Re(de)composing 9/11 Basinski’s & Moston’s Disintegration Loops

On September 11, 2011, the Wordless Music Orchestra performed the world premier of Maxim Moston’s orchestration of William Basinski’s “d|p 1.1,” the first and longest track from Basinski’s four-album The Disintegration Loops, in commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001. Basinski’s original version, created in 2001 by digitally recording the organic decay of tape loops he had composed and set to tape in the 1980s as they passed again and again through the recording device, warping and disintegrating, decomposing and de-composing, has now become something of legend, released as a response to the tragedies of the day and with some of the tracks recorded while the towers still burned. The 2011 performance, which can be heard here, was of a remarkably faithful transcription for full orchestra of the musical decay found on “d|p 1.1.” As an emotional catharsis and as an often-stunning display of technical skill and subtlety, the concert was undoubtedly a resounding success, at least judging by the number of tearful faces and the long silence followed by thunderous applause with which the audience responded. However, what follows is not a review, but rather an attempt to wrench out the nuances of both Basinski’s original piece and Moston’s orchestration, to pull out the ways in which each version forces itself within the ideas of collective memory and grief.

“Listening to (and viewing) the orchestration is a decidedly different experience than listening to the original composition.”

Basinski’s original “d|p 1.1” was already enmeshed in a web of narrative, extending from the personal to the collective long before its first listeners hit “play.” The press notes’ evocative imagery of Basinski recording the decay of tape loops as he witnessed death and destruction out of his Brooklyn apartment’s window ensured an emotionally specific and powerful response, regardless of the piece’s content. But the content functions too: the loops themselves are evocative to the point of near-melodrama, constructed out of a central mournful trombone melody that forces nobly out of a blanket of quietly weeping winds and strings only to sink back down and rise again, while the subtlety with which these melodies decay provides a graceful, elegiac slide into death and grief. In “d|p 1.1,” melodrama decays through a unpredictable yet inevitable physical process that is itself a form of melodrama — what is more romantically gothic than a music that surrenders itself to death at the hands of decay? — and yet it was the aspect of the unknown and unpredictable, tied up in the non-human physical forces of disintegration that destroyed the loop, that gave the music its evocative power. Melodrama traditionally involves a careful orchestration of discreet elements for the sake of the most powerful catharsis possible, but in the case of Basinski’s piece, orchestration is done by the hands of unknowable chance and acts not upon discrete unites of musical construction, but upon the fabric stitching them together. As such, its actions move outside of the traditional planes of human-produced evocations of grief. This lends the piece both its unbearable instability and its subtle grace, as this was no simple human evocation of grief, but a human one routed directly through the inhuman. It produced a catharsis far removed from the careful structuring that gives traditional melodrama its force, a melodrama bound up in the unknowable outside, but a very real drama nonetheless. A sad story is sad, but hearing it told by a dying friend that can’t get the words out right is much more to bear.

The compositional technique deployed in “d|p 1.1” and transmitted in the act of listening is that of opening up a human creation and intelligence to the utterly inhuman — or even anti-human — effects of time and decay, made visceral and material as they act without mediation upon a compositional evocation of loss. In this sense, listening to the piece while familiar with its origins constitutes an act of opening up the human body to the unknown, which is to say forces that cannot be contained in a humanist framework. “d|p 1.1” functioned so perfectly as a 9/11 piece because it reenacted the horrifying central realization of that day: that the human body is not sacred, that it is open to the utterly indifferent trespasses of the outside, our dramas laid bare in the face of forces that seemed utterly exterior. The final emotive/affective elements that reach the listener are not Basinski’s composition, but its re-composition/disintegration, and thus the grief evoked is coded as outside of the human. Importantly, however, the decay of the piece is slow and elegiac rather than abrupt and cruel, framing this displacing of the human in a way that was not terrifying but rather tragic and yet also beautiful. The inhuman moves through the piece, and yet it does so in a way that re-frames the terror of the day in terms of a quiet acceptance, rather than the hot anger of other commemorative pieces.

“‘d|p 1.1’ functioned so perfectly as a 9/11 piece because it re-enacted the horrifying central realization of that day: that the human body is not sacred, that it is open to the utterly indifferent trespasses of the outside…”

The elements decayed may be humanist (in their compositionally-articulated emotional resonance) and identifiable with America (the original loops, as Basinski notes, share a musical genetic with the tradition of American pastoral music), but their decay is neither. This fact, taken along the localizable elements of American pastoral in the original loops, allows the piece to function as anti-nationalistic, beginning from a nationalized sense of grief and then displacing this grief outside of any sense of national space through its decay. Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” won’t sound the same when it’s looped and dying. Even farther, one must view this movement towards anti-nationalism as carrying with it a concomitant resistance to humanist models, in the sense of post-Enlightenment though with its attendant glorification of human rationality. To remodel grief as a communion with the outside, to make what could honestly be described as an antihumanist work that nevertheless functions as several types of elegy, disrupting human centrality without eliding the reality of the emotions evoked: that was the power of the inhuman as it routed its way into human grief in “d|p 1.1.” What’s crucial here is that the antihumanist element of the piece (its construction by communion with disintegration) never entirely negated the essentially humanist element at its core (the dramatically mournful progressions of the tape loops), but rather moved it onto a plane outside of the scope of humanism. Both an inducement towards and a respect for human grief are persevered, even as the frame of reference is dramatically shifted. Call it antihumanist humanism, if you will. It asks us to weep for more than one reason.

Moston’s arrangement entirely remodels the interaction with the unknown bound up in decay that brought Basinski’s piece to its quietly radical position. After a listen to both pieces side by side, the degree of accuracy with which Moston has transcribed the notation is shocking, and yet the effect of listening to each is decidedly different. By faithfully transcribing the original, Moston relocates the unknown within the human sphere, giving it over to human players and transcribing the effects of decay into a fixed notation. Listening to (and viewing) the orchestration is a decidedly different experience than listening to the original composition. Since the “decay” is now directly controlled by specific instruments rather than acting as a wild vector affecting all elements within the piece — from melody and duration to texture, tone, and fidelity — the listener is able to localize the decay as it proceeds across the piece (“Oh, the last note of the trombone line was shorter.”). This effect is further heightened when seen live (“Oh, the clarinetist put down her instrument.”). Listening to Moston’s version, one hears the specifics of the notes played and one is able to locate the ways in which the piece decays, the transformation of the smooth open space of organic techniques of decay into the ordered, striated grid-matrix of traditional composition and performance techniques. Chance is rerouted through human skill and control, and the inhuman is made human again. What we hear are the effects of human control as they imitate and illustrate the process of communion with the unknown outside rather than enacting it. In Moston’s orchestration, decay can only act directly upon the controllable factors of each instrumental line, rather than attacking the whole of the piece from all possible angles. It is no longer a de-composition, but a composition that reenacts de-composition. In this version, it is not the human that is displaced, but the inhuman, though an integration of the two is still crucial. The unknown and its urges against rationally-constructed nationalism and humanism are placed back under the grounds of human control, but their echoes remain in the central understanding that this is a performance of compositional control rather than true control.

“The performers were performing the concept of control as much as they were performing the piece.”

This relocation of the process of decay perfectly served the needs of the performance, presented under the title “Remembering September 11” and described in the performance notes as offered “in the spirit of contemplation and healing.” What better way to deal with the grief and trauma of that day than to perform a work built out of the uncontrollably chaotic in a form that emphasizes the ordered rigor of its performers. The performance suggested that humanity is capable of placing its own order over that decomposition, reasserting itself in the order of things. This, of course, is essentially a denial of the element that made the original piece cut so deep, so clear-sightedly, but in the space and time of its performance, we entertained the lie of control for the sake of comfort. And this was not a lie expressed unawares — those press notes were still there, reminding us of the real origins of the piece. The performers were performing the concept of control as much as they were performing the piece, and this was always made known to the audience. It provided a safer space than the previous iteration, but it was one that carried the knowledge of its origins.

But what of that other word, “Remembering”? An element of memory and time is also crucial to the effectiveness of both versions. In its original iteration, “d|p 1.1” and the rest of the loops were already tied up in time and its accompanying narratives: before they even began to decay, the loops were crusted with the static of age, brought to the listener as artifacts from an earlier time. Dramatic and tragic though they were, it was not the drama or the tragedy of 9/11 that disintegrated, but the drama of an earlier time, and the evocatively nostalgic fuzz and hiss coating the tracks provided ample reminders of this fact. This was the memory of a moment in time falling apart across the course of another stretch of time. Nostalgia is brought to the present through its quiet decomposition, brought into contact with the present and initiating loops of temporal recurrence. As time continues to alter the loops that it has already altered, the present is rendered as an ongoing process that continually uproots and reworks previous iterations of itself. Memory as not a simple recalling, but a redefining and irrevocable alteration. Memory in The Disintegration Loops is a process at once indiscriminately destructive and creatively productive with regards to those things it evokes. They evocatively suggest that memory cannot exist without out time and is irrevocably altered by it.

Furthermore, Basinski describes the process of creating the pieces is itself also a form of interacting with his own personal memories that transcribes them out of the private human sphere and into a public one, altered by a contact with the inhuman: “The music had turned to dust and was scattered along the tape path, yet the essence of and memory of the life and death of each unique melody had been saved: recorded to a new medium, remembered.” What is crucial here is that the original, deeply personal narrative of Basinski listening to the loops as the towers burned is, through its remembrance via digital recording and analogue decay, disassociated from its human origins. The initial act of recollection is handed over to the tape player and the computer, and the music that reaches us is the material results of that process. The machine elements enact a mimesis of human process of remembering, and the original musical elements are reworked and altered through the intervention of time and a remembering device. “d|p 1.1,” in a way, is machine memory made audible. What is given to the listener is an inhuman machine-memory that carries with it the deeply human factors of nostalgia and its loss, which sets up potentials for countless interactions between at least two emotionally loaded continuums of time/memory (1980s and nostalgia, 9/11 and loss), but the chain effects of these interactions must be constructed through the listener. As stated before, there is no logical structuring of emotion or memory in the piece, as the structure is non-programmatic decay.

“Chance is rerouted through human skill and control, and the inhuman is made human again.”

Moston’s orchestration retains the web of memory bound up in the original, and in some ways complicates it. Considering the orchestration as a fixed piece of sheet music and an accompanying press sheet/creation narrative, memory appears to function both as a series of discrete memories functions rather than the endlessly recursive, displacing recursive memory loops of the original. Within the context of the 9/11/11 concert, Moston’s seems to be a memory of the 1980s and the original composition, a memory of 9/11/01 and the events of the day, and a memory of the original piece. However, each of these discrete temporal events unfurls over the course of the actual playing of the piece, sliding from points of reference into lines of becoming. The containment of the unknown within human bounds sketched out earlier that lies at the heart of the orchestration ensures that this stretching out of time and memory never communes with the outside in the same way as in the original, but it does allow it to act in different, unexpected ways. The conceptual element of the piece loses significance in this version, as nothing physical decays. Instead of a physical object carrying emotional resonances decaying by physical forces, we have an abstract concept (the musical phrases) coming into concrete being (as sound waves) as it is played, and then deconstructed according to a pre-set formula that is nevertheless abstract until the moment of its playing. We may know the formula was derived from a physical process, but it does not become physical again until the temporal process of playing is undergone. The concept is one step further removed from the playing. What we receive is the unfolding of decomposition of a musical phrase, which becomes bound up in our memory of previous iterations of the phrase. The focus here is on our personal memory of the music played just a moment ago and in its previous iteration (Basinski’s version). The focus is on the human process of memory, albeit one that carries the afterimages of the inhuman interpretation of the same process. The memory of 9/11 here is rendered as a unique human process for each listener, but rather than a discrete memory, this is a memory that evolves over the course of the piece. We are given not a fixed instance, not a simple “memorial”, but a process. We remember, and continue to.

And yet what is described here also exists in the original. This process of memory is perhaps less in the foreground, but still present, just as other elements from the original are still present in its transcription but somewhat moved into the background. What I’ve sketched out here is a fixed interpretation of each piece, but realistically, one must acknowledge the temporal processes in each version, the space given for reflection. This analysis is all too concretizing and striating; for both this analysis and the piece to be truly relevant, they must be given a chance to grow and expand in temporal space. “d|p 1.1” opens up a path to cosmos without a human at its center, and if we are to truly respond to it, we must accept the limits of traditional rationality. 9/11 was a striking instance of the horror that can be visited by rationality — what are nations and politics other than a horribly malignant transcendent rationality? — but Basinski’s piece moves, in its determinedly quiet way, towards a different discourse, one that shifts away from a humanist/rational perspective into one that challenges our centrality while never neglecting to mourn a hopelessly human tragedy.

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