The point of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is to elicit the sublime beauty of things that fall apart. The New York City artist’s collection of ambient music that captures the process of a cassette’s deterioration as its music is transferred to digital medium is one the most haunting, poignant, and memorable ambient works of the new millennium with its barely-audible degradation finally releasing an empty, sad shell of what once was. It’s gorgeous, and Basinski chose well in doing no further editing to capture the exact sounds of each cassette’s destruction in perfect clarity, with all the nuances of acetate falling apart and of reels being destroyed. So how does this nuance and subtlety transfer into that played by a classical orchestra? It doesn’t.
It’s a good thought. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted the Wordless Music Ensemble Orchestra to play the first chapter of the Loops. Since the project was finished upon the destruction of the Twin Towers,1 it’s a wonderful idea to showcase the art in commemoration of those lost in the attacks. Unfortunately, it just isn’t good. It’s no fault of conductor Ryan McAdams, who actually does quite well in translating the subtle changes in tempo and sound quality of the Loops into the orchestral space, it’s just impossible to fully realize the sound of a tape degrading in real-time with classical music, let alone any combination of instruments and effects. The profound, ethereal sadness that one experiences when listening to the Loops in their distorted, new-age texture is just boring in orchestral form; and due to the nature of ambient music – let alone the Loops – “boring” is the most severe insult that could be levied against this work.
Also featured here is a live recording of the Alter Ego Ensemble playing the same chapter at the 54th Venice Biennale in October 2008. If one is really curious about the Loops as heard in orchestral form, then this is the recommended track. Not only is it shorter – fifteen minutes as opposed to the Met’s forty-two minutes – the sound quality is far richer, and Basinski himself attended to provide some low-key ambient sounds that more accurately reflect the tape degradation than in the Met’s performance.
Otherwise, The Disintegration Loops are astounding in their own right, so just listen to the originals instead.
1. live: d|lp 1.1 Live at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 11, 2011 – (42:33) – ★☆☆☆☆
2. live: d|lp 1.1 Live at The 54th Venice Biennale, October 18, 2008 – (15:15) – ★★☆☆☆
1… and Basinski famously used still images of NYC at sunset after that day in creating The Disintegration Loops’ album artwork.