SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #21: On William Basinski


William Basinski was born in Texas in 1958, and, after a childhood playing wind instruments, he became in the early-eighties a composer of ambient and minimalist compositions. He was most active in New York City in this period, and played in bands in addition to making process-oriented compositions in a solo setting. His best known work is the self-released four-volume composition entitled The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003), which involves the digitized preservation of tape loops so old that, during playback, they begin to auto-destruct. Basinski apparently first aestheticized this falling-apart on 9/11/2001, when he happened to be perusing his older works while the political order was being recast within view. The following constitutes a long back-and-forth with poet and critic Michael Snediker (with whom I also collaborated on two other posts, Antony and the Johnsons and The Size Queens) on the subject of Basinski’s masterwork, with, as befits a four-volume instrumental work that is almost impossible to decode, and which must be ultimately layered over with critical free association, some poetical asides, some of them of significant length. Our respective sections are unsigned. Another way of putting all of this is: here’s an attempt to prove that blog posts can, at least, attempt the heights of literary writing.

Basinski Part I

We find ourselves, like Emerson, at the brink of grieving, in a compulsion whose pathos is undermined by certainty. We are uncertain as to whether repetition superficially is machinic or deeply machinic, which is to say we don’t know whether we wish to feel deeply as we hear this ambient, gentle noise that verges on our feeling grievous without necessarily feeling so. We’re given the exeunt of inhabiting, like a lime-colored pool accoutred with flippers– this might be fun, this overfamiliarity might lead to contentedness. Or it may well make us feel worse. The austerity of music—the austerity of sound barely touching the sensitive genre-boundaries of music, per se—either lets us off the hook or sinks us. And this is why I love these disintegration loops. They are the sirens and the impossibility of sirens all at once. Their compulsiveness argues against specificity, even as the impossibility of specificity becomes their specific cautionary tale.

When we least expect it, we are in the domain of didacticism, and I hate this 1st person plural, I find myself adrift and` in the acumen of the drift, wishing I could sustain some keener sense of harbor. The cruelty and generosity of the loops involves Basinski’s malicious trust that the loop indefatigably will sustain itself, the melody-mirage of a melody, dug up decades previous, and vulnerable Michael old enough to hear in this mirage a sense of both discovery and reprieve, even as there’s nothing less reprieving than the playback of reprieve. Basinski is the musical equivalent of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man without inspirational slogan—we are high plains drifting, and the lack of enterprise or commerce doesn’t free us into frontier so much as drop up into a space that most needs direction, ergo drops us into the form of direction without content of direction, because guidance, at very least, is on automatic pilot. This is assurance relayed as fugue, desultory collapse of message into context. And the degree to which this collapse in fact does assuage speaks to the chary, volatile virtue of Basinski’s music under duress.

Basinski Part II

If for the sake of continuity we continue to use the editorial we in order to suggest legions who are addressed by The Disintegration Loops, by the photo of the WTC on the jacket of the first volume of The Disintegration Loops, e.g., then we have to admit the circumstances under which we were made aware of The Disintegration Loops, which is a most unusual way to be made aware. In certain circumstances chance and literature have a way of mutually reinforcing a tragicomic world view. This is one such case: we were invited to two separate conferences at New York University, and we would include the year but the year is effaced with forgetting—sort of like the tape loops in Basinski’s library, exhumed, and, in the process, destroyedthe first of these conferences concerned the work of the writer Kathy Acker, and it involved our reading aloud in public a story about Erica Jong by Kathy Acker, and it also involved readings by Kathy Acker by a number of other people, including, for example, Kathleen Hanna, and Kim Gordon, and Richard Foreman. Why we were there we were not sure, though we liked Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations, and still do. The Erica Jong passage was heavily satirical and had to do with Erica Jong being the author of Fear of Flying, a book that Kathy Acker seemed to dislike strongly; in any event, had someone handed us a copy of The Disintegration Loops at the Kathy Acker conference, it would not have been surprising, because Basinski travels in avant-garde circles, is admired in avant-garde circles, if avant-garde still means anything, which is doubtful; in any event, the next week we were invited to a conference on liberal Christianity because we are occasionally believed to be fellow travelers, and we have to admit this conference was strange, touchy-feely, disconcerting, full of anxiety about fundamentalism, and attended by numbers of young people who almost certainly had borderline personality disorder, or worse; in fact, the conference on liberal Christianity, as we recall it, was far more transgressive, because of how much mental illness and magical thinking we encountered there, than was the Kathy Acker conference, and while Kathy Acker was noteworthy, at the conference on liberal Christianity, after we read a certain piece of short fiction with a great deal of repetition in it, a kindly listener, a young woman, came up to us and said, Here is a CD by my friend and it’s really good and it’s sort of like your reading so you might like it.

Our expectation, upon receiving a free and unsuspected CD from someone in an audience is almost always that the CD in question will not be worth excessive study; unfortunately, this is our supposition; and therefore it was likely that we did not play this CD for some weeks, and our desire to hesitate, which desire does not seem like a desire but is in fact, a desire to hesitate was made keener by the fact of the image on the cover, of a smoking WTC, having only recently been struck by the palindromic Atta and his confederates; we were hesitant, we were desiring of hesitation, desiring and hesitating, almost in the way that the loops in Basinski seem to hover before starting around again, in a way that we associate with actual loops, like the kind that were Scotch-taped together on reel-to-reel tape decks so that they would go around and around, not like the loops that are simply programmed into a Mac, but then, in fact, even though the long-ago gift-giver is already silted over by time and circumstance, we did begin to feel embarrassed (and still do) that we had not played The Disintegration Loops, we began to feel a contempt prior to investigation and a systemic mistrust of gift-givers at a conference on liberal Christianity was a little prejudicial, and so we put on the CD, The Disintegration Loops, or we put in the CD, which had been housed in one of those inexpensive plastic sleeves and which, in truth, more resemble a homemade or handmade project than a commercial proposition, and we were amazed at just how slow moving, just how precariously slow moving, just how approximately, just how infinitesimally slow moving, just how carefully, just how archeologically, just how methodically, just how dangerously, slow moving, just how grievously, just how compulsively, just how seductively slow, just how, just, just how, just, just, just how, just, just how historically slow moving is the destruction, and it is destruction, just how slow the destruction, and so let us ask again, just how slow is the destruction, just how slow is the destruction, the destruction is very slow, the disintegration is very slow, though frozen on the jacket the destruction is at once instantaneous and frozen for all of history or as long as the CD exists as a form, in the music the slowness is slow enough that it is both unmistakable as destruction and yet serves as evidence of a kind that movement is possible, slow enough that we could write this entire passage and not even get through the first track of the first volume of The Disintegration Loops, and yet fast enough to insist that in disintegration change takes place and things become other things, there is a movement, an Ovidian movement, in which what is now trembles and succumbs, in the process of transforming into what is to be.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →