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THE PROCESS OF SILENCE: TRAUMA AND

PERFORMATIVITY IN (THE PERFORMANCE OF)

WILLIAM BASINSKI’S THE DISINTEGRATION LOOPS

Korneel de Ruiter – Student number 5909589 – korneel.deruiter@student.uva.nl


Introduction to Cultural Analysis – Final Essay - Teacher: dr. Doro Wiese
Date: 07-04-2012
In this essay, I will examine how music is able to embody trauma and what effects the performnce
of the music has on this, using William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops as my object of
research.1 This musical composition/work is an interesting point of departure, not only because of
it’s form, but also because – after its initial recording – its meaning became intertwined with the
events of 9/11. In the first part of my paper, I will research in what way The Disintegration Loops
can be read as a representation of this trauma, with special regards to the aspect of memory and loss
that it incorporates. In the second part, I will combine this with the concepts of performance and
performativity. For this, I will examine the reperformance of one of Basinski’s pieces by the
Wordless Music Orchestra on september 11, 2011. Throughout the essay, I will answer the question
how The Disintegration Loops embody the trauma of 9/11 through their concept of loss and decay,
and how the immediacy of its performing act affects its meaning and matters of representation.
The Disintegration Loops is a piece of contemporary minimal or ambient music, consisting
of 4 cd’s with in total 9 ‘tracks’. Each track is a loop played continuously, with a length varying
between ten minutes and an hour. What distinguishes these loops from total repetition is the fact
that the loops have been recorded on analog tape in the 1980s, and the digitalization and recording
process slowly physically destroyed the musical layer on the tapes. This means that the loops –
usually lasting about ten seconds – start off exactly as they were recorded, but throughout the track,
as the tape is detoriating, the sound gets more and more distorted. By using reverb techniques, the
sound of the previous loop keeps persisting, thereby creating a ghostly effect. The piece then isn’t
so much constructed as deconstruced by recording the process of destruction. Each of the pieces
end with silence, when the last remains of musical layer on the tape have been erased.2
It might seem surprising that such an abstract, wordless work has continuously been
associated with 9/11. Yet the association is inevitable; see, for example, the cover image of the
second cd, which is featured on the front page of this essay: it shows the smoke rising from the
remains of the World Trade Center. The reason for this association is the story that accompanied the
release of the Loops. Apparently, on september 11, 2001, Basinski – living in New York – was
working on the digitalization of the tapes. As the events of that day occurred, Basinski listened to
the result of the digitalization while watching the smoke blow over New York. In that way, The
Disintegration Loops became a ‘soundtrack’ to 9/11 for not only Basinski, but for most musical
critics and listeners in general as well.

1See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOr8TlnqsY for ‘d|p 1.1’, the first cd’s first track.
2See for a detailed analysis of each individual piece: Isaac Vayo, Lloyd. Silenco: The Sectral Voice and 9/11. Diss.
2010: 224-227.
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But how then can the meaning of the Loops be interpreted when it comes to representation
of trauma? For that, I would like to introduce a theoretical framework by using the theories of
Adorno as interpreted by Michael Rothberg in his article ‘After Adorno. Culture in the Wake of
Catastrophe.’ Adorno is of course well known for his words ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is
barbaric’ (Rothberg 57), but what I’m interested his opinions on art in general and its post-trauma
aesthetics, meaning and the representation of trauma. Central to Rothbergs argument is the relation
he sees between Adorno’s thoughts and Bakthin notion of the chronotope. ‘After Auschwitz,
Adorno implies, philosophical categories must themselves become chronotopes – time-places that
serve as imperfect embodiments of historical events’ (Rothberg 49). The referentiality or mimesis
this quote alludes to can be found as well in a reading of The Disintegration Loops as a chronotope
for 9/11; not so much the events as the entire day. Both spatially and temporally the pieces are
connected with the day; it is as if the smoke from the towers has forced its way into the music.
Moreover, the music gradually and slowly fades, thereby more representing the decay of the entire
day. As the metonymia ‘9/11’ suggests it is more than just the immediacy of the collapse of the
Twin Towers – I will elaborate more on issues of temporality when discussing performance and
performativity.
‘After Auschwitz’ marks an era that still remains today (Rothberg 59); even though the
temporality – as the use of Bakhtins notion of chronotope suggests – binds Adorno’s words
specifically to his time and place. Yet by interpreting 9/11 as a new, common Western trauma,
Adorno’s aesthetics gain a new relevance, and especially the ‘proximity of the art to silence’ that
Adorno seeks in the post-Auschwitz poetry (Rothberg 69). This ends in art that isn’t fluent and
commodified, but instead shows ruptures; it must become an ‘articulation of suffering’ (Rothberg
69). It consists not in ‘reproducing the harmonious narrative of traditional realist forms, but rather
in expressing the rifts that realist mimesis represses’ (Rothberg 61). The Disintegration Loops
enables the use of Adorno’s aesthetic on 9/11, by reading them as an elegy that doesn’t try to efface
the events into a smooth narrative. Instead, in their representation of the events, they show a
ruptured way in their gradual approach to silence. Thereby the artwork loses all its function for
instrumentalization as it offers no resolution but complete silence.
What until this point has been left unadressed is the problematic status of the representation
of trauma itself. In her introduction to Trauma. Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth attends the
matter of representation of trauma through speech and its difficulties. In her theories Caruth
assumes an a priori incomprehensibility of the traumatic event (Caruth 151-153). The
Disintegration Loops adresses this by embodying in its narrative of destruction also a referentiality

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to memory and its limitations. Basinski shows how what once might have seemed like solid, ever-
lasting ways of storing data (or: memory), can detoriate within minutes. The Loops thus become a
reflection on the limits of memory and speech (or: sound) in the context of the representation of
trauma.
The digitalization of the magnetic tapes on which the loops were originally recorded and the
destroying of the tapes in that act can be read as a performative act, but here, I want to focus on an
actual performance of the work and its meanings. On september 11, 2011, the album’s first piece,
‘d|p 1.1’ was performed live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the following part
of this paper I will look into the way in which this performance affects the work’s representation of
trauma. For this I will draw on Erika Fischer-Lichte’s article ‘Explaining Concepts. Performativity
and Performance’, and mainly on Max Herrmann’s notions of performance that she elaborates on.
Crucial in his ideas is the relationship between performers and the audience. The conception of an
art work shifts from its initial script (or, in this case: composition) to the performance of the art
work. ‘The specific aestheticity of the performance lies in its very nature as an event’, Fischer-
Lichte summarizes Herrmann’s theory (36). However, ‘[he ignores] the problem of meaning
generated in the course of a performance’ (Fisher-Lichte 36). This generating of meaning is what I
want to research here; for that I will continue using Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope I discussed
earlier.
Both spatially and temporally meaning is shifted through the reperformance of The
Disintegration Loops. ‘d|p 1.1’ was performed in the Temple Room of the Metropolitan Museum,
where the Temple of Dundur provided a visual background to the music. Immediately there’s a shift
in meaning; whereas the original recordings give a feeling of intimacy, the recontextualization gives
the piece a connotation of spirituality. Performing the work in front of a temple the context adds
meaning to the Loops, which gain a sacrality and become a near-religious object. The element of
time adds a different dimension here as well: the loops are performed exactly ten years after the
original events of 9/11. Through this performing act, the link with the collapse of the Twin Towers
is laid out even more explicit; whereas the cd’s (with some effort) can be seen as aesthetic objects in
themselves without any political or commemorative reference, in the performing act this became
virtually impossible.
And this function of the work/performance as a near-sacral commemorative act is what
becomes its central meaning through the performance. Through its practice, ‘d|p 1.1’ becomes an
object that not only embodies reference to trauma and memory, but it also becomes part of a site
and act of mourning. The New York Times, present at the concert, wrote ‘presented in the context of

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this somber anniversary concert, The Disintegration Loops offered a chance to find some solace in
the tragedy, some sense that this loss will also, in time, be folded into the cycle of life’ (Tommasini
5). Moreover, the article was titled ‘Contemplation Drawn From Magnetic Tape Flaking Away’; the
religious-contemplative connotation was felt by the audience. This was also shown in their response
when the piece ended ‘no one in the audience made a sound. Musicians and listeners joined in a
spontaneous period of reflection that lasted nearly two minutes’ (Tommasini 5). Here Herrmanns
theory becomes especially relevant: (additional) meaning is generated through the response of the
audience.
At the beginning of this paper, I asked the question how The Disintegration Loops embody
the trauma of 9/11 through their concept of loss and decay, and how the immediacy of its
performing act affects is meaning. I have shown how The Disintegration Loops both through the
work itself and through additional meaning added to it later (cd cover) have been able to give a non-
textual representation of 9/11, that offers a ruptured, anti-linear narrative working it’s way from a
finished, ‘perfect’ state, through distortion, towards complete silence. Through this, the Loops
reflect on Adorno’s notion of ‘poetry after Auschwitz’ by transferring his aesthetic into a new post-
traumatic context. In the process, limits and problems of the relation between memory and trauma
are also included: through decay, the loops show the limits of memory. By working towards silence,
the pieces become the embodiment of an unrepresentable trauma. The performing act, however,
shifts this notion. Through a recontextualization, the meaning of the work gets a connotation of
sacralization. Audience participation make the pieces a work of contemplation and commemoration:
the soundtrack to 9/11 – after which they all stayed silent themselves.

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Literature

Basinski, William. The Disintegration Loops I-IV. CD: 2062, 2002-2003.

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma. Explorations in Memory. London: The John Hopkins Press, 1995.

Isaac Vayo, Lloyd. Silenco: The Sectral Voice and 9/11. Diss. 2010: 224-227.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. ‘Explaining Concepts: Performativity and Performance’. The


Transformative Power of Performance. A New Aesthetics. Trans. Saskya Iris Jain.
London, New York: Routledge, 2008: 24-38.

Rothberg, Michael. ‘After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe.’ New German Critique, No.
72 (Autumn 1997): 45-81.

Tommasini, Anthony. ‘Contemplation Drawn Frm Magnetic Tape Flaking Away’. The New York
Times, september 13, 2011: 5.