9/11, The Disintegration Loops and the Search for Meaning

The cover to William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops
The cover to William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops
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Everyone of a certain age was changed by 9/11, even if that change was incredibly small. You might be multiple steps removed from those who lost a loved one on that day, but 9/11 probably taught you something about the world at large, be it about how safe you feel in modern society or how you feel about people of a certain religion or what we as a society can overcome.

My 9/11 story, for example, is as mundane as can be: A phone call woke me up telling me to turn on the TV, I saw enough to process that something bad had happened, I tried to go to class, and then I spent the next 48 hours or so glued to my computer. I didn't see the planes crash, didn't see the towers fall, didn't see the round-the-clock coverage of the aftermath; my roommate owned the TV, and he didn't seem particularly interested in watching, so I watched the tragedy play out on forums and IRC chats. Thus, my takeaway from 9/11 was an extreme form of Fear Of Missing Out; while most FOMO sufferers fear missing something exciting with their friends, I fear missing breaking news.

I don't say that as a joke; it sounds silly, but when tragedy happens, I'll be glued to the television as much as I can be. Deep down, I think, a part of me feels guilty that I didn't take my share of the psychic scar that came with 9/11. By isolating myself via the magic of technology, I wasn't a witness.

Now, of course, it's easy to relive the horror if you so choose. I have in the past — and will continue to do so, when possible — spent the anniversary of 9/11 watching MSNBC's replay of the Today Show from that morning. About once a year, quite randomly, I'll find myself sitting at my computer going through clips of livefeeds from that morning for a few hours, not even entirely sure why. The armchair psychologist living inside my brain thinks it's because I'm trying to find the greater meaning in what happened, but what that meaning is continues to escape me.

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Every 9/11, I also take the time to listen to William Basinski's “dlp 1.1” from The Disintegration Loops, what I consider to be the high-water mark for 9/11-related music (sorry, Bruce, but we all know “My City of Ruins” was a pre-9/11 song anyway). I knew about the story of The Disintegration Loops before I heard them, of magnetic tape breaking down being looped into nothing and what happens when you combine that sound with images of the smoke drifting off the Twin Towers. Being a bit of a mark for ambient music, I was already primed to love The Disintegration Loops, and they've become something of a go-to for me when I need something calming in the background of my life.

While the Houston-born Basinski's work makes great background music for work or just for giving your ears a rest after a noisy concert, it is “dlp 1.1” I find myself returning to the most. Yes, you can listen to it passively, coming and going to see how the music has evolved while your attention is elsewhere, but it's profound if you watch it in the context above with the video from 9/11.

That said, it is perhaps its best when you just sit and listen, contextless, as the notes roll over you, dying a little bit every cycle. You might find it haunting. You might find it melancholy. You might find it absurd. Maybe it's just my obsessive need to find meaning in literally every bit of media I consume, but I find comfort in listening to the decay that starts as a melody and becomes a bass tone, and trying to find the meaning in that as well.

The only other news videos I go back and watch with any degree of regularity are the raw feeds of the night Obama won the '08 election. It is, for me at least, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the sadness and confusion of 9/11. In those videos, I can remember the feelings of jubilation and hope I had on that night, before the next eight years of history dulled my optimism.

But it's good to remember the sadness and confusion too. With a couple of hours and Wikipedia, I can tell you all about the what, how and why of 9/11, but that's just history. That will always be there. But in time the emotional truth will be gone, and 9/11 will be just another thing that happened, which is fine but also kind of sad. I don't know what your memorial ritual is or if you even have one, but I feel mine is the least that I can do. I may never find a greater truth, in the video that I know too close to heart or in the music that decays, but I can embrace it and, I hope, learn something from it. In the end, we never forget history; we just don't remember it.


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