Introducing: Disintegration Loops

An introduction to Disintegration Loops, a documentary about avant-garde composer William Basinski that premiered at SXSW, through an interview with its director, David Wexler, and producer, Brad Coleman…

by: Jennifer Parker

David Wexler‘s new documentary The Disintegration Loops, a 45-minute film constructed via Zoom, draws haunting parallels between New York-based avant-garde composer William Basinski’s 9/11-inspired art and the pandemic lockdown in New York City. During the opening montage, the eerie “dlp 1.1” plays parallel to images of desolate NYC streets and signs warning people to stay six feet apart — as if the city Basinski’s captivating music are forever intertwined.

The story of The Disintegration Loops is enthralling. Sometime before 9/11, Basinski, who has worked with tape loops for over thirty years, digitized a bevy of loops from the ’80s. As it played back, the tape literally started to disintegrate, hiccups of silence enveloping the music. The subsequent ambient soundscape became a seminal tribute to the Twin Towers, especially when juxtaposed with footage of smoke engulfing the Manhattan skyline as dusk descended on 9/11, and Basinski released the work as a series of four albums. The completion of the recordings coincided with the morning of the 9/11 attacks. Notably, on that morning of 9/11, Basinski had a job interview in one of the towers but couldn’t motivate himself to make the journey into Manhattan, and instead witnessed the terror from his Brooklyn rooftop.

Basinski, whose personality seems incongruous to his music, explains in simple terms why tape is ephemeral. To illustrate the visual, Wexler’s documentary features a short albeit hilarious animated educational video circa 1970’s style Disney instructional films. Though The Disintegration Loops is a documentary about Basinski, his early artistic career, his loves and losses, artistic successes and his childhood, it persists as a love letter to New York City. His trauma is not that of a miserable home life but one of being bullied for being different. As a kid, he was shot at by boys with BB guns (Basinski would wear a raincoat to protect himself). Basinski has performed at the Met; I’m not sure what happened to the boys with the BB guns. Here’s a person who had all this trauma, yet he didn’t fall into a life of drugs or crime. He wound up becoming an amazing musician who makes beautiful music that is as pacifying as it is enchanting.  

Wexler artfully incorporates all the annoyances of Zoom to capture the age of Covid-19. We see frozen frames, drop-outs, poor internet connectivity interspersed with archival photos from Basinski’s life — grounding us both in past and present. Basinski’s 2020 album, Lamentationsmay be tied to the pandemic much the way it’s impossible to separate The Disintegration Loops from 9/11. The documentary interviews took place in the early stages of the pandemic — before masks, vaccines, and death tolls surpassing 9/11 by hundreds of thousands. We experience everything through the lens of time and a documentary can only be a snapshot of a moment. The thing about ambient music is if done right, it suspends both. 

The following is a conversation with the filmmakers David Wexler (Producer/Director) and Brad Coleman (Producer) who told me the story of how they decided to make a film about William Basinski together. (It’s been edited for clarity.) Just before the lockdown, David had gotten back from a cruise…

David: Billy’s music was on Pitchfork that day. It reminded me of what he meant to me [during] 9/11. I hit up Brad soon after that, and I was like, “Hey, how about we do a movie on Zoom?” and I think at first he was horrified but then Brad chuckled and with a little push from David, who said, “what did you say?” Brad admitted he had said, “It’s never going to work,” but I think I was really discounting just the fact that people are in this zone, at this point, in the pandemic, and it’s part of everything we’re going through, and it just takes you there. Having gone through it, I think it works.

Then, I reached out to Billy, or actually, I tried to find anybody, a contact for him, online: a publicist, or a manager, or an agent, or anything. I found this — I guess it might be his website or just an email address. I don’t think it had anyone’s name attached to it. It was an info app or something like that. I pitched him a general idea, and I think by the next morning or by the next night, he had gotten back and he was like, “Okay. Let’s do it,” so we knew we had to jump right in.

On Basinski being antithetical to his music…

David: He looks like a rockstar, and then he has this very droning music, on the one hand. On the other hand, he has things like “Sparkle Division”, which Brad and I use as the score for the film, which is really like pool music, I think Billy calls it. It’s like upbeat, jazzy, saxophone-heavy party kind of music, right Brad? Maybe you can speak to how that pushed the narrative.

Brad: Yes. I think, especially at the beginning, it was super important to the edit because we were looking for ways to score the film, and I think we ended up using less of it than we had initially, but it really helped push the narrative forward and keep things moving for us. Yes, it’s just super different than Loops and the rest of his music. It’s fascinating that he really does both and has this dichotomy. Yes, he can really do it all, and I think, for us, exploring every side of what he can do creatively with his music helped the film. We just zoned in on what part of everything we wanted to use, obviously he used loops, but what else of Billy we wanted to help paint this picture.

On a first introduction to ambient music…

Brad: I think David a lot more than me. It was fascinating that really one of us didn’t have one, that person being me, and David really having much more of an introduction to Billy and [ambient] music in general.

David: I just wrote this op-ed for Talkhouse talking about music and film for me. They really run hand-in-hand. I don’t know if you’re watching a trailer, and it has a really great song and you’re like, “I want to see that movie,” or I think we grew up in a time with ’90s music videos when they had huge budgets, and it was like a mini-movie in itself. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I’m on Pitchfork every morning, and I try to get into every type of music I can. I was very familiar with Brian Eno and working with Billy. When I was 18, that was very important for me, going through 9/11 and being born and raised in New York to have Disintegration look so…it was eerie that it came full-circle. 

Having never done a film on Zoom before, did the documentary look like what you thought it was going to look like?

David: I’m not sure about that. I think ultimately the answer is yes. Both of us have worked very quickly and well together and have a very clear vision of what we want it to be. I think obviously the variable is what we get from the interviews and are we getting everything we need? It has to fit into our formula of what we want the film to be and then we just pick and choose. Yes, I think our rough cuts are what the film used to be, which is the much longer version of what it is now, which I think for some people could still work and be interesting, but ultimately you want to get that down to that perfect size. Yes. Ultimately, the answer would be yes.

In the editing process were you conscious of the looping back that you were doing with each interview mirroring the essence of Disintegration Loops, how it was just chip away, and chip away, and chip away?

Brad: I think sometimes yes and sometimes no, but consciously or subconsciously, we’re all doing that, right? That’s the film we’re making and I think that’s part of the process. Yes, one way or another, you come back to everyone and just keep having those recurring themes so it fits with everything. Yes.

On the animation sequence: It explains in such a beautiful, succinct, technical way [how tape works], and yet it’s like [Billy] becomes yet another person who’s very technical. How did you decide to do that?

David: I’m glad you like that because that’s Billy’s least favorite part and he begged us to take it out. I love it because it also– Well, I guess the idea was you grow up– A lot of the archival [footage] we were using felt almost like those old-school Disney travel films, and I felt that also most of this is done on Zoom, so we needed to up the production value where we could. I was like, “Oh.” Then we need a way to explain this because really the whole film hinges on this explanation. We needed something like that. To me, it was just that Disney how to— I remember being a kid and watching “Goofy Learns to Ski” and getting a kick out of that, so it’s like that type of thing.

To Brad’s point, just to go back to the question that he answered about the edit looping, what became immediately clear was that Zoom deteriorates. Whether it’s audio quality or internet glitches, we totally embrace that and the rawness of it. That made sense immediately because we’re like, “Oh my God. Zoom deteriorates, tape deteriorates. This is the way to tell this film.” I don’t think this film would work if it was beautifully shot, beautifully lit as well as I think it does now. We had to use that restraint as our aesthetic, and it was just a perfect storm.

Brad: I couldn’t do anything. You can’t color it, you can do nothing with it.

On how Basinski remains so bifurcated? He’s one extreme or another, and he’s traveling that extreme in an instant.

David: Do you mean in how he looks versus how his music sounds or mood-wise or both?

Both. Looks can be totally deceiving though. You don’t have to look like how you behave, but there’s this persona almost, and I don’t know if it’s one that he’s developed to protect himself. 

Brad: There’s a lot that he…that was all him. He just wanted to go there, and I think he went as far as he wanted to go with it. There’s more to the surface there that certainly we didn’t get to, but yes, it’s haunting, and it certainly leads you to understand the kind of life that led him to where he is now. Is that bifurcation when you have, maybe, trauma like that?

David: It goes beyond that. He was born an artist. I think, [his grandfather,] in the beginning of the film, says he’s either going to be a genius or a devil. I guess Billy always had those two ways to go. I think he chose genius and artist. I think most artists, or I could speak for myself and whatever, you want to say things to your art. We all take our lives, maybe some of the pain, maybe some of the joy, and we want to say [with] it. What strikes me– I’m sure Billy had that pain. I like that he laughs about it though, even in the documentary. He took it there. His perseverance, and having success later in life is a testament to how hard he worked as an artist. That’s encouraging.

He says in the film, “I thought—” I’m butchering it a little, but it was basically “I thought I had lived—” Oh, I think he says it exactly, “I thought I’d lived too long,” and then this happened to him. Then think about what you just said in terms of 9/11, and that almost being the thing that became the elegy that launched it. It was then living with that. The way that you could get shot with a BB and then throw huge parties for 500 people in your beautiful loft and want to party, I guess is the same way that you can turn your greatest or your most famous work, connect it in a delicate way to something that just changed our nation and soothe people. Maybe Billy is a dichotomy.

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