Entropy is the physical process by which things fall apart. Order merges into chaos. Things decay and die. For those of you unlucky enough to have suffered through a full course in thermodynamics (by far my least favorite part of physics) you find out that it has a firm mathematical foundation in the physical workings of the universe as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I firmly prefer Isaac Asimov’s treatment of it in his famous short story “The Last Question”. I’ve read this story aloud in my physics, math and astronomy courses as a special treat when the semester is coming to an end, with reactions ranging from awe to utter confusion.
It’s such a simple concept though, that it’s almost second nature to us, from the expected state of affairs in one’s house if you have small children, to the fact that food rots if you leave it out and “let nature take its course”. Perhaps as discussed in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we must in some sense be born knowing of our own mortality.
Whatever the philosophy of it may be, it is inevitable that things break, run down, become more randomized. William Basinski has managed to capture this concept of entropy in a unique and utterly effective way. A well-known figure in the field of ambient electronic music, Basinski’s compositions are definitely down-tempo, oozing sublimely usually without a hint of percussion over sedate but stark landscapes.
As the story goes, Basinski was in the process of digitizing some 20-year old tape loops when he noticed that the brittle magnetic coating was starting to flake off. These 5-10 second loops were disintegrating, and with them the music encoded on them started to die. Little by little, bit by bit, the sound would change subtly in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way. A way that could only come from the realm of analog sound reproduction. Basinski decided to capture this process of nature taking its course on the four album set The Disintegration Loops.
Now, a five hour selection of repetitive tape loops breaking down might not seem like something that would hold anybody’s interest for very long. However there is something compelling about it all. The loops themselves have a distantly resonant and solemn quality to them, as if coming from a string orchestra echoed to infinity. Haunting and somber tones ache with a sad beauty, and to hear them fail bit by bit is more than a little heartbreaking. Even if it is easy to restore the loop to its original glory by going back to the beginning of the track, the sense of loss is palpable and one feels powerless to stop the inevitable process, the sinister decay.
Each track falls apart in a different way. Some take much longer than others, stretching their death knells across the better part of an hour. For those with shorter attention spans who want to hear noteworthy changes after only a few iterations, the track “d|p 4″ from Volume III is your best bet. It decays in rapid fashion after about the half way mark 10 minutes in. The last few loops are merely fragments and pops and clicks.
To call it a gimmick seems grossly unfair. This is the universe, nature, doing what it does best: follow the rules built into the very fabric of itself. Is it the music dying, art destroying itself? Perhaps. But Basinski has merely shown us an accelerated version of the fated outcome of everything from magnetic tapes to buildings to people. The unique, almost loving treatment of it, of entropy, is what makes The Disintegration Loops mesmerizing, unforgettable, irresistible.