“I thought I had been unwittingly commissioned do the sound track to the end of the world.” So reflected musician/composer William Basinski at a gathering in Greenwich Village to commemorate the first anniversary of September 11th. In the background played his melancholic composition, Disintegration Loops.
“I had recorded these bucolic, pastoral tape loops off the Muzak station in the early eighties, and slowed them down a couple of speeds,” Billy recalled, “but at the time they were too perfect and finished for me to do anything with.” Some twenty years later, he rediscovered them, in the process of archiving tapes at the end of their shelf life. “What I heard now blew me away. Each one of the loops disintegrated in its own way, its own time, holding onto to the end to what made it individual, and yet letting go of unimportant substance. I realized I had recorded the life and death of each of these melodies. ”
On September 11, 2001, Billy watched in horror as the twin towers fell, peering over the East River from his loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He had even been scheduled to have an interview for a job at the World Trade Towers that morning. Finding himself numb to what he experienced, he now heard the Loops he was working on in a different way. “I put the tapes back in to start to edit. Then I realized that the work felt like an elegy to the horror I just witnessed.”
I listened to the Loops with Billy soon after, as we looked at the footage of video Billy took of the sunset over the smoke of the fallen towers (clip seen to the left). The sound of the Loops resonated and somehow completed itself in my mind. It affirmed an idea that came out of conversations with artists around my home and studio, what was now Ground Zero. We needed to gather our thoughts, pray, and reflect on what had happened as artists.
TriBeCa Temporary began in November of 2001 as a result, and held over 20 exhibits, Happenings, prayer meetings, and poetry readings until our closing exhibit in April of 2001. My studio mate, Hiroshi Senju, kindly contributed a small space. We called it our “Ground Zero Tea House.” We both could not work in the same ways we had been working. At least for a while, we need to pause and reconsider what was important to us. (My personal 9/11 journey is described in my essay Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea)
Billy shared with me that he had begun to lose his desire to continue to work, or even to continue to live after that day. He, like many other artists, felt devastated by the experience. Just like the loops of his tape, he himself found his inner strength beginning to disintegrate. His heart was oppressed by fear and anxiety. But as he gave redemption to these loops, and as he helped us in creating TriBeCa Temporary, he himself began to find an echo of a greater redemptive grace. He began to hear the “still small voice” of God pointing him to eternal hope. He began to breath in trust, and dared to create again.
The release of the cd “Disintegration Loops” soon followed. Loops won numerous accolades, and is now featured in NPR’s “Weekend America.” One reviewer notes: “The Disintegration Loops still wield an uncanny, affirming power. It's the kind of music that makes you believe there is a Heaven, and that this is what it must sound like.”
When I listen to the Loops, I experience once again the disorientation we all experienced on that day. But through the very sound of disintegration, I also hear the refracting voices of eternity. Art offers such power to pause, and a potential to find healing in the remembrance of things past. Art may be, at times, the only true memory we own in our experience of disintegration. Art may even point to a greater, redemptive plan beyond “the life and death” of each of our melodies.