What does it mean to make the perfect piece of music? Heck, what does it even take to make the perfect piece of music? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different responses; music, like every artform, is intensely subjective, but you have the ability to learn the opinion of one individual right now. If you were to ask me what embodies the perfect piece/album/suite of music I could answer that question in a heartbeat; William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.
We press play. A beat emerges. It is perhaps 10 seconds long, a tired yet majestic orchestral sound, almost ethereal. It is slightly muffled, as though heard through a pillow or perhaps a damaged record. It is nothing special, merely a few notes, some musical meandering recorded on tape. It bows out as quickly as it came in, only to be played again and again and again. Each time it appears, however, it is a changed melody; we may not notice it from one to the next, but we have up to 90 minutes of this same, repeated melody ahead of us. This minute difference becomes part of a bigger picture, one of decay and destruction. This 10 second fragment of music is dying, and Basinski has laid it out to show us how it happens.
With each track we are exposed to a different melody but the story is the same; each tired, old melody is looped over and again, progressing from an already damaged original to an increasingly fragmented and destroyed version of itself before there is nothing left but a fuzzy silence and, if we’re lucky, the merest echo of the original piece, a deeply embedded sound fossil.
But what does it mean? What’s the point of this music? To many it is nothing more than new-age nonsense, there is nothing to interpret from these simple melodies other than that Basinski got extremely lucky and let time and a tape machine do all the hard work for him. To others, however, many parallels can be drawn, to me this music is representative of the entropic nature of the Universe, the ultimate destruction of all things. We can see what time has done to these melodies, weakening them, destabilising them until they reach a point where they are no longer useable, where there is nothing left. For all intents and purposes we can say the melodies died. Human beings do the same thing, heck, every living organism does the same thing; what was once young and fresh grows old, slowly becoming more fragile with age. There comes a point where there is too much damage and the brain simply stops, shuts down. There is nothing coherent left, nothing left of that individual’s original melody but a fuzzy silence.
This suite has resonance with me; I sat listening to this while my Grandmother lay dying in a hospital bed. It is at times like those when you realise the power and significance this music holds, where wavering mental clarity and emotional distress allow you to see beyond the individual melodies at the entire looped sequence, draw conclusions an otherwise closed mind might ignore and appreciate the power and the ideologies this music holds. Still, despite the overwhelming melancholy surrounding these dying pieces there is hope; Basinski took these old, frail melodies from one medium, the tape, to another, digital. One, a physical medium rooted in reality, the other an untouchable, virtual state. Is there perhaps hope for human beings too? Is there another medium beyond the here and now, the physical? There was certainly a new lease of life for Basinski’s creations, an afterlife if you will, maybe we share the same fate. I’d like to believe that, I’d like to believe that as her tape reached the end she was transferred to digital.
This to me is the finest that music has to offer. No complex melodies, no words, just ideas and interpretations and raw emotions, all of which are drawn up from nothing more than a handful of notes being broken down by time itself. Can we claim this was the original intention of Basinski? No, but he is certainly a genius for recognising its potential and marketing it.