I encourage you to press the play button below, then continue reading. Later, you’ll find another version of this piece, transformed by contributions from dozens of other people.
Meet a melody:
Its origin is a mystery. Composer, performer, recording: all unknown. The year of its creation is unknown. All we know is how it sounds: stately and nostalgic.
And we know where it played, at least once.
Monitoring a radio station in New York City, the composer William Basinski hears the melody, records it. He intends to use a fragment as a loop in an avant-garde music project. The tape goes into a box. It is the 1980s.
It is decades later: the summer of 2001. Digitizing a room full of forgotten material, Basinski finds this loop again. But the tape is old; as it moves through the player, it starts to come apart, the magnetic medium peeling off its plastic backing, more and more with each repetition. Enthralled, Basinski keeps recording as the melody disintegrates before his eyes, his ears.
Standing on his rooftop in Brooklyn, Basinski watches the World Trade Center collapse. It is September 11, 2001. Suddenly, the summer’s recordings have a meaning, a purpose. He titles them The Disintegration Loops and offers them as an elegy for the dead. They are heartbreaking and, before long, beloved.
Seated inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s iconic Temple of Dendur, the Wordless Music Orchestra performs Maxim Moston’s arrangement of the first reel of The Disintegration Loops. After the last note sounds, the audience sits for two full minutes in silence, then bursts into applause. It is September 11, 2011.
Listening to NPR, I hear this performance. I save the MP3 (forty minutes long!) and return to it often. It is my primary experience of The Disintegration Loops. I truly love it.
Years later, working in my media lab, I feed NPR’s recording into a neural network—a rough AI. The computer struggles; it doesn’t know anything about notes or scales, horns or drums, tape loops or memorial concerts—only samples, the standalone grains of digital sound. But, in its struggle, I hear something evocative: an uncertainty, a brokenness, that seems to match the mythos of Basinski’s piece. It is the summer of 2019.
As the network churns, I ask it to generate short pieces, hundreds of them. For several months, this is my morning ritual: wake up, make coffee, and listen to the pieces the network has generated overnight, rejecting most, saving one or two. From that curated collection, I select about a dozen and sequence them using Ableton Live. I use several plugins to process and master the sequenced piece, mindful not to smooth over the crunch and hiss that is the neural network’s signature, and then I publish it.
So. This melody, which was played at some point on a real horn—well, maybe it was real; who knows?—has now passed through radio waves and magnetic tape and digital memory, into the mind of an arranger and back out into the physical world—an echo in the Temple of Dendur—then through the internet and now into a neural network. Yet, through all those degradations and digitizations, resuscitations and transformations—a heck of a flip-flop—it has never succumbed to noise; not all the way.
A student at the University of Virginia transcribed the melody that Basinski recorded, and I played it once myself on a modular synthesizer. That’s what you’ll hear (or have heard) at the end of this piece: the initiation of a new loop.
An integration loop.
After I published the first version of this post in April 2020, I invited anyone reading to join me by playing or singing the melody once through—
—using whatever instrument (including their voice) and recording device (including their phone) was closest to hand. I received many contributions, and together, they became this:
This piece combines contributions from Aaron Lammer, Adam Roberts, Albert Kong, Alexandra Grabarchuk, Angela Winter, Annabeth Carroll, Alex Hern, Aleksandr Maletin, Anthony Weintraub, Chris Schlusser, Dan Bouk, David Renshaw, Delicious Democracy (Brianna McGowan and Sam Bonar), Evan Goldfine, Greg Baker, Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko, Hayden Higgins, James Finnis, Jameson Brown, Jason Black, Jennifer Stout, Jeremy Brooks, Jeremy Keith, Jessica Spengler, Joe Iovino, Jonah, Jonathan Troyer, Kevin Evans, Lily Sloan, Mark Sullivan, Marta Kvande, Matt Penniman, Matt Silas, Max Lambertini, Méduse, Michael Ashbridge, Michael Donaldson, Nik Von Frankenberg, Nikolai Polikurov, Nikolay Shebanov, Sam Hollis, Shaun Williams, Stephan Terre, Thom Wong, Tilma of Malack (Thane of the Nether), Tomorrow’s Man, Will Fraker, William Bouk, and William Cohen, along with several contributors uncredited at their request.
Listen, and you’ll hear their voices (and synthesizers and pianos and guitars—mandolins too) battle the noise, overmatch it. In my imagination, each contribution is a rung in a ladder out of the pit of confusion and loss, all of us both (a) carrying the melody forward and (b) being carried by it, up towards something new, something whole.
Dah-dahhh… da-da-da, da-da-da!
May 2020, Oakland
You can explore my other blog posts.
The main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter, which is infrequent and wide-ranging. It goes out to around 18,000 people, but/and I try to make it feel like a note from a friend: