Utne Blogs > Abstract Notions

Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

William Basinski and the Music of 9/11

 william basinski disintegration loops 

There has been a lot of music inspired by or associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but perhaps none is as poignant or thought-provoking as William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.  

I tend to associate impressionable events in my life with music. Sometimes it’s the music that I heard during the event, other times it’s music that reminds me of the event. Whatever the case, the memory isn’t complete unless there’s a soundtrack.

When it comes to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I remember every moment of that day better than any other, but I don’t recall listening to any specific music. For a while, the soundtrack of that memory consisted only of breaking news updates and uncertain conversations with friends and family. And while the number of songs inspired by the event is almost enough to constitute its own genre, none of them truly captured my reaction to the event. That is, until I heard The Disintegration Loops by experimental composer William Basinski:  

What you’re hearing in the above piece, “Dlp 1.1,” is a continuous loop of music that Basinski recorded on magnetic tape in the 1980s, and attempted to convert to digital in the months leading up to September 11. As the story goes, the nearly 20-year-old tape deteriorated on the spindle with each pass, and over the course of the hour-long composition, you can hear the music slowly disintegrate. From a musical perspective, it may seem impossible to appreciate one six-second piece of music looped continuously for over an hour, but I invite you to give it a shot. I think you’ll be surprised by how complex and heartbreakingly beautiful the piece becomes over time. Upon its release in 2002, Basinski relayed that this was what he listened to on the morning of September 11 as he watched and videotaped the Twin Towers collapse and the dust billow across lower Manhattan from his rooftop vantage point. For that reason, it’s become permanently associated with the event, and has often been the music of choice in commemoration events.

Considering the story behind its creation and association, the obvious reaction for listeners is melancholy and sadness. For me, though, it’s a bit different. When I first heard this piece, I was unaware of the back story. My immediate reaction was one of nostalgia; a very specific moment from my childhood that I hadn’t thought about until hearing this. I was five years old at the time, and it was a hot, summer day at my grandparents’ house. My grandma was just about to take me and a couple of the neighborhood kids to McDonald’s for lunch, and I knew that meant I was about to get a chocolate milkshake. In short, I could hardly contain my excitement and I believe it was likely the earliest memory I have of pure, unadulterated joy. This piece conjures that very simple, but powerful moment for me. And while on the surface it would seem that this memory has nothing to do with September 11, I’ve realized over time that it has everything to do with my reaction to that event.

Without getting overly dramatic, September 11 and its aftermath irreversibly changed me as a person. It forced me to reconsider my politics, my faith, and eventually, even my personal relationships. For me, it marked the beginning of an essential process that everyone goes through during that period of life between growing up and being a grown up; where you outgrow the skin of your youth and simply need to shed it in order to grow.

Listening to this loop reminds me that, at one time, it was possible for me to find complete joy and satisfaction in something as trivial as a McDonald’s milkshake. While I may never experience something like that joy again, it’s good to be reminded that it’s still possible, and that I’ll likely never find out unless I allow myself to grow and remain open minded. I appreciate the desire to remember this day with solemnity and a heavy heart. But thanks to this particular piece of music, I remember September 11 as a personal moment of rebirth.  

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.