When William Basinski released The Disintegration Loops in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, it was the sound of decay preserved for posterity — recordings of decades-old tape loops literally falling apart on their reels, as the World Trade Center ruins smoldered across the river from the composer’s Brooklyn studio. The piece was performed ten years later by an orchestra at the Temple of Dendur, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Anohni (then known as Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) called it “the most helpful and useful music I have ever known.”
This might mark the first time a piece of ambient music has been awarded such gravitas and made the centerpiece of a significant memorial. It seems a long way from the origins of the form in Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975) and Music for Airports (1978), in which Eno pushed music to the periphery of experience, turning it into unobtrusive background stimulus that “created a sort of landscape you could belong to,” he says above, like the endlessly repeating worlds of a video game. In music, however, “repetition is a form of change,” Eno reminded us, or as Basinski’s loops suggested, writes Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker, “repetition is change.”
Another curious trait links Basinski’s 21st century lamentations and Eno’s 70s airport lounge music, one that seems to change the terms of the contract that ambient music, as we usually understand it, makes with the listener. We might think of it as music that makes no particular demands on us and take Eno’s statements about it as encouraging a kind of passive consumption: ambient music as no more than pleasant accompaniment for better queuing-up and calmer shopping. (Not that there’s anything wrong with stress relief….)
But what Basinski and Eno both describe in intense acts of ambient creation is more extreme. It begins with a kind of helplessness in the face of distress — in the first case an of helplessly watching lower Manhattan burn from the roof of a Williamsburg loft. Eno’s predicament was more personal and intimate, he tells Riz Khan above, but no less helpless. Convalescing in his bed after a car accident, he found himself unable to move when a friend put on a record and left him alone. The experience of immobility became a catalyst.
The album of “18th century harp music” was too quiet. He couldn’t turn it up over the sound of rain outside his window. At first, Eno says, he was frustrated by his lack of control over the environment. But as he “started listening to the rain and listening to these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain,” it became for him “a great musical experience…. I suddenly thought of this idea of making music that didn’t impose itself on your space in the same way.”
In paying attention to a loss of control, Eno discovered music that relinquishes control over the listener. In listening to his own shock and grief, Basinski discovered music that lets itself fall apart, slowly and beautifully over time. What he “pompously called” ambient music, Eno jokes above, “became something I no longer recognize.” And, yes, it may have come to take up more space than he intended. But it still functions as a creative response to circumstances in which, it seems, there may be little else to do but listen carefully and wait.