I‘m not sure when I first heard the music of William Basinski. I’m guessing it’s well over 15 years ago, but I honestly don’t remember. It’s a fitting confession to make for music that, to me at least, feels so absolutely free of time. William’s music floats not just in time, but between time, finding its way into and through our lives in ways that so much music does not. It exists across us, and within us, recurring at times and places we least expect it. That is indeed the beauty of his music.
I’ve recently, and I kid you not, listened to almost every single Basinski recording that is available, some of them many, many times over. This is what happens when you are head long into completing your Doctorate Of Philosophy. I could have listened to anything I suppose, but in William’s music I found a transcendence that was without compare. It opened ways of thinking that were otherwise locked up during the writing up of my thesis.
So, having spent much time listening to William’s work, and given the release of his elegant new edition, A Shadow In Time and my new edition Cruel Optimism, I felt it was a good time for us to have a conversation around each other’s work.
By way of introduction, William and I met at a festival in Croatia a good few years ago. We had emailed prior to that meeting. Then in 2015, for the Room40 15th anniversary, I invited him as a guest of honor to participate in our Open Frame festival. I did this not only for his creative works, but also the sense of community he fostered through Arcardia, the loft space he operated in Brooklyn for many years. It’s from this point of community-building we start our conversation.
Lawrence English: As you know, I am always interested in how people come to form communities around them. I guess, for me, this is maybe a way to normalize or at least contextualize what I have been doing for the past 20 years through Room40 and the other labels and zines that I worked on before that. Reading about Arcadia, and hearing you talk about it, I sense that it was really a meeting of social, geographic, and cultural developments all at once. I mean, at that time Brooklyn was nothing like what it is like now, and I sense that because of that, there was all this freedom, as you weren’t being crushed by brutal rents and other issues.
William Basinski: The thing about Arcadia was, after we’d gotten in there and we’d finished doing it up, it was so beautiful I knew that I had to share it. I also knew that, at that point in my career, no one was getting what I was doing. I figured it’d make sense to get bands to come in and work with them. I had a project recording studio set up there and this massive room. At that time, we got a settlement from our old loft, which was torn down, but we fought it for years and got some money there that meant we could set up Arcardia properly. I was able to spend $75,000 on the studio, which was amazing. We had a Soundcraft 600, a bunch of synths, 16-track tape deck and mastering 2 track, and everything was all wired up and it was just beautiful.
LE: It must have been a huge resource, and I’d guess not exactly commonplace at that time?
WB: Oh, we were so lucky then. It was just down to us fighting so hard for the other loft. Back then, Williamsburg was really just starting out, and people were just putting things on in their lofts. It was really personal and really collegial, and people would just have each other over. I loved it. It was a way for everyone to check each other’s work. So when I we saw someone we liked at one of these shows, we’d approach them and book them. And then we started to have an aesthetic coming through in the way that you do, for example, with the festival you do. We’d theme things for a season, and out of that came various projects and works from people. I mean, ANOHNI was able to refine what it is she was doing there; she was able to develop the music side of things and grew that out of the avant-garde theatre work she was involved in. There were other people, too, that developed what became their work through what Arcadia was doing. It was really special and a way of building something up that you believed in. I assume Room40 started in a similar way?
LE: I think we certainly share that interest in making things happen and building the capacity of people whose work we believe in. When I started the idea that would become Room40, which was in the late 90s really, Australia seemed like such a long way away. Seriously, it felt like things still took months to reach us. You’d read about albums a month or more before they turned up at the import stores, and the number of artists coming to visit was really limited. So from the get-go, I wanted to reach out to people and other communities elsewhere that seemed to share my interests. I wanted to make those international connections become local ones. So pretty much straight away, I was putting on events, albeit sparsely at first and also trying to find a way to make editions for artists whose work resonated for me. Those ideas are still pretty well how I think about Room40, although things have changed considerably over the years. What about before all that though for you? You didn’t just arrive at Arcardia; you obviously came to music much earlier.
WB: I remember when I was about five years old, my parents let us stay up to watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and that was it! I’m 20 years older than you, so remember that, son! No, but really, we saw that show, and it was mind-blowing. I mean, we were ruined, the whole country was ruined after that. They were the cutest things in the world with their haircuts and their bangs. That jangly sound and the girls peeing their pants and screaming with their beehives and cat glasses — the whole thing was outrageous. My brother Mark would bring home the new Beatles records, and when they came in, we’d get them out, look at the cover, and listen to them over and over. That was ‘64; over that following five years they did so much. A few years later there was Rubber Soul and then Sgt. Pepper’s; it was incredible to witness that transformation, even as a kid you knew it was something special. I’ve been ruined ever since. How about you? You did music in school?
LE: Well, I have to be honest here. I failed music in year eight, and I put this down entirely to the recorder.
WB: You failed? How can that be? And the recorder. Really?
LE: Yeah, that thing is barely an instrument, and surely not the instrument that should be given to children. In Japan, kids use a melodica; now that’s at least an instrument that sounds good. That said, in high school I played the drums with a bunch of bands, nothing serious of course. One of them won the battle of the bands in my senior year. We played half of “Seek And Destroy,” and half of “Creeping Death” by Metallica, as the guitarist couldn’t play the whole solo. Ingenious really: play the fast stuff, skip the tough stuff. Anyway, when my old music teacher saw me playing, she was shocked that I’d continued with music on my own. The next year she was even more shocked when I turned up at her family’s mastering suite, which was almost the only one here in Brisbane, with my first compilation CD to be mastered for the new label I’d started. We mastered from a combination of cassette, DAT, and CD-R. It was the good old days of incongruous media formats. It was chaotic really… to pull things together and make sense of them.
WB: Darling, I know all about that!
LE: I’d imagined as much; actually, how is it you’ve come to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the tape format? I mean, there’s so much possibility for chaos when working with analogue formats. How do you address control of that?
WB: I do have my ways about it. It’s a process that often results from something unexpected happening. When I think about A Shadow In Time, I pulled my Voyetra out of the garage after about six or seven years of it being in there, and I wasn’t even sure it was going to work. We got it out, turned it on, and there she was, working again! And when we turned her on, she was making this sound, so I was like, “She’s got a lot to say, lets record this!” I had no clue what she was doing. That piece actually started out of this very quiet part from the end of the Cascade CD version, which I started to play around with, and then the Voyetra came along and it just added something unexpected. I like when shit happens that I can’t control. If I had to think of every single fucking thing, then I’d be so bored. I want that surprise of not knowing.
LE: There is something truly beautiful about happy accidents! So many of the pieces I have made are the result of some unknown agent transforming what I am trying to do for the better. The piece “Object Of Projection,” from the new record, is very much based around that premise. I built a combination of analogue and digital effects running in sequence, but one of the hardware compressors I was using had been manhandled by one of my children when I wasn’t looking. When I fired up the chain the following day, everything sounded completely distorted and like this huge tsunami of rise and fall. It was amazing, and by the time I worked out where that was coming from, I was completely fixated on the sound of it. Chaos is everywhere I guess, in tiny hands and bigger ones too.
WB: Ohhh nice! Out of the hands of babes! That’s for sure, sometimes the most innocent of mistakes opens whole other ways of making work. That said, I’m lucky in that I have a degree in classical training, and certain forms appeal to me in the right circumstance. When I start something out, I have an idea of where I want it to go, but if something unexpected happens, sometimes, not always, there is magic in that. Over the years, I have learned more and more how to listen and stay out of the way, which I know is important to you.
LE: Yeah, increasingly so, I guess. These past few years, I’ve been spending a lot of time really trying to consider what it is that listening means to what I do. This is especially the case with the field recordings I make. I find it very interesting that somehow field recording has shifted out of its root in 20th-century musicology and ethnography and has been subsumed into the sound arts. This just seemed to have happened, which personally I agree with and think is wonderful. At the same time, this transition seems a bit haphazard, so I’ve been thinking a lot about where it is that the creativity of field recording, as it relates to the practice being welcomed into the canon of sound arts, falls. To me, it’s in the act of listening. I feel strongly listening is actually incredibly creative if it is rooted in affect and represents our agency, as a listener. It’s a kind of politics of perception.
WB: Wonderful! I was very lucky to have an amazing teacher in school who introduced me to Cage. I think that’s where my appreciation for chance comes from. But this teacher also took us outside and taught us how to use our ears. To listen and stretch our ears, to reach out and actually hear the things happening. Right now, there’s a freeway, three blocks from here; if I really focus, I can listen to that, but all of that is going on and we don’t really pay attention most of the time. I was so lucky to have that teacher. Really, they set me up for everything I have done since then. Going back to what you asked about control in the work, the other part of it is definitely editing. You build things up and then you edit them, and in that process, it all happens. I know, listening to your Cruel Optimism, that there’s so much detail in the editing, there just must be?
LE: I agree, the edit is everything. Seriously, the actual runtime of the individual pieces that make up Cruel Optimism is much longer than the 40 minutes the record runs. I spend a lot of time trying to make the record’s pieces fall into each other. Sometime it’s those combinations, where one part bleeds into or over the next section, that really unexpected and interesting things can happen. The shift between “Somnambulist” and “Moribund Territories” was one of those moments. There’s about two minutes or more where they are overlapping on the record, and I think they’re both much stronger for that meeting. It can’t always work like that, of course, but it’s lovely when it does.
WB: That’s so true. I think with every record you eventually need to dial back everything — not everything can be at the maximum, right?
LE: With Lemmy passing, I came back across that great quote of his: “Everything louder than everything else.” As much as that’s a fun idea, it is ultimately dull, as there’s a finite ceiling, at least when actualizing a record. I decided to co-opt that saying, and with Cruel Optimism, I wanted to explore “everything denser than everything else.” So the record is really about layering and relief. The most positive thing I learned was that amplitude and density are not relational in the ways you might expect, and some of the quietest sections on the record are in fact the densest in some ways. It’s great, because it means there’s still that sense of dynamics and fluctuation.
WB: I love contrast and dynamics, hello!?
LE: I can hear that in all the works, really. I suppose the nature of the tape and the way that material was recorded makes a big impact on that.
WB: Tape is so beautiful, that sense of distortion or whatever it is that you hear in the music once it’s been recorded. The truth of the matter is, Lawrence, I was recording in the 80s with crappy gear. I was mastering to cassette and the general state of the sound was not what you’d consider to be good in any way. I wasn’t a recording engineer; the live real-time recordings I made were not always gained up on the input as they should have been, so I had to fight with tape hiss later on, which I never liked. So there had to be some damage control done later on for release on some of them.
LE: I believe next year is 40 years since you made your first tape loops in San Francisco?
WB: It’s 40 years? I guess you’re right, as I’ll be 60 next year.
LE: How did you arrive at the moment of exploring tape for the first time?
WB: I met James Elaine, we’re still together now after 38 years. He was the musicologist and genius artist who taught me everything about art and music. He had a massive music collection of music, and I was able to listen to that. Everyday he’d come home with new records; he was working on the buying truck of a famous used record store in Berkeley. It was amazing having access to Can, Dockstader, and Schlutz. When I saw that diagram on the back of Discreet Music, the tape-loop example, it really stuck with me and I thought, “I wanna try that.” So I went to the local junk store around the corner and bought a couple of Phillips Continental, massive, portable tape decks, some secondhand tape, and brought them back to our place. I had rented a piano, and I had my saxophone and the most amazing-sounding refrigerator, and that’s all I needed. I was able to start experimenting with the tape loops from there.
LE: You recorded the fridge?
WB: Oh god yes, that thing made the most amazing drones, especially when you slowed them down. Jamie and I also collected lots of old broken TVs off the street; those little portable ones you used to get, I’d record those too. They always did something interesting if they turned on at all. Once you slow down the speed of the tape, those sounds just become something else. I have a bunch of unreleased early drone work from this period that is pretty good. I think you might like it.
LE: I can imagine there’s still so much remaining in your archives.
WB: There is a massive archive here, which is completely disorganized. We’re just taking it one box at a time. There’s some wonderful stuff in there, but there’s a lot of crap too that I want to destroy.
LE: I must say I find that idea of the archive so fascinating. That all of this material was generated for a different purpose at a different time and then it emerges again decades on. Everything about it is changed. The context, the physical condition of the medium, and the potential uses of it as well. It’s reborn again and again in every way. Time is utterly fluid at every level.
WB: Well, that’s the point. I’m trying to take us out of time, to an eternal moment. Let’s be here. Now. As they say. Nothing else matters, really. If you can listen to my work and concentrate on your thoughts for your PhD, well, that’s a huge honor to me. When I hear from artists working in their studios, or filmmakers who are listening to the music whilst they work, it’s lovely to know the music is there for them. That they can find something of value there. That’s what I always wanted for the work.
LE: Interestingly though, it’s not concentrating at all, is it? I find the music is transcendental somehow. It roots me where I am and simultaneously takes me somewhere else. It’s quite an unusual sensation. Something that really defies an explanation in words.
WB: It’s fascinating you feel like that, and I’m so pleased to hear it. I was just a dumb-assed kid when I first started. But I had teachers and I had the opportunity to experiment, to paint with sound while my roommates were painting with paint. Not that many other people got it at that time, so while continuing my experiments, I also tried making a lot of other types of music, some various attempts at being more “accessible”; pop attempts that were usually not very accessible, either. Anyway, one tries. Then when Carsten came to New York in 96 or whenever it was, and I’d pulled out all these cases of early work that I’d made — I was in the process of archiving a bunch of it to this $3,500 CD burner I’d bought on credit — things changed. I was listening to this stuff thinking, “Fuck, this is so much better than what I’m working on now!”
LE: It must have been strange to come back to it all those years later?
WB: It was, in a way, but I am glad that I did. It changed my life forever. Thank god Carsten had just come out of East Germany and was living downstairs. When he came up and asked, “What is this?” everything changed. He wanted to release it on his label, and I’d been waiting for someone to say that to me by that stage for about 20-something years. It’s those moments that are the beginning of something much bigger. It’s those moments where you realize, even when you think you’ve reached your lowest point, don’t end it, don’t kill yourself, do it tomorrow. You never really know what is coming and how quickly things can change for the better. Just have a good drink and go to bed, you’ll be all right. It can change in a day and that’s what happened to me!
LE: I think that’s timely advice. There are surely a lot of people feeling hopeless right now. As I think we can agree, let’s live life, be present, and kill ourselves tomorrow. Always tomorrow!