The Music Was Dying

“Sound and image flakes falling like luminous grey snow—falling softly from demagnetized patterns into blue silence.”—William S. Burroughs, The Ticket that Exploded

In 2003, American composer William Basinski released a four-disc set entitled The Disintegration Loops. The music on these discs was not initially intended for release, nor was it even really composed music at all. In August and September of 2001, Basinski discovered some loops of mostly orchestral music that he had recorded on then-standard magnetic tape in the early 80s. Because magnetic tape degrades over time, and because its use is becoming increasingly rare in the digital age, Basinski set out to transfer the music to digital form to preserve it. However, as the twenty or so-year-old tape passed over the reader, tiny bits of the tape were scratched or flaked off, sometimes to land in other places on the reel. The tape had begun to disintegrate in its long storage. The process of this degradation was slow and not initially noticeable to Basinski, who let the tapes roll. The music on the tapes underwent a long decay and endless reconfigurations during the digital transfer, which captured the results.

William Basinski directing Alter Ego performing The Disintegration Loop 1.1. Credit: Lorenzo Cercelletta.

The individual loops last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. The listening experience, while initially languid and somber, becomes enthralling and disorienting as each piece progresses. The music begins as repetitive and transparent, over time revealing the infinite complexity and depth in even a short clip of audio information. The music becomes a ghost of itself. In a remarkable coincidence, as Basinski was listening to his loops destroy themselves in his Brooklyn apartment, two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers across the East River in downtown Manhattan. He and a few friends watched smoke and the haze of destruction cover the skyline across the river. Could there be a music more analogous?

The Disintegration Loops breaks with the notion of music as a composed experience that can be mapped in linear time. While the movements may feel repetitive, there is in fact no genuine repetition of an identical loop. The music is, literally and in sensory experience, slowly pulling itself apart. It is a gradual disintegration, not only of the magnetic tape, but of the linear order of each loop; as the piece progresses it can no longer be said to be a sequence of loops, but rather a continuous rearrangement and destruction of shards of sound. Like Eno’s tape variations on Pachelbel, the beginnings of each movement in The Disintegration Loops have a sense of shifting alteration of a theme, but the Loops eventually collapse the model from which they derive. As Basinski said, “it was as if the music was dying.”

Concerning multiplicity, Deleuze and Guattari write that given “a strong principal unity…it is no doubt possible to go directly from one to three, four, or five.” The paradox, then, is that it is underlying unity of the loop source as foundation that allows for this break with linearity, a gesture that collage cannot make. Deeper into the listening experience the music no longer sounds like one sound after another, but a stream of sound, both cacophonous and harmonious, of enmeshed noises. In the sheer information overload of the techno–media society, The Disintegration Loops offers a rare experience in art, not that of another viewpoint or commentary, not in fact of more content to add to the heap, but of the sensation of decay, the death of information.

Basinski’s latest record, 92982, is titled for the date of its recording, meaning it’s being released 27 years after the fact. For Basinski this lag is the rule rather than the exception. Though actively recording his experiments with homemade reel-to-reel tape machines, found sound, and shortwave radios since the early 80s, he did not release his first solo record until 1998’s Shortwavemusic (recorded in 1983). Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive was similarly released 24 years after it was recorded.

Basinski found himself a generation behind his major influences, Reich and Eno. So he waited it out and kept working. And this is exactly the dimension his music adds to the similarly gorgeous process music tradition in which it’s rooted: time. Indeed the fourth section of 92982 sounds like Eno’s early piano works conjured from the haze of rust and memory. We also hear echoes of a dream of New York which is kept alive now only in constant simulation. As Basinski writes in his notes:

 "Home at last after a day of work at the answering service, answering phones for Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger, Steve Rubell, and all the other somebody people…James is in the adjacent studio painting masterpieces. Roger is in the front gluing old shoes on canvas and painting them orange…I’m clicking the old Norelcos back and forth between channels…all the windows are open. The sound is spreading all over downtown Brooklyn mixing with the helicopters, sirens, pot smoke, and fireworks…"

Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard’s 4 Rooms offers a point of comparison. Kirkegaard ventured into the so-called “Zone of Exclusion” surrounding the failed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl and took a series of blank recordings in some of the deserted interior spaces he found: a gymnasium, a theater, a swimming pool, and a church. He replayed them into the space, again recording the result. This process—which owes something to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1970)—was repeated ten times for each space. The resulting recordings uncover eerily evocative drones and hum in the near-silence, suggesting the haunt of an “invisible and inaudible danger.” The record is not one of compositional statement or experiment, nor even one involving the creation of sound. The record is an act of uncovering the sonic properties in the very transmission of sound. The ontology of the music can be conceived in the terms of a paradoxical duality: as the amplification of sub-audible phenomena in a given space, or as the product of the decay of those phenomena through multiple overdubs.

One of Jacob Kirkegaard’s 4 Rooms (photo: Jacob Kirkegaard)

Decay is both theme and methodology. Take Kirkegaard’s sometime collaborator Philip Jeck. The centerpiece of Jeck’s 2008 album Sand, “Fanfares,” reworks the World War II–era pomp and triumphalism of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” into a mournful haze. But to evoke solemnity from patriotic pomp Jeck had to do very little. There are no heavy-handed manipulations or artificial distortion. In fact, much of the piece consists of little more than Jeck merely playing the record. Though one would be forgiven for not guessing this upon a cursory listen, Jeck is, in the lineage established by Grandmaster Flash, a turntablist. But whereas for Grandmaster Flash vinyl records were merely the location of music and sounds to use for scratching and sampling, Jeck’s interest lies in the medium’s idiosyncratic imperfections, often associated with memory and the passage of time: gentle pops, buzz, and the warm but distancing compression that increases with age. It is the accentuation of these qualities and the decay latent in the object of the vinyl record that makes “Fanfares” a remarkable conflation of conflicting sentiments which are amplified by the presence of opposites, built around the emotional tension in the dual action of listening to a piece of music and also listening to a recording of that piece of music.

In his 1928 essay “The Curves of the Needle,” Adorno claims that it is exactly the imperfections of a recording, the sounds that point to the material inscription rather than song, that paradoxically make a record sound human. The opposite also holds: The more clear the recording is, the more distant, even “alien,” its sound (“as if the singer were being distanced more and more from the apparatus”). Most striking about this revelation is how relatively early it comes in the history of recorded sound (especially the mass availability of popular-music recordings). And what is this humanity that is amplified in the distortion of the human? Invoking Freud, the English critic Mark Fisher coined the term “the technological uncanny” to describe the surplus effects that the material inscription of music gives birth to. This surplus is a haunt born in the space between content and context, between the fantasy of song and the material inscription of sound. It is a haunt that is always already there.

Hauntology, a concept from Derrida’s Specters of Marx (phonic resemblance to ontology quite intended), finds its origin in the famous opening of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” Written in response to loud declarations of “the end of history” at the onset of the 1990s, Specters of Marx cautions that something that was from its very conception a “specter,” that is neither living nor dead (in another sense unborn), can hardly be pronounced dead. (Or as Baudrillard asks: What does it mean to throw Marxism into the dustbins of history when it was Marxism that created the dustbins of history?) It could be argued that information itself has a spectral existence, inhabiting an array of mediums which are not ultimately itself. And there is always an excess. Hauntology is meant to describe the manner in which history’s remnants and remainders live on in seeming obsolescence. Fisher appropriates the concept to describe “the closest things we have to a movement, a zeitgeist, at the moment.” Hauntology is what we have when postmodernism has run its course, endlessly splintered and recombined into nothingness, leaving no repository for desires that both predate and outlive it. It is the haunt of those desires. It is music as the memory of music; it is music haunted by the information dimension and music that uncovers the haunt in the information dimension. An old waltz record worn down until it’s a memory of itself. A lone and vapid voice on a shortwave radio station repeatedly intoning a series of numbers—which may be an innocuous diagnostic or an order to carry out a hit.

We are after history, but drowning in its artifacts: slabs of etched vinyl, wax, cassette tapes, film reels, the frequency spectrum, binary code. But the essence of information is always slipping, elsewhere. It is in the end without body, without territory, undead. And as Derrida says, “The future belongs to ghosts.”

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Brandon Kreitler

Brandon Kreitler writes poetry and makes music with the group Carillons. He almost never updates the blog oystershells.wordpress.com.