William Basinski: Interview
“I wish I never had to talk about 9/11 again, you know?”
It’s not without variety, but there’s something of a unity and singularity to your body of work as it stands on record. Yet you have a very broad skill set that goes well beyond loops, chance procedures, and other ambient processes — you’re a classically trained clarinetist and sax player with experience in jazz performance, and you went to university for composition. How does that background influence your music?
Well, you know, none of it ever made any sense to me. But eventually, things fall into place. I’m so lucky to have been put into music in the seventh grade, when my parents encouraged me to do that. My mother even wanted me to join the choir, and I was like, “No, please.” [laughs] “I’m already getting beat up enough! Not that.”
So she took me to the band director, and he saw me as his first-chair clarinetist, right then and there. And so that’s what I became. I really enjoyed the totally obsessive, focused nature of being able to play all those 16th and 32nd notes — and it kept me out of trouble. When I was in high school, we moved from Florida back to Texas, and we moved to Dallas. My parents moved us into the best music school district, and the Texas music programs were absolutely the top. Very well funded, with incredible teachers. So we were playing very sophisticated music in high school, and traveling, going to contests and things like that. That was quite fun.
In my senior year, I had learned the saxophone, and much to my band director’s chagrin, I signed up for the jazz band. So that year, I went on tour with them and thought I was pretty good and everything… but then I got to North Texas State University, to audition for the Lab Band. In the late 70s, the One O’Clock Lab Band — which was their top band — won a Grammy for their record. So it was quite legendary for professional musicians who were playing with Woody Herman and all these other big bands to take a year off and just go to North Texas to get stoned and just have fun, without the drama of touring and all that crap.
So when I got into the audition room and heard these players, I almost pissed my pants. I was never good at auditioning. I was really pretty good, especially at clarinet, and even on the saxophone I had learned to improvise enough — blues mostly — but I had never heard anything like what these guys were doing. So I totally blew my audition and switched my major to composition. Even then, I’d go to the practice rooms and play out of the Real Book with these great kids my age and developed my own style. I had a wonderful experience there for a couple years. Then I met [longtime partner] James Elaine and ended up moving to California to pursue messing around with tape and tape loops. And he was really like a master for me, firstly because he was an artist, and also [because] he was a massive record collector. He always used to work at record stores, so he had a huge collection. Everything. So I got to really hear all kinds of electronic music, all the Germans in the 70s, and all this new stuff I had never heard before.
One of my best classes was the contemporary music class I had. 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. And then I started to hear Steve Reich’s feedback loops and Music for 18 Musicians, and thought, “That’s interesting — that’s another piece.” And then when I heard [Brian] Eno’s Music for Airports, that really resonated with me, as a melancholic. So then I started listening to more Eno, Fripp & Eno, and Frippertronics. There’s one album [Discreet Music] where they have a diagram on the back and show how Frippertronics works. So I went and got what was available to me at the time — and cheap. Old tape decks and tapes, from all the junk stores, and I went home and just started cutting things up, and recording things, trying things out. Just fooling around, seeing what I could come up with. That’s how I got started with that.
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.
Speaking of which, I’m curious about how, on early material like Shortwave Music and Melancholia, you would basically record and sample muzak — American standards and easy listening from the radio — and then would slow it down to draw out some kind of melancholy or other feeling. I know you had heard essentially sample-based pieces like Reich’s “Come Out,” but it seems like you put a prescient spin on that by taking clips of things that were one kind of music and then manipulating them to sound completely different. Did you know of anybody else, at the time, who was doing anything like that?
No, I didn’t. The idea came from wanting to make a Mellotron — a string synthesizer. They were gorgeous, like a big, white spinet piano, with full keyboards and everything. I never got to see the inside of one, but apparently they had tape loops of sampled strings in there, and I loved string sounds. At that time, living in New York, this radio station at the top of the Empire State Building had the strongest signal in the Northeast, and they played these 1,001 string versions of popular American standards — with all the syncopation taken out, and no vocals except maybe some ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ here and there. And since it was pretty much cutting into everything I was doing, just because of how strong the signal was — if you ran a wire across the floor, you’d pick it up — I thought, “Well, let me just cut up some loops and record some of these strings.” A measure from the beginning, or an interlude, the outro — taking that and using a tape deck that has four speeds on it and made it possible to slow the strings down a couple times. It was very encouraging to me, so I just went crazy.
Did you get any kind of satisfaction from the act of subversion implied in taking easy-listening schmaltz and making something profoundly melancholic from it?
Definitely. First of all, the sounds I was able to get were just so much what I needed. And back then, there was no Prozac or anything, there were better drugs — Valiums and stuff like that. There was no Prozac, but you had muzak, which was widely denigrated. But to think that from the airwaves you could take a little piece of that and slow it down, like looking at something under a microscope and see this well of melancholy underneath. And sometimes anxiety, too, depending on the sounds you’re getting. I found that fascinating.
What more can you tell me about this upcoming release that you mentioned earlier, Nocturnes?
Nocturnes is very early — very different, in a way. It precedes most of what people know of my early work. It comes from around 79, and it was done with prepared piano and tape loops. Then I had sort of scored it out graphically and made this recording — it’s very trippy. And it’s one of those pieces where I made a couple mistakes that I could never really fix, which really bothered me…but now, it’s not a problem to fix these little things that bugged me back then. There are still things about it that I wish I could do something about — the recording quality is really terrible, for one thing. But, that’s part of the sound of this period of my work anyway — and people try to get that kind of sound nowadays, which is weird.
The second is a loop, drone, and feedback piece that turned out real nice, coming from a couple of years ago. A version of that was featured in Robert Wilson’s new opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, one of the pieces I used in that. It’s a good piece.
When’s that coming out?
The music’s all done, and I have the imagery selected for the artwork, I just kind of have to put it together. So…maybe around mid-November. Before the holidays, hopefully.
How does touring typically work for you?
Most of the work for me is in Europe, because they fund these kinds of festivals all over the place. In America, if you wanna play music, you get a band and you get in the van and you drive around to little bars and do all that. I can’t do that, because my music doesn’t work in a bar situation. So I mostly play in theaters, sometimes outdoors, mostly at festivals and other interesting venues. A lot of one-offs, you know — gotta fly 17 hours somewhere to do it, turn right around and come back. And then two weeks later, I fly 17 hours somewhere else. It’s kind of exhausting, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I go where I’m invited.
For the past couple years, I’ve been doing Vivian and Ondine, so these people have to find old tape decks for me, and that could be quite a challenge in some places. I was just in Poland, and they didn’t have this kind of technology very much back then, so for them to find something like what I use is pretty difficult. God bless ‘em, these guys at the festival had me outdoors at this big park, fabulous — huge soundsystem. And they got me these two old tape decks and… [laughs] It looked like they’d come out of the garbage; they didn’t really work. But I told them, “Don’t worry, I’m going to do a whole new thing for you from my next album, and it’ll be great, I’ll just use a laptop.” So I have to have backup and be ready to change at a moment’s notice, because you never know what you’re going to get.
What’s interesting about these old tape decks is that they’re instruments. They all have their own sound, and they might not play at exactly the same speed, so you never can tell. With Vivian and Ondine, there’s one main theme and twelve alternate loops that I bring up randomly, just underneath the threshold, to let them resonate for a while. It’s very interesting because one loop might sound really great in one place and it might sound terrible in another, so there’s always an element of surprise — even for me. [laughs] You have to be really careful and prepared for imminent disaster.
My dad worked for NASA and General Electric and all these other companies that were working on Mercury and Apollo programs. He eventually worked for a company that was working on the Lunar Modules, and those things were designed using slide rules and pencils, and they were as thin as aluminum foil, so… [laughs] You had to be prepared for imminent disaster at every moment. In a small way, it’s kind of like that, doing what I do onstage, these days.
You’ve been performing for a while now, though. What other approaches have you used live? Like, for example, the 1985 shows you did at the Anchorage in Brooklyn?
James and I did this show that was this big, huge set with his paintings and broken objects and toys, old televisions — a very post-apocalyptic kind of thing. And I had this soundtrack that I’d created and played saxophone with. So I did three or four pieces — a soprano saxophone piece, an alto saxophone piece, and a tenor saxophone piece, all with tape cassette backgrounds. Very much like Shortwavemusic, that period.
Something I saw you say elsewhere but doesn’t seem to come up often is that, as a young musician, you wanted to be David Bowie and loved punk groups like Tuxedomoon. Are there any vestiges of that aesthetic influencing your work or approach, in any way?
Well — I have some other work that no one’s ever heard. [laughs] A lot. Later on, in the late 80s, when we moved to Arcadia and I was able to build my studio, then I really started trying to orchestrate and do all that kind of stuff. I was working on a song cycle called Hymns of Oblivion, which never got released. My friend Jennifer Jaffe was in this really cool art installation group that kind of got really big at one time, and they were called TODT. “Todt” is a German word that means… it’s kind of hard to describe, it’s kind of like “ultimate death,” as if you never existed. Anyway, it was a rather unfortunate name for them as far as having an art career dependent upon collectors, because Fritz Todt was the Nazi in charge of the Final Solution. So that never resonated very well with collectors, unfortunately.
But! Jennifer and her two brothers and husband did this incredible installation, and they were kind of pioneers. Now there’s tons of installation art everywhere, but they were really some of the first ones. Anyway, we were neighbors and friends, and Jennifer wrote some incredible, austere poetry. She gave me a stack of her poems, and I would be in my studio working on a piece, and I’d take off the first one from the top of the pile and turn on the tape to do a sight reading, singing. So I ended up doing this collection of 10 or 12 of these songs and worked on it in my studio for years — really getting into all the synthesizers, laying down the sax tracks, my friend coming in on guitar. It was very much inspired by Bowie and that sort of thing, but what I thought was more accessible work wasn’t accessible enough. In those days, you had mostly major labels still, and you’d try to send unsolicited work to them and then eventually you’d get back a rejection notice or something like that. I never really knew anyone that could help.
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.
So that period, while working on that, was when we started having the Arcadia performances and I started producing bands. I thought I’d better used my talents in some way to make money. Did that for a few years, until one of the bands I was working with got signed to a major label, and when I saw what that entailed and how ugly and awful that all ended up being, I just said, “Nope — not gonna do that anymore. I need to concentrate on my own work, and if people want to have me produce an album they can just pay me and I’ll do it.”
But I did all kinds of other music — some crazy dance music, at one point. Everything.
Dance music? When was that?
That was around that period of early Arcadia, in the early-/mid-90s. I had a couple of friends that were in nightclubs. My friend Chauncey was the doorman for Pyramid, then went on to be the doorman at Limelight and the Roxy and all these big clubs at the same time — so he was like Mr. New York. He knew [Club Kids member and eventual murderer] Michael Alig and all those crazy people.
So I started trying out dance music. I was having fun in my studio doing all this really ridiculous stuff, with backwards guitar and wild drums and just all kinds of crazy shit. But, you know, I didn’t follow a formula; I just sort of experimented around, did what I wanted to do.
So I never did end up getting anything into the big clubs, but there was a place in Williamsburg right near the Williamsburg Bridge…I guess South 5th Street. It was called Lalalandia, a total firetrap — with just all kinds of junk, trash piled up in there, y’know, people jumping on bedsprings, just crazy-ass shit. And me and DJ Olive used to take turns, a couple times, playing some really whacked-out stuff down there. So that was fun — but that’s pretty much of my dance music career, at this point. [laughs]
Do you think back fondly on any of that music now?
Yeah, some of it’s good in its own way. There are things I wish I could change about them, like, say, Hymns of Oblivion — some things in the mix. But, you know, it’s an artifact. Maybe I’ll release it one of these days.
There’s actually some video from a live performance of that material at Arcadia on Vimeo and YouTube, I think, if you look it up.
Just for fun, then, could you tell me a little about one William Basinski project you hope no one ever hears?
[laughs] Oh God, I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I’m gonna have to try to throw away before I drop dead. [laughs] God, yeah, there’s some real bad stuff there, especially in the beginning. But you know, you gotta just start somewhere.
So, no comment?
Haha, you’re not going to get that information out of me! [laughs] Not today.