Saturday 8 May 2021


Released after the tragic events of 9/11, composer William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops albums came to speak for those lost for words when mourning the lives of so many in New York City. Now, nearly 20 years later, David Wexler's documentary uses interviews with Basinski and a selection of music aficionados to assess the impact of the ambient albums and reframe them against the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Created using a 12 inch piece of audio tape passing through a recording device on a short loop (roughly two seconds), Basinski noticed that as the quality of the tape quickly degraded, aspects of the audio changed as "drop-outs" occurred, creating a truly unique piece of sound that would in time destroy itself when played. Working on them during 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Basinski - who was due to go for a job interview at the World Trade Center and watched the towers fall from the roof of his building - merged his new music with footage of the giant smoke cloud drifting over the New York skyline, creating a poignant elegy to the city and becoming an instant hit.

This film starts with this music, now placed over black and white footage of deserted New York streets and Central Park, signs of closure and social distancing immediately making us aware this was filmed in recent times. Such is the unescapable harmonious beauty of Basinski's most famous work that there's a compelling argument that, had director David Wexler created an artistic extension to the music of Disintegration Loop 1.1 and allowed all 63 minutes to play out over images of a pandemic hit NYC, the parallels between the two most troubling times the city has had to face this millennium could have made for a powerful re-contextualising of the music, whilst also paying respects to those lost in 2001.

But, this isn't that kind of documentary. Instead Wexler's 45 minute film provides us with a potted history of Basinski and his career, from his beginnings in high school bands to moving to NYC in the 80s, playing at CBGB's and launching his Arcadia club in a trendy NY loft space (where the cover photo for Jeff Buckley's Grace album was shot). The frank and open Basinski appears via numerous Zoom-style calls to Wexler to talk about his early life, struggles as a musician, creative process and experience recording and releasing his best known work around 9/11. Framed within the pandemic, there's a worry that although these Zoom interviews help establish the context for the time this film was made - and are a necessary evil to have any sort of contact with interviewees - they lack a certain visual flare or cinematic language that help avoid giving the film an inbuilt expiry date. It's a quibble over something I do realise Wexler was cornered into when this film went into production mid-pandemic, but it's to the detriment of the lasting impact it may have that it's an often uninspiring watch, particularly when the early shots of a deserted New York work so well against Basinski's music. 

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 later in the year, it's an appropriate time to look back on The Disintegration Loops, and although the film purports to use the music as a soundtrack for a city in lockdown, it doesn't manage to convincingly do this barring some bookended sequences, instead functioning more as a promotional film for William Basinski. Whilst rightly appreciating the truly beautiful pieces of ambient music that has brought Basinski fame and recognition in the years since, although the pandemic production may have hamstrung a more visually memorable film, the impact of his music certainly won't just fade away.



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