Ambient music is one of those things that pervades your life in the basest of forms, but when you learn the depths of the genre within the modern music scene, it kind of blows your mind. This was my experience when I was first taught about the expanse of ambient music, and arguably its most paramount entry to the genre: William Basinki’s The Disintegration Loops. To the untrained ear (like mine), you initially find it to sound muffled and repetitive, with the piece slowly descending into a more muddled and jumbled cacophony of sounds, and it’s when you learn that this is exactly the point, and that the piece stands for so much more than just its initial melody played on a loop, is when The Disintegration Loops finds its genius, and hits you in an entirely different, but jarringly devastating way.
Basinski, a Brooklyn-based ambient musical artist, discovered a plethora of old tapes consisting of short loops of droning rhythms and then sought to use in his work. Funneling the loops through a tape recorder to digitize, Basinski found that the loops were gradually deteriorating with each pass through the tape head, resulting in the sound becoming increasingly more distorted. The unexpected result is a hauntingly ethereal loop of a melancholy melody, which Basinski finished recording on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Basinski, having watched the collapse of the World Trade Center towers from the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment, soon found his haunting work to have transformed itself into an elegy to the attacks.
The story of The Disintegration Loops is entirely worthy of a documentary, and I was stoked to head into this one as SXSW started, but it unfortunately left me wanting more beyond just the basic bullet points of the story with some effective interview work from Basinski. The end result is simply too short and too focused on other things for the big picture to feel as effective as it actually is.
The biggest issue with the film is that it takes a good chunk of the film’s 45-minute runtime to focus on the effects of COVID-19 on New York City and on Basinski, which, while relevant at the time of filming, simply does not belong in a film about The Disintegration Loops. As we come out of this seemingly endless pandemic, I don’t want to have to consume media that talks about it at such length after living it for so long, especially not in a film that isn’t even supposed to be about it in the first place.
That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t effectively use the documentary format to tell the story, and I almost was willing to forgive the film’s sins as it reached its climax in a fading video of the final hours of 9/11 in New York City, filmed from Basinski’s rooftop, overlaid with the most famous track of The Disintegration Loops “dlp 1.1” fading with the night. These moving scenes reminding us just how stunning this work is on its own is so much more effective than any critic quotes telling us how great the piece is, or how Basinski has been affected by the current climate.
And sadly, that stunning climax is bookended by more coverage of the present day, taking me right back out of what took so much of the film’s runtime to pull me in. The Disintegration Loops is too miraculous of an achievement, and Basinski is too much of a personality for everything else around them to feel so misguided and pedestrian. Perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way had the film been outfitted with more material surrounding the title work of the film, but without a clear focus of what it wants to actually say, this telling of The Disintegration Loops falls on deaf ears.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2017.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.