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Of Mourning and Evening: William Basinski’s "Disintegration Loop 1.1"

On the 15th anniversary of September 11, a look at composer William Basinksi's remarkable hour-long film shot that evening.
Ext. New York – evening.
A static shot of the Downtown Manhattan skyline, filmed from a Brooklyn rooftop. The Woolworth Building is silhouetted clearly among other less discernible structures, offices and apartment blocks. Thick plumes of smoke and dust shade much of the image on the left.  To the right, bands of yellow light blend into the blue of the upper sky. As evening descends, the cityscape below is bathed in shadow first, giving a Magritte-like surrealness to this most surreal of American days: September 11, 2001. The title of the painter’s ‘Empire of Light’ might be applied here, with an additional descriptive: fading. Not only will the natural light ebb from the picture, shifting first through red hues and darker blues; the musical motif on the soundtrack, too, will slowly wear away to little more than a resonant drone.
To describe this as the establishing shot of the twenty-first century might seem trite or insensitive. But for those who have watched the one-hour of film described above, few would counter that this is a deeply moving document of a world-changing day, one that propelled politics in a virulent, violent direction. Disintegration Loop 1.1 (2001) was shot by the composer William Basinski on September 11, thirty-seven years to the day after pop artist Andy Warhol made his own infamous single-shot film of a New York landmark at night: Empire (1964). Basinski’s work was in 2012 selected for inclusion in the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Until that time, and the reissue of the film as part of a box set of Basinski’s complete audio series The Disintegration Loops, few had the opportunity to see it—the original DVD being out of print for many years.
The subject of numerous dissertations and other effusive essays, evocative liner notes and philosophical reflections, The Disintegration Loops has come to be seen by many as foremost a melancholic metonym of 9/11. Not that the music only makes sense in this context; Basinski’s textured, looped excerpts of instrumental  passages were produced before that date and create emotive atmospheres that might inspire or relax any listener depending on the circumstances in which they are heard. But when Baskinski and a number of the composer’s friends spent several hours of September 11, 2001 watching the landscape and country before them transform, with the loops playing loudly on a stereo system, the music found an unexpected role. In the evening, Basinski decided to shoot.
The material for this audio project conveys a loss of its own. In the months leading up to that devastating moment, having recovered a box of old analogue tape loops first made in the early 1980s, and having started the process of transferring these to a digital format, Basinski noticed that the tapes were degrading. Each time a loop played, iron oxide deposits would fall from the reel and dust would settle in the tape path, leaving more and more gaps in the plangent sound, only traces of fragments of solemn melodies remaining after repeated playback. Some of the finest minimalist music was this way made, with faltering technology and fragile memories. On September 11, the sound of The Disintegration Loops somehow synced with the catastrophic occurrence of that morning, when failing metal structures, fire and clouds of dust took away other voices, as the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.
The French horn of ‘dIp 1.1,’ chosen to be the soundtrack for Basinski’s film, sounds a repeated lament as the camera remains fixed as if shocked still; at points its focus struggles to adjust to the dimming light. No, rather than embodying the stunned silence of the onlooker, the camera gives us an eye without emotion. It looks on the scene as it would any other. Despite the seriousness of what is unfolding in front of it, the lens records the luminous tones of the sky as they fade to dusk. A jet of some kind is seen scouting the airspace and neighbors mill about on nearby rooftops. Unceasing smoke blackens the view. As the image changes slowly and subtly, so too does the music, giving up parts of its instrumentation as the tape decays.
Basinski is one of several key minimalist composers to have produced single shot films that deserve more attention. Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad have used techniques of close-up, long take filming with striking effects—with Conrad producing a masterpiece of visual, as opposed to audio, looping, Film Feedback (1974). Jim O’Rourke’s little-seen Not Yet (2003) and Mizu No Nai Umi (2013) both take single shots from films by Brian De Palma and subject them to processing with the accompaniment of microtonal electronic music. Slow change within apparent stasis is also familiar from both the picture and sound elements of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), with Snow’s musical work seldom mentioned among film critics, namely the minimalist piece ‘Falling Starts’ which features on the LP Musics for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder. These overlaps of minimalist musical composition and filmmaking would make for a rich further study within cinema.
Basinski’s film is not as technically inventive as some of these other examples, but as a record of such a historic event it avoids cloying sentimentality and the shock tactics of some documentary styles. It gives the scene a time and distance that would not last, as it became the flashpoint of global politics. Basinski does not aim at the provocative lengthiness of Warhol’s earlier film and proves that silence is not the only respectful sound that befits such great loss. There is a particular weight that has been lent to The Disintegration Loops by the context in which the project developed and Basinski’s decision to shoot Disintegration Loop 1.1 in real time on September 11 2001. It is a film about that day that one can return to time and again, reminded of the feelings of that moment, and newly colored by whatever its painful tremors now might be. The resonance of Basinski’s audiovision will no doubt change with each passing year; the consoling melancholia of a music almost lost, thankfully remains.

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