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2020 Ambient #4: William Basinski

Lamentations, The Disintegration Loops, and 9/11

Earlier this month, I saw the comedian and broadcaster Robin Ince deliver a talk on his new book, The Importance of Being Interested, as part of his ‘#100 Bookshops’ tour. The Cardiff date of the tour was hosted by Shelflife: the city’s radical not-for-profit stockist of anarchist and socially progressive books and zines. Admittedly I was only at the Castle Emporium that day to pick up my wristbands for Swn festival. But, as I got my wristband and then queued for coffee at the stall next to Shelflife’s unit, I was drawn in by Robin’s electric charisma, his rapid-fire tangents about having ADHD in the world of art and science, and his stories of how he became disillusioned with both art and science in school because of how it was taught — things I, and probably many, could relate to. On one of his tangents, he spoke about how he sees time — not as a straight line, with the past behind us and the future somewhere in front, but as layers and layers, stacked upon each other.

For the rest of the weekend, I kept coming back to Robin’s theories about time. Comparing my own thoughts on time to his: like how all the bands at the festival, whose members were young white boys with deliberately bad haircuts and clean shirts, sounded like The Stooges/The Fall/New Order/The Cure/Suede etc. They are simulations of a past myself and they are too young to have remembered or experienced first-hand. For weeks I have wrestled with my next article in the 2020 Ambient series, unable to find an angle or thread to pull the whole thing together. But Robin’s talk, specifically his thoughts on time, served as a springboard for me to discuss William Basinki’s seminal Disintegration Loops, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and his 2020 album, Lamentations. No one, except maybe The Caretaker, has explored time, memory and decay to such an extent as William Basinski, with such success.

Much has been written about Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, in the last 20 years, so I won’t add to the pile of ‘fresh’ takes — and, if I’m being honest, I had only listened to TDL for the first time in lockdown. It felt like the perfect time to experience the loops for the first time. The loops, over time disintegrating, exposing cracks in its layers, each one sandpapered over the other. The lockdowns felt like a physical manifestation of the loops: days upon days, all same but different: the Covid-19 pandemic revealing the UK’s weakened infrastructure, the hidden-not-so-hidden damage caused by austerity which meant people couldn’t pay rent or feed their families after losing their jobs. TDL, in the years following its inception in 2001, became entangled with 9/11 because of how it holds a mirror to the fear and insecurity of the time, just as it does now. There’s also the mythology of the loops: Basinski watched (and filmed) the towers burn from the roof of his building, where he resided in his infamous Arcadia apartment. Arcadia was named after the home of Pan, the Greek God of the Wild, a mystical, magical space. The name/word Arcadia is closely linked to the word ‘utopia’, and refers to a vision of humans harmonious with their natural surroundings. Basinski’s Arcadia was also a “beautiful, magical space” that offered refuge to artists such as ANOHNI. As Robert Barry wrote for The Quietus, “the very name Arcadia evokes a utopian promise, an unspoilt idyll.” On the day the towers fell, Basinski received an eviction notice. Already in a deep depression because he was struggling to find an audience for his music since he moved to New York in 1980, he became suicidal after receiving the eviction notice. Like the Garden of Eden, Arcadia had become unattainable and lost to him. Basinski losing his Arcadia home felt like a loss of innocence, as America experienced its own loss of innocence. He was facing his own insecurity and fear over his future, as New York — and America — faced theirs. What makes TDL so powerful is that it reflects this personal, collective, social, and political experience. For example, the forlorn horns on ‘dlp 1.1’, a sample taken from a Muzak radio station, is a farewell to the life before.

Basinski’s 2020 album, Lamentations, is constructed of sequenced, droning loops from his archive that dates back to 1979 — “the left-behinds, the rejects, the ones that weren’t pretty enough”, as he calls them, in an interview with Max Mertens for The Creative Independent. The opener, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, is a tentative, sweeping knoll with the gravitational pull of a planet that leads into ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ — like a machine experiencing life for the first time; that moment before joy, wonder and innocence are made perverse. ‘Tear Vial’ is a loop made when Basinski was just starting out, and hadn’t yet learned how to properly cut tape to make perfect loops, hence the clicking noise repeated through the track. Basinski, until recently, didn’t like the clicking, thought it was amateurish, and so it was rejected. However, I think the click gives the track a very slight suggestion of a percussive rhythm: once the click plays a few times, you begin to sense when the next one’s approaching. Unlike the vast majority of Basinski’s music, you could kind of nod your head to ‘Tear Vial’. Speed it up a bit and you have a solid beat to rap over. ‘O My Daughter, O, my Sorrow’ is achingly beautiful, but it would quite possibly be lost within the tracklist if it weren’t for the haunting vocals, sung by Svetlana Spajic, singing a poem written by the Serbian poet Aleksa Šantić. Originally the lyrics were performed to traditional Balkan music, that Basinski discovered when researching material for The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, of which Basinski co-directed the music score alongside ANOHNI. The poem tells of a daughter’s excuses for her secret, night-time excursions, and the mother’s anguish — o, my daughter, o, my sorrow! — is channelled so exceptionally through Spajic’s vocals. Like some of Basinski’s greatest work, the degradation of time may allow memory of one’s misdeeds to be forgiven — and ultimately forgotten — but one’s sorrow resides, again rooted in a loss of innocence.

In the interview with Max Mertens quoted above, Mertens describes Lamentations as “dark and apocalyptic”. I’m not sure that’s accurate. While yes, the album carries Basinski’s signatures — of melancholia, apocalypse, death and decay — the record is much more curious in nature. Unlike TDL this record isn’t saying goodbye to past memory. Tracks such as ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘Punch and Judy’ are a probe, sent out to test the darkness. Maybe their function is to be a vehicle for Basinski’s continuous exploration of himself. What do these tapes say about him now, compared to the person he was when he first made them, over these long decades? This deep dive into the archives doesn’t stop at Lamentations. During the pandemic Basinski has steadily released previously shelved archival works on Bandcamp, including Something from the Pink House and Hymns of Oblivion. For the sake of clarity, I didn’t want to focus too much on the archival records — nor his collaborative record with friends under the name Sparkle Division, but they’re important for context. In the last year or two, it appears that Basinski has been rethinking his legacy, and perhaps the public perception of his music, by reworking and releasing archival work for public consumption. Has the cultural significance, and the music world’s adoration for The Disintegration Loops followed him through time, the past twenty years? It’s interesting to consider the timelessness of TDL. It was so rooted in the present surrounding its creation, it now works in whatever is currently present. While not necessarily opposite, Lamentations seems to be Basinski looking over his shoulder, bringing the past into the now. Time and memory, in both projects, fluctuates, disintegrates. Time is not a straight line, but layers and layers stacked on top of each other. As the layers rub against each other the friction causes cracks, the coating of magnetised metal on the tape of time crumbles. The Disintegration Loops serves as a reminder of the inevitability of decline, but Lamentations says that just because something is gone, doesn’t mean that it didn’t once exist. Further reading: Essay in Texas Monthly about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and The Disintegration Loops:

Essay by Ellis Jones for Music & Politics on 'Insecurity and Fear' in TDL:;view=fulltext Anthony Fantano reviews Lamentations:

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