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William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops

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Artist: William Basinski

Album: The Disintegration Loops

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: Oct. 1, 2012

There was nothing new about highlighting the sounds of disintegration when William Basinski released his epic Disintegration Loops 10 years ago. Ligeti’s “Poeme Symphonique” and Stockhausen’s “Hymnen” come to mind immediately as cases in which entropy breeds new patterns and, consequently, radically new structures from old. What was novel and quite poignant is the now well-known story of how Basinsky arrived at the composition itself. In transferring 20-year-old loops from analogue to digital format, the tapes decayed, and Basinski captured the phenomenon in its rawest state as the oxide literally flaked, fell off and became dust. Yet, the sounds themselves were tonal and atonal by turn, the net result fusing beauty and its loss in a language all its own. This expanded reissue explores the music’s sonic and historical ramifications, recontextualizing it and deepening the listening experience with improved sound and new arrangements of the musical material.

The original project took up four discs; this new set adds a fifth containing orchestral realizations of material from the cycle. There is also a documentary on DVD, all of the music on vinyl, and a large booklet replete with reminiscences and think-pieces immortalizing the work.

The obvious question is: Does the set, originally issued on Basinski’s own label, deserve such a lavish reentry into the catalog, not to mention its impending induction into the 9/11 Memorial Museum later this year? In both cases, the answer is affirmative, and however relevant the cycle’s socio-historical associations may be, the sounds emanating from my speakers have been more influential on my opinion. With many reissues that claim to be “remastered,” sonic improvements, or even changes, are negligible at best, uncomfortably close to nonexistent at worst. In this case, the differences are dramatic. On the original 2062 releases, the loops themselves seem to emanate from a fixed point on the stereo spectrum, reverb enhancing them as if in a physical environment but always with a disconnect between source and post-production treatment. Now, the difference between source material and environment has been eliminated. The whole process is still awash in reverb, an essential component as the gaps between sounds widen over the course of decaying time, but there is more depth in and around each timbral event. The effect is to make the source material itself seem less dated, but there is an added bonus: The ethereal and majestic qualities observed by so many are even more pronounced as the glacial sounds distort, crack and begin to disappear, often leaving fragments just above the nothingness replacing them. We are given a panoramic view of each event that is still sharply focused, a true wonder of sonic restoration. Listening to these newly minted versions, I am reminded especially of what The Caretaker’s been doing over the last few years and how completely, even uncannily, Basinski’s work anticipates his contributions down to the reverberant haze in which they’re packaged.

Even more than in its previous incarnation, reverb is essential to the way the loops morph and rot. This is why, for me, the two orchestral arrangements and their performances are less effective. Granted, the way the 9/11/2011 concert fades, replaced by a silence infused with the faint bustle of everyday life, is a potent reminder of one element at the loops’ core, but the close recording detracts somewhat from the music’s power. I find the briefer Venice version, imbued with brittle electronics, to be a more faithful live representation of the loops’ soundworld.

The accompanying essays do not address the radical sonic overhaul the work has received. As might be expected, they detail the backdrop of devastation and loss against which the loops’ potential was realized. Quite literally, they became a soundtrack for the 9/11 cataclysm, charging the New York atmosphere with an antithetical beauty and encapsulating mortality while Basinski and those close to him watched the destruction and its aftermath. Perhaps the most powerful, if abstract, written contribution comes from David Tibet, his flights of fancy and nearly free-association imagery a perfect foil for the music’s slow ‘breaking away’ from the boundaries established by a piece of magnetic tape. His language affirms as often as it repulses, and the unification of these polar opposites is what makes Disintegration Loops such a bold statement. Like the phoenix, new musical considerations arose from the dust, a process to which this new edition is a fitting monument.

By Marc Medwin

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