IIt should be obvious that technology has the power to radically change the face of music. The electric guitar gave birth to modern blues and rock and roll. Drum machines gave us hip hop and house. And affordable digital audio software has spawned bedroom producers. These were all useful developments, however. While some of these things stem from unintended uses of this technology, the musicians themselves were generally pursuing a specific artistic goal.
This is not necessarily the case with William Basinski’s Decay loops. Its origins are neither an intended consequence nor an intentional misuse. Instead, its existence is almost entirely an accident resulting from Basinski’s attempt to move from an analog world to a digital one. And yet it has completely changed the face of ambient music and stands as one of the most important musical works of the 21st century.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This tragic event and Disintegration Buckles are indelibly linked. David Wexler’s new documentary Decay loops, which debuted at SXSW last week, explores that connection in detail. But the four volumes of Buckles are undeniably part of an increasingly digital world.
Basinski said in an interview that the music was heard on The decay loops dates back as far as the 1970s when it started ripping audio clips over the airwaves. Most of the loops were “mostly Muzak” playing from the top of the Empire State Building. It was “all Mancini and Mantovani versions of popular American standards with all syncopations removed: no lyrics, unless there are oohs and aahs and just strings galore.”
The idea was to try and recreate the sound of a Mellotron. “I love string sounds and wanted a Mellotron,” he says, “but of course I couldn’t afford it. And I knew they were made with ribbon curls. So I thought that maybe I could try making my own Mellotron by grabbing little pieces of the middle rope on some loops and, then shifting gears and seeing what happened. However, the goal was never to build a complete instrument. “I’m not that kind of geek,” he added. Instead, it was about capturing the essence of this iconic strip keyboard.
What eventually became The decay loops, however, it didn’t really start to take shape until almost 20 years later. “When the CD writers came out, I got one and started taking all this old stuff out and digitizing it because I knew what happened to the old tapes. And these tapes were used when I bought them in the late 70’s.
The story here has been told countless times, but it’s worth recapping. By the summer of 2001, Basinski was at a particularly low point, in debt and threatened with losing his Williamsburg loft and studio, Arcadia. But rather than sitting around and worrying all day, he devoted himself to this archiving process and got to work removing old loops from a pole stand in his studio and putting it to work. recording them on CD.
This first loop “was so deep and so fabulous and exactly what I needed and I started tweaking the Voyetra synthesizer and came up with this sort of random French horn counter-melody arpeggiature. And I thought, “OK, this is going to be awesome.” So I started recording. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And finally I started to realize that something is changing and I watch the Studer [tape machine] and I can see dropouts happening. There is dust in the path of the tape. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen.’ And I’m checking my levels to make sure it’s recording and I’m just like, ‘OK, let’s see what’s going on here.’ “
This dust was the magnetic coating of the tape that came loose from its plastic backing. As the band passed above the playhead, it gradually scraped off the oxide layer, causing audio loss, slowly changing the loops over time.
Eventually, Basinski “started to realize, ‘Oh man, it’s not about counter melodies … It does its own thing. I have to be here and be careful and make sure the levels are right and we’re recording that because it’s a one-time thing. So after that there were no more counter melodies, it was just about letting the bands do whatever they wanted to do, be careful and capture it.
Through her story there was a deep awareness during the process. “Here I was reading this book on Zen Buddhism before,” he said, “and as this was happening and I realized what was going on, basically I was recording the life and death of each of them. these melodies. But it also captured the death of a media format and a particular moment in time as one technology gave way to another.