“As a small child, something crystallized in her character, making her clear and finished, and as impervious as crystal…She was always grown up; she never really grew up.”
-D.H. Lawrence, The Princess
William Basinski is one of those composers who experiments with outdated audio equipment and songs whose names have been forgotten, crafting something strange and new out of the midden heap. Another is The Caretaker, whose album An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, reminiscent of The Shining’s soundtrack, mixes clips of 1930s songs into loops that mimic the repetitions and slow deterioration of thought that someone with Alzheimer’s Disease experiences. It pushes the definition of music- the songs are more like ideas or moods embodied in waves. They are haunting. Their nostalgia and beauty creeps into your psyche the way the cold gets into your bones. Listening feels like a surrender.
On September 11, 2001, William Basinski was in Brooklyn recording his album, The Disintegration Loops. It consists of song loops on crinkly magnetic tape that repeat as they fall apart, and go through a reverb. As the story goes, he and a group of friends played this on the roof of his apartment building as they watched the World Trade Center towers fall.
The wiffle ball scene from Tim Heidecker’s pitch-black satire of aging youth adrift, The Comedy. A warm summer day. The lens is oversaturated with yellows, giving the shot a sepia tone. A troupe of hipster man- and woman- children, arrayed in all their high-waisted mom jeans, short shorts, Ray-Ban regalia, frolick on a rooftop tennis court in Williamsburg, enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon-soaked game of wiffle ball while Disintegration Loops 1.1 (Excerpt II) plays in the background. Above the game is the Manhattan skyline. Midway though the scene, the camera zooms in on the Chrysler Building. Tim and Eric hop onto their bicycles and the game degenerates. The shot ends with all the youths riding down a street, weaving about each other, sipping their beer.
What does it do to a kid to live through an event as massive and profound as the September 11 attacks? Probably nothing obvious, at first. He will be aware that there is tension in the air, that he is being let out of school for some reason. An adult will tell him that the United States has been attacked. He’ll watch the newscasts, and be able to grasp what they’re saying, but it won’t really sink in, not until later. As the months and years pass, as the wars come and go (all mediated through the television screen), people will cease to talk about it, and the memory of the attack will fade into the background of his psyche.
Victims of a trauma will often dissociate from their bodies, remembering the event as if they witnessed it from the outside. They sometimes describe a sense of unreality. There was a sense of unreality about September 11, 2001. It jarred the nation into a state of perpetual tension, it created a symbolic boundary, after which came only crisis after crisis. The public was eventually numbed to everything, wrapped in and strangely comforted by a sense of ending, assigned the blameless role of spectators to the derailment of their culture.
That child who began his conscious life around 2001 may be barely able to remember life under any other national mood. He has grown up enveloped by disintegration. Maybe when he comes of age, he’ll appear much more like a child than an adult. Perhaps the long-term effect of witnessing the World Trade Center fall through the medium of television is an enduring sense of surreality, a sense (that runs far deeper than what one consciously affirms as the truth) that everything is a film, that all is entertainment. A disengagement from the world as anything but a game.
The Comedy is a depiction of that generation, grown up. There is no responsibility, for there is nothing one can do, about anything. They live their days under a perpetual twilight, warm the way it is warm after a nuclear blast, taking refuge from terrible knowledge in childish amusements.