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Everything and Nothing

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Ouroboros Ouroboros (By Michael Maier (Atalanta Fugiens) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia Commons)

Math can get pretty loopy, at least when we try to explain it. But according to author Alex Bellos, the most straightforward mathematical concept might be the loopiest. Then producer Mark Philips introduces us to William Basinski, a composer who loops analog tape to create a unique sort of music. One day, Basinski dug up some of his old tapes, stuck them into his player, and heard a melody in the throes of death.

Life and death are a very long loop of their own, as producer Lynn Levy discovered in talking with oceanographer Craig Smith. His career began with a simple question: what happens to a whale when it dies and sinks to the sea floor? Turns out nobody was quite sure. Craig describes the curious interplay between death and life at the bottom of the ocean.


William Basinski, Alex Bellos and Dr. Craig Smith


Lynn Levy and Mark Phillips

Comments [15]

Margaret Nahmias

The whale story was interesting but I don't when I think of loops I think of sound not life cycles.

Aug. 30 2014 06:39 PM
Sophie from USA

Great show- but what happened to the last loop? It ends with a cliff hanger, "this loop is really special" but then we never hear it.

Jan. 02 2014 05:06 PM

Mr. McNickle's Class Represent.

Oct. 22 2013 08:12 PM
Tomás from Silver Spring

does anybody know the first first loop that is played on this segment? or was it just a demonstration of how he makes his loops? Thanks!

Jan. 01 2013 11:09 PM
Laura Hansen from Little Falls Minnesota

so mesmermerized by this broadcast I was inspired to write a poem

The Life and Death of a Melody; or on learning about disintegrating music loops
on NPR; the metaphor for entropy

Music falls as dust to the ground
notes fail to adhere
the recorded loop goes round
and with each go -around
a bit more of the film
that coats the tape
scrapes off until
the tape comes clear
with each loop
the long sustained notes
grow shorter, dropping
the end-note
making space for silence,
for breath. As the tape
winds on, the notes
become less, become
short staccato bursts,
guttural and melancholy,
the same way my father’s
mid-life vigor changed
to shallow-breathed
naps, to oxygen tanks, to
sparse hard puffs we could
time by the frightening silence
in between, until the loop
and the tape ran

Laura L. Hansen
June 1, 2012

Jun. 01 2012 05:24 PM
Laura Bien from Ypsilanti, MI

The sublime magic of the disintegrating analog tape loops literally froze me in place when I heard them earlier today, and I just listened to them several times again. Thank you for the info @ buying them from iTunes.

May. 18 2012 10:54 PM

i love your show!
if you are still wondering about the man named Gottlob: it´s a german name, and Gott means god (of course) and lob means (to) praise. The -lieb end of Gottlieb means something with love. Wether god loves the guy or the guy loves god, i don´t know.

Mar. 12 2012 09:14 AM
PanarchyInTheUk from Colchester

Caught a bit of the Disintegration Loops on BBC 6music. Think it was Stuart Maconi's Freak Zone. Loved it! Have downloaded both podcasts, thanks very much. When I clicked on the itunes link to buy, it took me to a Danish site :-) Have no idea how many kroner to the pound...

Anyway, thanks again, and I've only just discovered your site, will be back for more!

Feb. 20 2012 03:51 PM

I can't wait to listen to even more of these loops. They stunned me and gripped me amd filled me with the kind of awe I desperately want art to inspire. What a wonderful treat, thanks so much.

Oct. 21 2011 07:51 PM
tommo from London

ever thought about playing the loops backwards, after the disintergration? so the sounds come to life rather than dies? i'd like that :)

Oct. 20 2011 11:17 AM

Ditto on the tape loops, those were somehow magical.

Oct. 08 2011 08:07 AM
Nate T.

The whale falls really blew me away. It took me twice as long to listen to this episode because I kept going back to it.
Puts one in mind of life on Europa... and our planet and the universe in general.

Oct. 06 2011 11:21 AM
Lars from Copenhagen


You can by the loops on iTunes:

or listen to them hear:

Have a beautiful nights sleep :)

You guys are awesome, I enjoyed this segment of the show very much. Thanks for showing me Willliam Basinski and his music.

Oct. 06 2011 03:47 AM

I need to know if there's anywhere I can find the musical loops used in this segment. It would be amazing to fall asleep to.

Oct. 06 2011 12:20 AM
Brendan from UK

I was blown away by this podcast. These loops have seriously begun to repeat endlessly in my head and endlessly repeat, wow. Blown away.

Oct. 05 2011 11:04 AM

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