As someone who has lived in Manhattan throughout the pandemic, the black and white shots of the vacant city streets and landmarks which open David Wexler’s Disintegration Loops—world premiering at SXSW Online 2021—struck me as one of the most evocative works I’ve seen so far that captures a sense of what being here was like in the those early weeks and months. This striking opening sequence is accompanied by the achingly beautiful, haunting yet comforting sounds of queer musician William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, which was first released when the city was coping with another seismic and tragic event, the attacks of September 11th 2001.
Wexler not only shares his curiosity about the finer details surrounding the creation of the acclaimed album involving tape loops, as the twentieth anniversary of its release approaches, but also invites us into the process of making his documentary in the era of social distancing, as we see the filmmaker himself appear in some of the video interviews with Basinski, including the relatable struggle of trying to get a good wifi connection.
With insights from fellow composers Maxim Moston and Lawrence English, and musicians like Basinski’s Sparkle Division bandmate Preston Wendel and the Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter and artist ANOHNI, Wexler explores the impact of the initial release of The Disintegration Loops and its legacy, as Basinski prepares to release a new album, Lamentations during a year of cancelled world tour dates due to the pandemic. For ANOHNI, Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is something that she’s returned to repeatedly, describing it as “the most healing music, the most helpful music I know of.”
Some of the most engaging and enlightening contributions come from the former editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, Mark Richardson, who talks about Basinski’s “ear for texture and atmosphere” and reflects on the idea of connecting an artist’s work to tragedy. While the film succinctly charts Basinski’s course from relative obscurity as an experimentalist to internationally acclaimed ambient composer—frequently mentioned in the same breath as Brian Eno—we meet the founder of the Brooklyn-based record label Temporary Residence Ltd., Jeremy Devine, who released a tenth anniversary vinyl boxset of Basinski’s masterwork. Richardson awarded a 10 rating to the reissue in his Pitchfork review, further cementing the work’s iconic status.
We are also introduced to the composer’s supportive father who says that although he always felt that his son’s “music was pretty weird”, he “cheered him on anyway”. “I was obviously a crazy ass flamboyant fag from birth” Basinski tells Wexler, something that he says likely made his Catholic mother whom he admired and adored “nervous” as he was growing up. There are some great archive photographs as Basinski recalls his childhood, then going to college in Texas, reflecting on an influential music teacher, his formative years learning to listen to the world around him, and the influential discovery of the work of John Cage.
Basinski moved to New York in 1980―the start of a decade defined by now legendary venues like CBGB (where he performed) and Danceteria (where he DJed). Recalling the excitement of seeing the World Trade Center twin towers for the first time, he recounts eventually finding a home and creating an events space in a renovated loft known as Arcadia in Williamsburg, from where he took in the forever altered skyline on 9/11 and captured the last hour of daylight on tape, which he used as a visual accompaniment to his music. Although he created The Disintegration Loops earlier that summer, listening to it again as a new era began, Baskinski realized that the sound had taken on a new resonance, “the music’s changed, this is an elegy”, he says to Wexler.
A contemplative, satisfying, and ultimately uplifting watch in its own right, at just 45 minutes the documentary leaves scope for Wexler to take a deeper dive into Basinski’s life and career.
By James Kleinmann
David Wexler’s Disintegration Loops received its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021.