All songs and all records have stories. Some arrive preceded by them, either by artificial hype, by personal testimony or by the weight of historical significance. Some music comes to us completely fresh but within seconds we begin to weave a tapestry of our own tales and experiences into their fabric, helping us to make our own sense of them.
William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’, a set of works which span 5 albums, has a story. As we listened to it this evening, the subject of whether the music and the story could or should be separated worried us like no other I can remember in our preceding 50+ meetings.
If you’ve never heard the pieces before, you may choose to seek them out and hear them free from their associations, their assumed and imposed meanings. I’ll add a link to a YouTube clip of ‘d|p 1.1 below, but you’ll want to avert your eyes and use only your ears if you want a completely association-free experience. Certainly this was one of the possibilities we struggled with when we listened. Tom hadn’t heard the origin story before and we couldn’t help feeling that we’d somehow blighted his experience by allowing the myth to precede the music. But then, who but Basinski and a few of his friends has ever heard this music without the story?
To be accurate, ‘Disintegration Loops’ has two stories. One concerns the way it was made. The other concerns the way it was used. Both stories are told here in a long interview with Basinski by John Doran of The Quietus.
It seems inappropriate, somehow disrespectful, to describe this monumental work as a product of luck. Would that be good luck? Even worse perhaps. And yet without happenstance, fortune, unplanned calamity, it would not exist and without yet more serendipity, coincidence, unplanned connection, it would not have gained such resonance and meaning.
In large part, it is the beauty in unplanned occurrence, and specifically the uncontrollable, unpredictable march of decay, which this work captures intrinsically and has come to symbolise extrinsically. That the work – a series of repeating, slowly changing loops – when shorn of its accompanying backstory and the palimpsest of meaning which it has since has accrued, remains as powerful, moving and beautiful as it is, is perhaps the real miracle. It does seems to me that even freed from what we come to know about the pieces, this is heart-stopping music. But then, I can never truly know.
And yet, and yet, even from this simple flow and ebb of sound, amidst all these noble and humane reactions, new meanings emerge each time I listen. Tonight I find myself contemplating trust, of all things, because, and whisper this, there’s 0.1% of me as listener that can’t quite accept that this ever actually happened, that this work was ever produced as the story would have us believe. Some of the detail doesn’t quite seem to add up and, ultimately, I find myself wanting to know more and more about the minutiae of its production, more in fact than I have wanted to know about any other record I can remember. Ironic, knowing that conscious thought and ‘production’ in the sense of the deliberate act of making, was apparently not so big a factor.
Perhaps the reason this music ties in so perfectly with what it has been asked to symbolise is that in their own unimaginable ways they each tell us that sometimes the fantastical, the impossible, really does happen. In fact, they say, look around you. It’s happening all the time.
And on we go. We debate the story and we debate the context and we debate the manufacture and we debate the impact and we find so many ways to question and praise and doubt and affirm the work but ultimately that seems so much piffle. The work transcends.
Nick listened: Rob’s done a very good job of not actually revealing any of the backstory to this record, so (despite my reputation for spoilers) I’ll endeavor to do the same.
I’ve been wanting to hear this for literally years; Stylus was one of the first and most vocal places to praise it way back when (don’t click that if you don’t want the backstory) but it seemed almost impossible to get hold of and inordinately expensive, so for some reason I never got round to hearing it. I pretty much squealed with delight when Rob pulled it out, and enthusiastically joined in imparting the whole context and narrative that goes alongside it.
It’s hard if not impossible to disentangle the music from its context, and any description of the music sans context sounds prosaic to say the least, if not downright dull; it is, essentially, just slowly, minutely changing ambient loops that go on for a long time and, somehow, seem loaded with sadness and profundity. Sonically, aesthetically, it’s not a million miles away from Stars Of The Lid, or Aether by The Necks, or Discreet Music by Eno, or a Buddha Machine, or a dozen and then some other minimal drone loops that exist. Is it better? Is it more mystical, more profound? The context is, to be blasphemously cynical for a moment, an amazing marketing gimmick.
I borrowed this from Rob and played it at Emma a couple of days later, sans context. She said she found it comforting and familiar, and that it felt more part of an art installation than a piece of music-qua-music, even more so than some other ambient stuff we own. When I explained the context, though, she felt immediately that it was somehow perfectly connected to it, that she somehow knew this already, and wondered whether we’d already seen the above video somewhere, somehow. Maybe we have, or maybe it really is a piece of serendipity.
Tom Listened: Emperor’s new clothes or a brilliant innovation…or a bit of both? I have no idea and have given up trying to work it out!