Archival Time, Absent Time: On William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops

Paul Benzon

Temple University

[Keywords: loop, materiality, analog, music, sound, erasure, 9/11, memory, dust, trace]

Past is Prologue

The origin story of The Disintegration Loops is near mythic: in September 2001, electronic composer William Basinski uncovered a series of tape loops of found sound he had recorded from an easy listening station in the 1980s and decided to preserve them as digital files. [1] Yet as each recording circulated through the spindle of Basinski’s recording machine on its way to being digitized, it slowly became clear that the tape was deteriorating in the process, shredding and splintering away as it was being transferred into bits and bytes, being physically consumed as it was being digitally reproduced. The resulting recordings became their own composition – not a digital copy of the analog original, but rather a kind of haunted simulacrum, a profoundly inexact copy that lacked an original precisely because it documented the original’s disappearance.

But there is another layer to the loops, another absence. Shortly after Basinski finished the series, the World Trade Center towers fell, crumbling into rubble, smoke, and dust, visible from his Brooklyn home. Basinski recorded the last daylight hour of September 11 from his rooftop and synced this video to the first and longest loop, “dlp 1.1.” The combination of image and sound is uncanny; in the accidents and contingencies of resurrecting and destroying the old, Basinski had created a necessarily empty mirror of the new, a strangely proleptic soundtrack to the first great disappearance of the twenty-first century.

William Basinski, “dlp 1.1,” The Disintegration Loops, 2002.

The Sound of the Ephemeral Present

The sound of The Disintegration Loops cycles and rubs against itself with a slowness that is at once excruciating, exhilarating, and terrifying – we have to know that the final fadeout will happen, and yet we struggle to anticipate it, to hear ahead across the time of decay, and yet we cannot bear for it to come. [2] For much of each segment, the dominant sonic figure phases in and out almost imperceptibly, out and in and inevitably out again. Some loops, such as “dlp 6” with its barely oscillating wash, seem like already digital compositions, while others, such as “dlp 1.1” and “dlp 3,” bear the traces of conventional instrumentation more audibly within their source material, the sounds of horn sections all but swallowed by some cavernous, distorted, empty concert hall. In these moments, echo and reverberation become the work’s primary tools as well as its defining metaphors, air moving within empty space capturing the slow, disjunctive transition from tape to drive, from past to present, from pre- to post-. The titular disintegrations develop arhythmically themselves as well, agonizingly slowly in some moments and then somehow – as in the self-muffling crunch and static of “dlp 4” – seemingly all at once. Indeed, time is profoundly at stake in the piece as a whole. Its title seems almost a contradiction in terms: it promises the cyclical stability and repetition of the loop, the eternal return, only to paradoxically reconceive of that return as subject to, even defined by, disintegration, loss, its own disappearance.

Yet it is not only this new time of the loop, its uneven, ephemeral return, that these pieces impose upon us. As the snippet of source material for each loop stretches and torques in time, from a few seconds to minutes, to nearly five hours across the course of the piece as a whole, we cannot help but also hear other times within this monumentality as well: the past time of dormancy, of gestation, of premature burial between the original recording of these sounds and Basinski’s creation of the piece some twenty years later. The weight this time gives to the Loops is conceptual and experiential, but also material, the time of ferrite tape drying, becoming hard and brittle, ready to shed its magnetized information. But we also have to hear the time of liminality in these cyclical compositions, the suspension across a hinge moment in history. Towards the end of Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s elegy for New York after 9/11, the novel’s protagonist finds herself “down in the trenches” at the excavation of a World War II battle site, “furiously shoveling gray muck and bones, her face streaked with tears . . . weeping for her century, though whether the one past or the one present she doesn’t know.” [3] These sounds teeter across time between what we can no longer retrieve and what we cannot yet confront.

Lost Object Art

The Disintegration Loops relies upon a unique dynamic of the readymade within the history of artistic work with found material. Basinski’s project sits at the strange, uncanny intersection of appropriation, decay, and contingency – part Duchamp’s Fountain, part Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, part cracked Large Glass, and yet also somewhere else altogether, buried in the secret memories and lost archives of the early twenty-first century. As much as the project relies upon found material, it does so precisely in that it relies upon and renders the simultaneous loss of that material. On one hand, this loss is shocking and radical: we are quite literally hearing the process of oblivion. Yet The Disintegration Loops is perhaps most radical not in the rarity of such a loss but rather in how the piece draws our attention to its unacknowledged conventionality: the accidental sacrifice of the original analog tapes to produce Basinski’s digital files stands as a strangely apposite material allegory for the loss of compression that nearly all digital sound undergoes today, a reminder of the invisible centrality of deletion to the memories of our digital landscape. [4]

For all of the lip service paid to the real-time immediacy and instantaneity of the global village, we also rely on technology to stretch time. We document, we hoard and quantify, in an attempt to produce and preserve history, to stretch out a trail of time behind us, leveraging the continuity of the archive in the face of the unpredictable moment of the next terrorist eventuality. We accumulate data as fragments against the possibility of ruin, in hopes that it will not someday all simply go away. Shannon Mattern says of the dust that blanketed lower Manhattan after 9/11 that “what we might not have realized at the time was that the dust, toxic and uncanny though it was, may have been an ideal representation of, or medium for, how we would remember the tragedy. As [Marita] Sturken and [Carolyn] Steedman remind us, dust is not ‘about refuse or rubble so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist’ (Sturken 314).” [5]. Sliding from analog to digital, The Disintegration Loops traps us in this cyclicality, sound making dust to make sound. Objects break, corrode, burn, crumble; information becomes corrupted, glitched, compressed – things change shape, but we cling to the hope that in the archive, in the moist vapor of the cloud, things never really disappear.

Almost never.


  1. Mark Richardson, “William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops,” Pitchfork, November 29, 2012, accessed March 14, 2015,
  2. William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, Temporary Residence Ltd., CD box set, 2013.
  3. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: Berkley, 2003), 355-356.
  4. Ryan Maguire writes of the mp3 format, “First published in 1993, this codec implements a lossy compression algorithm based on a perceptual model of human hearing. Listening tests . . . were used to refine the encoder. These tests determined which sounds were perceptually important and which could be erased or altered, ostensibly without being noticed. What are these lost sounds? Are they sounds which human ears can not [sic] hear in their original context due to universal perceptual limitations or are they simply encoding detritus? It is commonly accepted that mp3’s create audible artifacts such as pre-echo, but what does the music which this codec deletes sound like?” “The Ghost in the MP3,” accessed March 14, 2015,
  5. Shannon Christine Mattern, “Paper, Ash & Air: Material Remembering,” Words in Space, September 9, 2011, accessed March 25, 2015, The quotation Mattern cites is from Marita Sturken, “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero,” American Ethnologist 31, no. 3 (2004): 311-25.


William Basinski is a classically trained musician and composer who has been working in experimental media for over 30 years in New York City and most recently, California. Employing obsolete technology and analogue tape loops, his haunting and melancholy soundscapes explore the temporal nature of life and resound with the reverberations of memory and the mystery of time. His epic 4-disc masterwork The Disintegration Loops received international critical acclaim and was chosen as one of the top 50 albums of 2004 by Pitchfork Media. The Temporary Residence deluxe LP box-set reissue from 2012 was awarded best re-issue of the year and a score of 10 on Pitchfork. Installations and films made in collaboration with artist-filmmaker James Elaine have been presented in festivals and museums internationally, and his concerts are presented to sold out crowds around the world. Most recently, Basinski was chosen by Music Director, Antony Hegarty to create music for the new Robert Wilson opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic which had its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival in July 2011 and toured Europe in 2012 and North America in 2013. Orchestral transcriptions of The Disintegration Loops by Maxim Moston have been performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Queen Elizabeth Hall and La Batie Festival in Geneva, Switzerland.