In 2001 avant-garde composer William Basinski was trying to transfer some old tape loops to digital format, but he found that the original recordings had deteriorated so badly that the ferrite simply fell off the plastic backing as it passed the tape head. Intrigued, Basinski let the loops continue to cycle: the sounds grew more and more indistinct with each pass as the tape literally fell apart.
As it happened, the 9/11 attacks occurred on the morning he finished the project, and the devastation he videotaped from his rooftop seemed to sync with the new recordings. “I felt, with my experience being in New York at that time, and what I went through and what I saw my friends go through, I wanted to create an elegy,” he told NPR. “Yes, there’s that tie to 9/11. But the thing that moved me so profoundly in my studio right after this music happened was the redemptive quality. The music isn’t just decaying — it does, it dies — but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity.”
Related: In 1969 composer Alvin Lucier recorded a paragraph of speech, then repeatedly played it back and re-recorded it, so that his voice merged gradually into a portrait of the room’s resonant frequencies.
Here’s a modern homage to Lucier using YouTube, showing the effects of ripping and uploading the same file 1,000 times:
A video fragment transferred through 20 generations of VHS tape: