“Of course, I’d be happy to speak with you” explains William Basinski in an email at the beginning of April. He’s replying to an invitation for a possible interview during the Denovali Swingfest in London. I’ve heard from various sources he’s a very approachable and friendly person despite the inescapable mystical aura that surrounds him – my initial contact more than confirms this. In the days leading to his visit to London, we’re planning on having a long conversation at a hotel the day before his performance. Fast forward to Saturday 20th, as agreed I’m waiting for him at the hotel. I’m told by the receptionist: “Mr Basinski checked out a few hours ago and didn’t say where he was going”. I head back to the Scala, feeling rather disappointed and then my phone rings: “Hi, it’s William Basinski, I’m so sorry but I had to change my plans and couldn’t meet you at the hotel. I’m now on the other side of town and won’t be able to see you tonight. Can we meet tomorrow instead?” Sunday 21th, 8pm. Thomas Koner has just started playing and I receive a text: “I’ve arrived and watching the performance, see you afterwards?” After an hour of tectonic bass rumbles, I leave the room and recognise William Basinski’s silhouette disappearing into the dark. As I chase him, he literally vanishes through the door. I finally see him again in the upstairs VIP bar waiting for me and the mental image I had unconsciously formed for a few weeks suddenly crystallises in front of me. Basinski is indeed a very charming man, he’s as engaging as I thought he would be and despite performing in less than two hours, he appears very relaxed and doesn’t give me the impression he’s in a hurry. We sit down in a quiet area of the bar and we’re talking about his recent relocation to Los-Angeles after having spent the last 30 years in New-York. I start my recorder and the conversation flows…
You moved from San-Francisco to New-York in the late 70’s/early 80’s, what kind of place was it back then?
New-York was a crazy abandoned ruin, the subways were covered with scrawls of tagging all over the inside, I mean everywhere, the windows, the walls, the seats. On the outside of the trains were these amazing murals and they came rattling into the station, they smelt like urine and were dark. We were there in our punk-rock finery: fashion warriors, you know, trying to survive in New-York. The trains were a mess, in the summer the heat would be blasting, the windows wouldn’t open, and in the winter the windows would be open and there wouldn’t be any heat, it was crazy! But there was a lot of life then, you could go to New-York without money and find a place to live. We had lived in San-Francisco for a couple of years and saved 5,000 dollars, then moved to New-York and found a loft, a 5,000-square foot loft, downtown Brooklyn with views on the World Trade Centre and the Empire State Building, and we just started doing our work, we just wanted to make it in New York Citois!
At the time, were you part of the music scene in New-York?
I had already started developing my vocabulary, so this was what I was doing and of course I didn’t know anyone there when we first moved to New-York. But the art world was very small then and we met cool people and quickly made friends, some of them life-long friends, some of them had bands and I’d always played in bands so it was nice to continue playing in bands and do things like that too. It was two different things really, one was playing in bands and the other thing was my solo work. I played in a lot of different bands, I played with Cynthia Sley from the Bush Tetras, in a band after they broke up, Kathy Ray from the Bloods was in it and Laura Kennedy from the Bush Tetras who sadly died a few years ago was in it. That was a lot of fun, we played the CBGB, and I played in other bands that played at CB’s. CB’s is a John Varvatos store now, New-York is quite changed from what it was back then, it’s a shopping mall now.
Was your solo work a side-project to start with or were you already serious about it?
I was always very serious about it! We were just painting, all of us, we were making work. Now, making the work and having success with these music experiments, these sound paintings and developing a vocabulary and really feeling like you’re getting somewhere was incredibly rewarding. But the frustrating thing is that it took so long for anyone else to really understand what it was, that was heart-breaking for a while. But you know, you keep going and you try different things.
But did the art scene understand your solo work back then?
Yes of course, there were people that did back then and I had little gigs and did some things with the Arts Council in Brooklyn. Creative Time had this wonderful venue underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s called the Anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge and it’s this huge barrel-vaulted brick space that’s holding up all the structure that holds the bridge up, and they used to allow people to book that out for festivals and I think it was in 1987 or something like that, I got to do a big show there. It sold out, I played two nights and a lot of the art world people were there and it was great, we were really happy but not a mention, you know, nothing, not in Village Voice not in the New York Times, nothing and it was just like ‘you put so much into doing this stuff and then nothing!’ So, what you gonna do? You just have to keep going but it’s okay because it was 25 years before I got the New-York Times. I never thought I would see that day and I cried when I read the review. It was my mother’s 80th birthday and it was about the Disintegration Loops orchestra concert that had been held at the Metropolitan Museum, Temple of Dendur, which was just an extraordinary experience. It was this orchestra playing the Disintegration Loops 1.1 on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a memorial in this Egyptian temple that’s in the Metropolitan Museum. The Temple of Dandur was given to Mrs Kennedy by Egypt and they built this huge room for it at the Metropolitan on Central Park, it’s a beautiful wing. The concert was really extraordinary…
Did you try releasing your music during that time?
I tried, I kept trying but nothing ever happened. Carsten [Nicolai] was the first that ever asked me to release a record and I thought: ‘well I’ve been waiting to hear that for a very long time, so I said ‘yes, do it!’’ and then he came up with that beautiful clear LP, he designed the whole thing and it was so gorgeous. Carsten is such a great artist! After that, the next release took a bit longer still. But I kept working and then in 2000 I did ‘Water Music’. It was a 9-month generative ambient piece made with the Voyetra 8 synthesizer. At the time I had met Steve Roden through Jamie [James Elaine], because Jamie knew him from the LA art world and I asked him what I should do with this record and he gave me a list of 25 names of people to send it to, Richard Chartier, Taylor Deupree, some people in Europe, I can’t remember everybody who was on the list. But, most of them became my friends and loved it and wanted to know about it. Eventually I got a distributor and started releasing that and then the Disintegration Loops happened. Antony [Hegarty] by then had started to become famous, and after I called him to tell him what had happened, about the loops disintegrating in my tape deck, he started telling all of his friends in London about it, and David Tibet was really interested and emailed me, so I sent him some stuff and he told David Keenan. When the Disintegration Loops were released, the Wire had commissioned David Keenan to write a review of it, so there was that beautiful review and that was what launched the whole career really.
Disintegration Loops now belong to a much larger historical narrative…
You know, it’s what happened. Everything changed that day. We were sitting there watching the whole thing. I was gonna go for a job interview at the World Trade Centre that day because I was broke and I’d seen a listing online the night before for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council or Creative Time, I can’t remember which one it was, but one of them had offices in the World Trade Centre on a very high floor and studios for artists and they needed an administrative assistant, which was a kind of job I had done before and I knew how to do, plus they were supporters of mine from way back in the early eighties so I thought that I could do that and I decided to go there. But by the time I got up, it had already started and we watched the whole thing happen in stunned disbelief and then went through what everybody in New-York went through. We all collapsed in our own way and disintegrated. It took a long time to get over that. We listened to the music in our stunned disbelief that afternoon outside the windows, sitting on the roof, looking at the smoke and thinking: ‘What the fuck has just happened!’ and I recorded a video of the smoke at dusk. The next morning I put it with Disintegration Loops 1.1 and I thought ‘Oh my God, this has to be an elegy!’ I was thinking about Jacqueline Kennedy wearing that pink Channel suit with her husband’s blood and brain splattered on it for three days after they assassinated him. Every one was trying to get her to change and she said: ‘No, I want them to see what they’ve done’. Amazing woman… Now this is linked. I wish it never happened, you know. I don’t believe the official story, so you do what you can do, you know.
In 2009, you released Vivian & Ondine and this time the story behind the record was more about your own family and you were really open about it.
I know! I have mixed feeling about liner notes and on my upcoming album ‘Nocturnes’ there aren’t any liner notes. Sometimes you want to give a little information, other times you don’t. I think liner notes should be read after you listen to the album maybe, instead of before. But I guess the only way to do that is not to put them on the album cover but put them online, which I think with ‘Vivian and Ondine’ that’s what we did.
I have the feeling that the space within the loops in ‘Nocturnes’ is somehow more open than in earlier albums.
You know, ‘Nocturnes’ is a very early piece, it’s a very formal, early experiment with prepared piano and there’s a graphic score that goes with it. We couldn’t get that score into the graphic design of the CD cover but we may do a LP next year and we’ll be able to put that beautiful little hand-drawn thing on that maybe in the sleeve or something. The way that space opened up was a mystery. I was experimenting with the piano and the tape, taking certain bits and cutting off the attack, hitting the note and starting the tape player after the attack, so there’s lot of suspension and weightlessness in ‘Nocturnes’. It was a troublesome piece, there were some things that I included in it that I always thought were a mistake and I could never fix them until now. Normally, I do try to fix things that I don’t like about pieces but I also try to be true to the piece. In ‘Nocturnes’, originally there was an obvious mistake that needed to be fixed, so now that I can digitally edit I can go back and sort of fix those little bits of too much that didn’t belong to the piece. So that was a long process and I finally thought that we had to release it because it’s got something to it. The second track on the album, ‘The Trail of Tears’, is a newer piece which is a loop and feedback loop, tape delay experiment that I did in 2009 or 2010 and I think those two tracks go really well together.
Will you play ‘Nocturnes’ tonight?
Yes, I’m gonna play ‘Nocturnes’, but then I’m gonna do something brand new with some of the old ‘Variations’ loops. I recently got these little German Uher Report Monitor tape decks. They’re very small and they play at the four speeds that I like and I can travel with them but after the last show with all the package handling and TSA inspections, one of them was damaged when I got home and it was stuck on the wrong speed so I had to go back into the studio and copy new loops for this machine so I could play them on the wrong speed because I had no time to find anyone to repair it because it’s a very delicate 70’s machine. So I went back in the studio last week and made new loops and something really interesting happened. So for tonight’s performance it’s sort of like, the first part is the medicine and we’ll have a spoonful of sugar at the end.
There are the experiments that you do in the studio that lead to finished pieces and there is the performance aspect of your work. Are the two separated or are they part of a joint process of composition and improvisation?
No, I try to do the same. What I’m doing really is resonating a space and each space is different. Something sounds good in one space and not so good in another space. So I listen, I try to pay attention, try not to do too much, let things resonate, fall into a space so that everybody can fall into it with me and we can go somewhere else together. I pay attention to the sound and to the space, I’m basically listening trying to see where to go. For tonight’s performance I have a plan, I have a set list but the second part will be a little bit freer and more fun for me than the first part.
Will you use a computer at all?
I’m gonna use a computer for ‘Nocturnes’ and I’ll use the tape decks for the second part.
How has the advance of technology changed the way you work since you started doing your experiments with tapes in the late 70’s/early 80’s?
In a way working with a software or tapes is the same thing. Now you can do with Ableton Live what I used to do with tape loops. You can create loops and you can set them in to a graphic score just the way that I did with ‘Nocturnes’ and it all looks the same but I still prefer working with tape decks. It’s more fun for me to put the loops on and let them do their thing plus you’re getting real analogue sound and it’s tape on head and you’re never know what it‘s gonna do and it has warmth.
Never knowing what’s going to happen is linked to the idea of indeterminacy in John Cage’s music.
Probably the most important thing I learnt in music school was learning about John Cage and his work, especially the element of chance, allowing the Other to come in and not be afraid of that. And for me this was very freeing because when I first wanted to be a composer it was like: ‘Here is your paper, here is your pencil, now do your work!’. And I was like: ‘OK, well here’s a whole note… And there’s another whole note… Let’s make it go to the third measure… Now what?’ So I didn’t know what to do but learning about John Cage gave me a lot of options, the fact that he used tape and stuff, he was the first one who opened a door in my brain and then soon after that I heard Steve Reich’s tape loop stuff and he came up with ‘Music for 18 musicians’ which was so beautiful and I could hear how he had translated his tape loop delay into like transcription and I just loved it. Finally, Brian Eno came out with ‘Music for Airports’ and that was just the Holy Trinity for me! If that melancholy was allowed and you could have this sort of stuff… These were the three main influences that led me in the direction that I took afterwards.
In your work there are also some important conceptual similarities with Gavin Bryars’s piece ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’.
I really love him and ‘Jesus’ Blood’ and the ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ are amazing! But you know, I didn’t hear those until after the Disintegration Loops came out. We had an event in my loft in Brooklyn for a friend of mine, I think it was the American poet Dana Gioia who gave a talk or a reading and we played some of the music before and after, there were quite a few people there. And this gentleman came up to me afterwards and asked me about it. I told him what it was, it hadn’t come out yet. And he asked me: ‘Do you know Gavin Bryars’ ‘Sinking of the Titanic’?’ and I said: “No, I don’t!’ and he sent it to me with ‘Jesus’ Blood’ and I just found that completely incredible and really really beautiful.
You’ve been working with loops as elemental material for your compositions for the past 25 years. Do the newer loops still relate to your earlier experimentations?
It’s what’s happening here in me that resonates and that goes into the loops. I’m still me after 25 years and I like what I like. An accident happens, the flip side of the tape I’m using happens to have some kind of spectacular accident on it, I’ll notice and it will be used. With the new loops I’m making you’ll still be able to tell it’s me. I’m not going into Hip-Hop or anything at the moment! But you know, I do have some loops that some Hip-Hop producers would love to use but I haven’t brought them out yet…
Do you think that loops can act as a ‘getaway’ to buried memories?
Memories are loops, our memories are made of loops. We have loops that constantly go around and around, sometimes it’s bad feedback loops that continue to plague people and cause them pain and stuff like that. These things need to be resolved. The loops helped me to resolve my own bad feedback loops and let them go. Our world is in a bad feedback loop right now. Feedback, when you put a microphone next to a speaker, it’s just a screech. Feedback needs to be surfed, you have to be very careful if you want to work with feedback because otherwise it just destroys everything. We’re at a point right now where we need to get rid of some bad feedback loops and it’s happening. It’s not gonna be pretty but eventually things will resolve.
Or we won’t survive. Good riddance to bad rubbish as far as I’m concerned the human race is not taking care of the planet, it’s only taking care of itself. So if it destroys itself, well too bad! The planet will survive… We’re too selfish and spoiled.
What is the place of your music in all of that?
It’s the only thing I can do, this is my way of changing the resonant frequency… it’s war.
Fast forward to 11pm, the room is full to capacity despite the late schedule. Standing in front of a couple of reel-to-reel tape decks, a laptop and a mixing board, William Basinski remained almost motionless for most of his set, carefully adjusting and eq-ing the sound as it unfolds. The back-lighting and on-screen projections make his shadowed silhouette cut an almost messianic figure as he sets up and manipulates small tape loops with meditative attention. The devotional atmosphere that surrounds the performance is beautifully echoed by the transcendental resonances of the piano loops seemingly vanishing into the void of eternity. In their imperfect circularity, the loops slowly reveal their decayed and desolated splendour, projecting phantom sounds and elusive shadows on the surface of silence. As the performance draws to an end, the room becomes like a huge resonating chamber where beauty and despair can finally breathe in unison, entangled in a slow and endless dance…
– Interview: Pascal Savy / Film: Gianmarco Del Re for Fluid Radio / Photo credit c. 2011 Maxim Moston