Shot during the 2020 quarantine, Disintegration Loops recounts the making of William Basinski’s acclaimed 9/11-era ambient music records. Director David Wexler’s brisk documentary looks at an artist, his creative process, and the reception to his masterwork, The Disintegration Loops.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ambient music genre, it’s a style that emphasizes atmosphere and tone over varying patterns. It often lacks intricate beats and melodies; instead favouring rich, soothing sounds meant to wash over listeners and evoke a sense of calm.
Today William Basinski is an ambient music legend. In the late ‘90s, he was just another struggling New York City artist. After the 9/11 attacks ravaged the city, music became his safe space. Basinski poured his soul into a series of wistful compositions that listeners would celebrate as an ambient music masterpiece years later.
Wexler walks viewers through the arc of Basinski’s career, from his humble childhood up to gracing the cover of The New Yorker. Most of the doc consists of talking-head footage shot over Zoom during quarantine, as Basinski shares his life story.
Wexler spices up the visuals by including old photos and classic clips captured throughout Basinski’s musical career. The film juxtaposes 9/11 and post-COVID New York with haunting black and white footage of the city’s empty streets. Wexler draws parallels between 9/11 and the COVID pandemic to comment on how large-scale tragedy affects us as individuals and as a community.
Disintegration Loops clocks in at just 45 minutes. It could lose another ten minutes and still get its point across. However, I still enjoyed what it has to say about artists, healing from tragedy, and how we consume art.
It’s always frustrating to see a hard-working artist become an “overnight success story.” Basinski is by no means an instant success—he toiled away perfecting his craft for decades. But fame and critical acclaim sprang upon him suddenly. What’s remarkable in this case is that the music didn’t all of a sudden improve. What changed was the critical consensus about the work.
Basinski’s Disintegration Loops tracks circulated for years before critics showered him with praise. It’s discouraging to think about how many incredible artists are toiling away because they haven’t caught the eye of the right cultural gatekeepers. Even though our appreciation of art is relative, what others think still shades our opinions. And a few key industry voices have the power to shape the narrative around a record.
Our relationship to art can be as deep or shallow as we need it to be. We can sit back, close our eyes, and lose ourselves to a song’s soothing vibes. Or we can break down each note and lyric to understand the musician’s intention. As we get an inside look at this particular musician’s creative process, the film also tells a story about how artists lean on their work as a crutch to sustain them during hard times.
Disintegration Loops does an exceptional job representing how artists use pain and trauma to fuel works of beauty. On 9/11, as the world outside Basinski’s door crumbled, making music helped him process his feelings and recover. All these years later, his deeply personal records still manage to heal others because they resonate with universal appeal.
SXSW ran from March 16–20, 2021. For more SXSW coverage, click here.