William Basinski: Interview
“I wish I never had to talk about 9/11 again, you know?”
William Basinski is an American composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and sound/video artist. Worshiped by some as the heir apparent to Brian Eno’s throne, he could more accurately be described as one of the ambient originator’s few true peers and contemporaries. Having begun to accumulate in 1978, Basinski’s hugely influential recordings only started to be discovered and understood by a wider audience shortly after the turn of the century.
Pushing upon and beyond ideas first presented by Eno, John Cage, and Steve Reich, Basinski’s largely archival discography is testament to a near-lifelong obscurity spent being ever ahead of the game. Writing of his 1997 debut on the highly respected Raster-Noton label, Shortwavemusic, Boomkat wrote it is “almost impossible to comprehend” that Basinski was crafting such fully formed static symphonies in the early 1980s. Works of a comparable vintage, like Melancholia, were composed in part by effectively sampling and slowing down staid, corporate muzak to reveal a profound and subversive melancholy — predicting DJ Screw’s major hip-hop innovations of the 1990s, and most directly the vaporwave micro-movement that in part defined underground music this past year. And in 1982, he began work on a tribute to the tragedy of 9/11.
An inadvertent elegy, Disintegration Loops at long last launched Basinski’s career in 2002. Modestly endeavoring the previous summer to digitize some sweepingly gorgeous ambient pastorals he had lying around on old reels, he was shocked to discover that the musical iron oxide began slowly to vacate his tapes, breath for breath, note by note. What would have been simply a deeply poignant process piece about the dark fate that awaits all human life took on another layer altogether when they were completed one improbably awful morning that September.
The six decaying loops will be reissued November 13, in a limited run by Temporary Residence Ltd. The monolithic box set (9 LPs, 5 CDs, a DVD, and a 144-page book) also includes two very different live renditions of the first loop — a 2008 performance with the Alter Ego Ensemble at the 54th Music Biennale in Venice and a 9/11/11 performance with the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Over the course of a recent hour, Basinski spoke extensively of what it’s like to be inextricably linked to tragedy, what it’s like to have such a robust career after many gaunt decades, his next record, touring, and his long-lost albums as an aspiring EDM producer and David Bowie wannabe.
So, how are you? What’s new?
Well, what’s new is I just got nine big boxes in the mail from Temporary Residence, and in each of those big boxes are three smaller ones…
Very nice. Is this your first time beholding a physical copy of the box set?
It is, my first time beholding… It’s just gorgeous. They’re gigantic. The first thing I put on was the performance of the first loop from Venice, which sounded wonderful, and just a minute ago I was listening to the original.
Speaking of which, I was surprised to see that that Venice version is dated 2008 — I didn’t know it had been performed that early. What was it like pulling that together, and how did it feel to conduct?
Well, that was the first time. In the spring of 2008, I got an email from Manuel Zurria, the leader of the Alter Ego Ensemble. He told me about their collaboration with [Phillip] Jeck and Gavin Bryars — which I’d actually read about, bought, and really liked — and then he mentioned wanting to do something of mine. So I said, “How about Disintegration Loop 1.1?” I’d been wanting to get [the Loops] into the orchestral repertoire for years, and this would be a start. He said “Sure, sounds great” — and then he mentioned that it would be taking place at the Music Biennale in Venice that year, and I was just like, “Oh, really?” [laughs]
So we talked about it over the summer, and I ended up going to Rome five days before [the performance]. We rehearsed a bit there in a recording studio, to figure out how we were gonna do it; he had some ideas, I had some ideas. When I got to Venice, I was leaning out the window of this little rooftop room where I was staying, and could hear all kinds of things. People walking down the street, chatter, an old shudder creaking in the wind… I got my recorder out, and knew that the [“dlp 1.1”] treatment was going to be around 15 minutes long, so I timed it out. I started crinkling a close-mic empty cigarette pack, just a little bit, and picked it up over time.
When we did the performance I had a laptop on my music stand while I was conducting. I started [the field recording], and it worked out really nicely… I forget what that area’s called, where all the big shows are [in Venice], but it was just gorgeous and sounded great in there.
Recently, these first live orchestral performances of different Loops have resulted in awed silence from the crowd for minutes at a time before the applause begins. What’s going through your mind during that silence?
It’s really been incredible. The first time it happened was in the Temple of Dendur [at the Metropolitan Museum] on September 11th last year. At the end, the conductor [Ryan McAdams] put down his hands and held them for a moment, and… it just continued. The audience just sat there in stone silence, 800 people in this enormous room, and we were all turned to stone like the statues of Isis and Osiris standing in the aisles. Utterly silent — there were children there, and even they seemed to grasp the moment.
Learning about John Cage was instrumental in opening up my mind to what composition could be — chance procedures really opened a door for me, to have some freedom.
After about three minutes, a plane flew by, picking up the F tone of the last held note and taking it away. I was just sitting there, thinking, “Oh my God — what’s gonna happen now?” My hair was starting to stand on end. [laughs] And then everyone just erupted into applause — it was incredible.
Then, in London this summer at the Meltdown Festival with the London Contemporary Orchestra at Queen Elizabeth Hall, we ended the concert again with Disintegration Loop 1.1 — and it happened again. This sold-out audience all sat in silence, as if we had added an orchestral version of John Cage’s 4′33″? at the end of the piece to honor his hundredth birthday. Honestly, it was almost five minutes. We were stunned! [laughs] So it’s really something, I don’t know how it happens, why it happens — but it’s happened twice now.
Meltdown was an opportunity presented by Antony, right? And that gave you a chance to do a version of the second loop.
That’s right, Antony curated the festival this year — and did an amazing job. Lot of New Yorkers. Everyone from Diamanda Galás to Laurie Anderson, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Joey Arias, good concerts by everybody. I even did a show with [Antony] on the fifth of August, and then [my] orchestral show was on the 12th — so I got to be there for the whole festival and see all these concerts, which was just amazing.
But when he invited me, I was thinking, “I’d like to have another orchestra play… I’m just gonna propose that to the woman who’s the head of the festival,” and they loved it, they said they could do it. Started working it out, and they organized the London Contemporary Orchestra [while] we were able to bring our deft conductor Ryan McAdams, who’s so great, and Max [Moston], my darling Max, the brilliant arranger [both of the aforementioned “dlp 1.1” performance on 9/11/11 at the Met, as released on the box set]. And we got to commission Max to do the second one. So we had a one-day rehearsal with this orchestra — amazing to watch how Ryan McAdams can pull these arrangements together, the little things he does to make it really meld. And these wonderful young musicians, just so into it.
The next day, we did it, and it was just so beautiful. And to see the smiles on these young musicians’ faces after the show, with the applause and everything, was just so sweet… Yeah, I’m over the moon these days, it’s just a dream come true having this music built back into pencil and paper, blood and cat hair, you know? [laughs]
So slowly, one by one, we’re getting them out there. It’s definitely something I’m hoping to pursue more now, performing the rest [of the Loops].
The Disintegration Loops, like much of your music, are almost programmatic in that they are perhaps best appreciated when you know the extra-musical narrative, the circumstance of their creation — or, say, that of Vivian and Ondine. Are you ever compelled to release something without a single word or liner note attached?
You know, I’d prefer it that way. Some of my releases have been like that, like Watermusic and Melancholia, which came in very spare packaging. I was actually planning for it to be that way for the Disintegration Loops, too, but with the way things turned out it became a story that I just had to share… I’m working on something right now, though, called Nocturnes, which will be one very old piece and a newer one. Maybe I won’t write anything to go along with that one.
Your work in general has continued to be highly acclaimed, but in a lot of the ways the Disintegration Loops are your career’s defining moment. How does that feel, to be so closely linked to such a tragedy?
I know… It’s such a mixed blessing. It… I wish I never had to talk about 9/11 again, you know? But, you can’t ever forget it, and everything changed that day, the world…
I do feel like it was such an honor that was given to me, at a time when I was completely broke and didn’t really know what would happen next. I felt like l was somehow being given this incredible task. With the Disintegration Loops there came a whole new level of meaning that up until that day wasn’t part of it. Filming the last hour of daylight that night and bouncing it to the computer next day, pairing it with “dlp 1.1,” it became an elegy, and over the next weeks and months, seeing everyone in New York falling into their own disintegration loops — fear, terror, very odd ways — it felt like it had to be an elegy of some kind. So I ended up using four different frames from the film [as cover art], and decided to release the albums one at a time since I couldn’t afford to do a box set then and nobody knew who I was anyway.
So the critics certainly had something to dive into with the title, first, and then what happened [with the loops falling apart] second, and of course the relationship to 9/11, as well. But, I don’t know… It’s still hard to talk about.
There was no Prozac, but you had muzak.
The Disintegration Loops are obviously much about life and death, which seem to be considerations that you’ve mulled over for a long time. In a 2008 interview you said that you “grew up miserable, wishing I was dead or had never been born.” And on other occasions you’ve mentioned your music as an attempt to “transcend time and space,” or to “resonate on a higher frequency” than real life. I’m curious how you’ve come to perceive death, especially after the past 10 years of your life and career.
I just try to keep myself in the present moment, to find some way of doing that. I certainly don’t fear death. Sometimes, with the way things are going, it might even be preferable. But, with the nature of the work, the cyclical and endlessly repeating nature of it, it is actually possible in a way to find your own space in them. That’s always amazed me.
All in all, [the past 10 years have] been incredible. I mean, mainly because it was such a long time coming… It kind of got to a point where I really, desperately thought nothing was ever going to happen, and didn’t know if I was gonna be able to continue. But all that eventually did turn around, and now they have a whole generation of young people — that are kind of the same age as the Loops, in a way — to understand and be able to relate to that particular resonance. Which is just profoundly moving for me.
I could die happy. [laughs]
The images in the Loops box set of your cavernous old warehouse home and workspace, Arcadia, look pretty inspiring. Do you ever miss living in New York, living as you do in L.A. now?
Oh, of course. Every day. I miss Arcadia, just a beautiful, magical place. It was a place where everyone went, a home for all of my friends… crazy children. We did a lot of concerts there, over the years [smiles], records there, for different people. Antony’s first demo, we did there — Diamanda Galás performed there one Halloween, an amazing show. A lot of great memories. [smiles]
But, you know, everything changed so drastically in the last 10 years with the money bubble. They changed the zoning and everything in Williamsburg just went nuts. Our lease ended, so in 2008 we had to liquidate and evacuate — which was a bitch.
So yeah, I live out in L.A. now. We’ve got a little rental house on the west side — small, but I have a beautiful yard with butterflies and birds, and hummingbirds and flowers, oranges… so, it’s fine, I can work here. [laughs]
How has Los Angeles changed your creative process and the end result?
At the moment, I don’t have my big studio that I used to have in Brooklyn. I have all the equipment, but it’s sitting in my garage, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find another space to set that up — so I can move the factory out of the house. In the meantime, since I can’t work with my synthesizers and some of the other equipment that I have, I’m working again with just tape.
These days, all the equipment that I bought in 1989 to make my control room that I’d always wanted, pretty much you can have in a laptop. [laughs] So that’s quite a change. But it’s nice to have the old gear and stuff, and I’m hoping this year to set that up again. I have a friend who’s moving here who’ll need a space too, so we’re going to start looking.