Greet Death: William Basinski, Hospitality, and the Sound of Decay

By now, the narrative surrounding the recording and ultimate release of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops has become an integral, if little known, part of post-9/11 American musical history. Basinski, the story goes, was in the process of transferring tape loops that he had made in the 1980s to digital hard disk, when he noticed that the tapes were disintegrating during the process, irreparably altering the music as it was originally recorded and permanently capturing the sound of decaying magnetic tape. The added significance of all of this is a matter of context: Basinski was transferring these loops during August and September of 2001. As he was completing the recording sessions, the World Trade Center was attacked, and Basinski watched from his rooftop in Brooklyn, The Disintegration Loops playing in the background as the Twin Towers crumbled into ash right before his eyes

Given the uncanny drama of this timeline, it is quite difficult to separate The Disintegration Loops from 9/11, even though the original recordings were made 20 years prior to the attacks. If we want to be accurate in the way that we historicize this particular cultural artifact, then it might be necessary to prioritize the original context in which the Loops were made over the incidental context of September 11, 2001. However, such a move would be a misstep, because even though the loops were unintentionally produced in the fall of 2001, their composition — the way that they capture the process of decay — makes them, perhaps, the most significant representation of the political and cultural tensions of post-9/11 America.

In his meditation on 9/11, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Jacques Derrida discusses the notion of hospitality and what it means to be an unconditionally hospitable (and democratic) society: “Pure and unconditional hospitality, hospitality itself, opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whomever arrives as an absolutely foreign visitor, as a new arrival, nonidentifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other [emphasis in original].” Though Derrida is clearly talking in terms of cultural and political migration — in short, a society that is unconditionally hospitable must recognize that it has to welcome any and all guests no matter what their ideals are and no matter what their political motivations might be — it is actually quite easy to appropriate his notion of hospitality as a framework for analyzing changes in the recording and dissemination of popular music that have emerged in the near decade since 9/11.

For the most part, these changes have centered around the rise of MP3 files and other digital formats as the premier way to disseminate music. Countless critics — on PopMatters and other assorted web publications (Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc.) — have championed this new wave of music distribution based on the possibility that it will decenter big media and recording outlets, allowing for a more democratic and streamlined (and cheaper) approach toward the recording, distribution, and consumption of music. What remains implicit, and therefore unacknowledged, in these endorsements is a yearning for purity: purity of sound (without all of that old fashioned tape hiss); purity of production (without those corporate record execs in the mix); purity of distribution (fan to fan, peer to peer); purity of consumption (just the music, no need to purchase artificially trumped-up release formats—limited edition releases, deluxe version remix albums, extended play singles, etc.). Even some of the more aggressive cover art campaigns are set up as, at best, quaint gestures from a forgotten time, at worst, irrelevant to the desired product—that crisp, clean, compressed MP3 file.

All of these arguments crumble in the face of The Disintegration Loops because those pieces welcome, to cite Derrida, the auditory other — the sound of imperfection, of obsolescence, of entropy. As such, Basinski’s loops are perhaps the most hospitable pieces of music recorded in the digital era. Unconditionally, they welcome the emergence of their own death, and they make no attempt to sanitize, to compress — to repress? — the sound of their own decay. In fact, their very existence depends on the death of the materials used to create them. The loops are, in the purest sense of the term, impure. And Basinski, with open arms, welcomes the arrival of the impurities of his dying old tapes, ushering the outmoded and discarded into the contemporary era.

Certainly, it is possible to create music like The Disintegration Loops with any number of contemporary recording techniques. Also, to validate The Disintegration Loops solely on the grounds of authenticity — always a moving target — is slightly disingenuous, particularly given that Basinski himself did not plan for his tapes to (literally) disintegrate in his hands (let alone during 9/11). Nevertheless, listening to the The Disintegration Loops brings into stark relief, perhaps in a way that few other pieces of music do, the undeniable fact that art and the means by which art is created — whatever the medium might be — are surely subject to eventual decay. Randomness, impurity, and death are not others to life. It’s quite the opposite, actually: our lives depend on them.