a kind of trance state, wherein conscious and formal effort is subtracted (or at least replaced by physical/muscle memory). Basinski’s loops operate on another level entirely, and you do not need the backstory, the historical context, or any of the underpinning ideas to be moved by these pieces and to observe how your forgetting may operate in response to them.
I have only thoroughly listened to “d|p 1.1,” “d|p 1.2,” and “d|p 6” – I forget that there are six other loops to investigate. I do not feel the need for additional stimuli while listening to this music, nor do I feel that greed for immediate accumulation that is part and parcel of our cultural consumption nowadays. “d|p 6” is especially calming and giving, and in the end I like the idea of only investigating another piece every few years. It is as if I do not want to forget the forgetting involved in each loop, which is just another way of saying I would like them to fully occupy my memory.