Since the early 1980s, William Basinski has been recording long, melancholic compositions made of shifting loops sourced from radio, prepared piano and synthesizer. He began releasing these recordings commercially in 1997, beginning with the hypnotic Shortwavemusic on Carsten Nicolai’s Raster-Noton imprint. Over the course of the last decade, Basinski’s own 2062 label has delivered a steady stream of releases — many of them revisitations of material recorded decades earlier.
Basinski achieved his first real crossover success with The Disintegration Loops, a set of four CDs released in 2003 and 2004. Slow and viscous, the compositions let handfuls of orchestral loops play against each other, blurred and churning, soaking up color like a Rothko. After letting the tapes lie in storage for years, Basinski decided to archive them; but upon digitizing, they began to decay, imparting sonic imperfections that only serve to reinforce the sense of fragility inherent in the material. Nothing really “happens” in a typical Basinski piece — they’re portraits in stasis, as suggestive as slow-moving cloud forms and as calming as a Zen rock garden. As Basinski puts it, his compositions are “time machines.” You may be surprised to find where they transport you.
These days, Basinski splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, but from the sound of his music, it would be easy to imagine him as completely rootless, simply bouncing off the ionosphere like the shortwave radio signals that provide the foundation of his early work.
eMusic’s Philip Sherburne caught up with Basinski, temporarily free of the ionosphere and safely grounded at his home in LA.
Are you living full time in LA now?
I’m back and forth. I still have the loft in New York, but it’s so expensive now. Our lease runs out next year so I’ll probably have to finally move. But you know what, I’m sick of New York. Williamsburg is far too hip. They’re tearing everything down and building all these cheesy condos that no one can afford. I can’t even work there for all the noise.
This might sound like a strange question, but I’m surprised to find music like yours coming out of Los Angeles.
Yeah, I know. I’m an exile, basically. Almost wherever I am, I think. I had my early, very formative years right after school in San Francisco. The sound of San Francisco — it just blew my mind. The night sounds, the cable cars creaking and the electric grasshopper busses buzzing and the foghorns, and everything all swirling together. It was a huge influence on my early style.
It’s sort of an amniotic bubble that I work in. I don’t buy records. I never have — I don’t know what to do in a record store, it’s all too much for me. But James, my partner for many years, is a huge musicologist, a huge record buyer. He used to work at used record stores and come home every day with armloads of records. He had an encyclopedic collection of just about everything you could imagine, from classical to early 20th century contemporary and experimental and then psych rock — you name it, he had it. So that was a big influence on me too. But he’s the one that buys records. I try to do my work.
What are your musical origins? When did you begin playing and recording?
My parents were amazing in that they made all of us take music and stick with it and practice, from junior high through high school. I didn’t really want to be in the band, because I was already starting to get beat up. But I went to meet the band director and he was a cool guy, he had me pegged for his first clarinetist. So I got my clarinet and really took to it because it kept me away from getting beat up. You know, if I could ride my bike home fast enough, at least. By my junior year I was first chair in this big symphonic band with this bombastic band director who was mad about Hindemith. We were playing some serious hardcore music and we ended up winning festivals all over the country.
I bought a tenor saxophone with my lawn mowing and paper route money. My teachers wanted me to be first chair clarinet at the New York Philharmonic, but I wanted to be David Bowie. My older brother was an excellent guitar player, so we used to jam. I used to slow down the Edgar Winter records to 16 and learn all the solos. Eventually I went to North Texas State University, which is a big jazz school. I was pretty good for a young kid playing saxophone, but when I went to my audition and heard them I was so freaked out I couldn’t even play my scales and totally tanked my audition. So then I changed to composition.
The great thing about it was that I started meeting kids my age that were really talented, and we would go to the practice rooms with the Real Book and play for hours at a time. I started to develop my own style on the saxophone. I haven’t released any of that work yet, but I will eventually. I did that for a few years, and the music department, they were all very interested in serial music, which I had had enough of already and I didn’t like particularly. At that time all my friends were massive record people. I think Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians came out, and that really struck a chord with me. Not so much Philip Glass, but when I heard 18 Musicians I loved the phasing and everything he did with that. I started to hear Come Out and his other early works. And I had a great experimental music class, so I learned about John Cage and William Burroughs and all these people, so I kind of picked and chose techniques from these various geniuses.
And then I moved to San Francisco in 1978 and heard Brian Eno’s Music for Airports playing in my friend’s art studio, and that just totally blew my mind and took me to this melancholic place where I felt like, this is what I want to go after. And I just started experimenting with found tape and old tape decks I found at the junk stores, and I started doing things, just geeking around with what was available, and sort of built from there.
At that time punk had just hit, so we would go to the Mabuhay Gardens. My idol in those days was Winston Tong, of Tuxedomoon — mainly because he was a fashion icon. He wore skinny black jeans and stilettos, and I said, “OK, that’s the look I’m going to go for.” Which is really hard, going downhill in San Francisco on your first day in a pair of steel-tip alligator pumps. My legs were shooting sparks!
I was experimenting with all kinds of crazy stuff. We would pick up old televisions off the street and see if they would do anything interesting, and had them all over the apartment. Some made really cool sounds. I was slowing things down, recording refrigerators, you name it — I just recorded everything. Eventually I rented a piano and started preparing that.
At the time, were you aware of other artists working with similar materials?
It was pretty much a solitary studio practice. I’m sure there were other people doing it, but I didn’t know any of them. I was looking for people to play in bands with out there, but I never really found any. But we didn’t live there for that long — we only lived there for about a year and a half, and then we moved to New York in 1980. Jamie’s an artist, and he was ready to go, we were going to take over the art world. So we saved up our money and moved to New York, found a loft in downtown Brooklyn, a huge space with views of Manhattan, and we just built our own world there. I think our neighbors thought aliens had landed when we came in.
At that time, in 1980, artists could go there with no money and find a place to live and work. There were so many things to check out and do. The art world was really small then but really exciting, just about 300 very cool, eccentric people, and we made friends really fast. Jamie started having studio visits and we’d met other people, and very quickly started playing in bands with different people. I continued my experiments and started applying for little showcases. We would go to the Kitchen when it was still down in SoHo, and we went to see Marian Zazeela and La Monte Young in their place. Meredith Monk became a friend… A couple of those places are still there — Experimental Intermedia, Phill Niblock‘s space… We used to see those things. If I saw a musician or someone I liked I would talk to them afterwards and ask if they wanted to do something, and generally they said yes.
The peak of that part of my career was in ’85 or ’86, when I had two nights at the Anchorage at the Brooklyn Bridge. Incredible space, 60-foot high brick barrel vaults and catacombs, all just holding up the bridge. They would do all kinds of things there. I had two sold-out nights there, and then there wasn’t a notice in the paper, nobody wrote about it, and it was just kind of heartbreaking. And I thought, “Oh, whatever.” I kept doing my work and I just had to wait until 2001 for people to get it, or to be able to find a way for me to get it all out there.
You started releasing with Shortwave Music, right?
That was released in ’97. Carsten Nicolai is such a doll, and we became very good friends. When he had his first residency in New York, he lived downstairs from us. He heard that and said, “I have a label, and I want to release it.” That was just fabulous — no one had ever said that to me. When it finally came out, I went down to the record store in Williamsburg and they had one copy. It was only $11, and I thought, “$11 for a clear LP import? I’ll take it!” So I bought it, took it back to my place and put it on the record player, and it sounded great.
I think they only made 600 copies of it, and it sort of evaporated. Nothing really happened, so I thought, “Well, hmm, that’s interesting.” But I just kept working. Eventually Olaf Bender and the boys [from Raster-Noton] were in New York, and he sat me down in the kitchen and said, “Billy, you should do more for your music.” So I started trying to release my own work. I had met Steve Roden through Jamie, because Steve is a fabulous visual artist as well as a brilliant sound artist and composer, and we really hit it off. I had created Water Music and had these CDs I didn’t know what to do with, so he gave me a list of 50 names — people to send them to and see what happens. So that’s what I did. It was people like Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree, Massimo Ricci, some people all over the place. I got really great response about it, started to get a bit of distribution interest and it built slowly and gradually. Somehow I’ve managed to be able to keep releasing records. This is what I do full time now. This is my job, and I’m in the office every day. I basically wear all the hats, do it all myself.
So much of your music is a revisitation of material begun 20 or 30 years earlier. Do you prefer working with material from your past?
That period of work I didn’t listen to for maybe 15 or 20 years. When I came to rediscover it, thinking that I should archive it before it all just goes away, it just transfixed me. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, or if it was any good, or if I was a real composer or not. I was just trying to do what I liked and what I enjoyed listening to. And I was very serious about it. I sent stuff out, but nothing ever really happened, because it was all about pop then. But I kept doing it, and eventually started playing more pop music and trying to write more commercially accessible stuff as a way to get people into the other work. Which wasn’t really that accessible and not as good as the older work. And when I started to hear this work later, I thought, “My God, it’s so unique, and it takes you out of time.” So I just started releasing it.
Then there’s this archive of loops I kept finding, and I’m still finding. It’s just my material, you know, it’s like my synthesizers. I have this unique archive of sounds, and that’s what I like to work with. I do a lot of other things that haven’t been released yet, but I can only do so much at a time, so I have to concentrate. If I find something in the archive that I think is really great and I want to release it, then I’ll do that. I try to release one archival CD and one new piece a year, maybe two if I can. But it’s a lot of work. Even with the archival stuff, it takes a lot of listening, a lot of decisions about whether to restore or not restore, you know — mastering, agonizing, that kind of thing.
With your loops, what sound sources were you using, and what were you recording to?
I started using loops in San Francisco in late ’78, right after I got there. You could buy reels of used tape and old reel-to-reel decks at any junk store. You’d get the tape deck for $5 and they’d throw in a basket of tape. So I started out just recording everything and playing with the speeds. Weird televisions. Our freezer had a great sound. I worked in a meatpacking plant in Oakland. I would work these machines with some Mexican boys, and the machines were really loud, they made a fantastic sound. I recorded that and mixed it with some weird electric piano music that I made, just tried all kinds of stuff.
Then I rented this piano and started doing loops with that, and that’s where the early Melancholia stuff came from. In New York, you know, same thing — I had these two big old lay-down Norelco Continental reel-to-reel decks that had four speeds, and there, when you set up the stereo, just from the wires running across the floor, you would hear these 1,001 strings wisping through anything you were doing. The American popular standards/easy listening station had the most powerful signal in the city. So I started playing around with it — I wanted to see what I could get from the airwaves, like trying to get something from nothing. I started taking little pieces of it. I love string sounds. I never could afford a Mellotron, which was the dream instrument on display at music stores in the ’70s. But I knew they were made with tape loops of string sounds, so I thought, maybe I can make my own. So I’d take a couple of measures of the beginnings and endings of these easy listening, 1,001 strings versions of the American popular standards. I’d just take little bits here and there and then I’d slow it down, and if I liked it, I’d stick it on this dead tree that I had in my studio, like a bush with all these tiny little brainlike branches, and that held all these different loops.
Just dangling the tape loops off the tree?
Yeah, and they would get grouped together. Then I would experiment with mixing them. Another problem we had there is that we had fluorescent lights running along the floors of our loft, which gave it this very airy, space-station feel. I didn’t know anything about ground loops or anything like that, so there was always this 60Hz hum in everything. I was trying to mask that somehow, and then I had gotten this amazing shortwave radio. I loved the sound, all that static. You could get it in between stations. It was this amazing thing, you never knew when a wisp of middle-eastern melody would come in and be perfect with what you were doing. That’s when shortwave experiments happened. So I did that for a few years, and that culminated in The River. I wanted these elemental loops, like three or four of them, and I just used those and did this one 90-minute session one night, and it just blew our minds.
What’s the appeal of melancholy? It reminds me of the Romantics, and I know you’re a bit of a dandy, so that also ties into the Romantic aesthetic…
I’m definitely a dandy, and I’m melancholic. It’s just part of my nature. I grew up pretty much miserable, from day one. Either wished I was dead or I had never been born. [Laughs] I think everybody has that, it’s part of our loss of being human. It’s something everyone can relate to. I’m not trying to be popular or anything; this is just what I do, and it’s what I like to listen to. It’s just a part of me.
No. Like I said, when I start something, I just have to find something that gives me a spark, and then it’s all just intuitive. I sit there and do a lot of listening. Really, I try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Obviously there’s a certain amount of addition, but what’s more important for me is some kind of subtraction. It’s difficult — each piece is different. But I never was a record buyer and I was never really educated; I’m certainly not an intellectual, I’m not a scholar. I just have to follow my ears.
When you’re doing that listening, how do you decide when enough is enough? Your pieces can run from 10 minutes to over an hour, and often with very little change over that time.
They all can last forever, basically. It’s just suspending time, trying to go out of time. They’re like time machines or space ships or something. I like to find a place where I can submerge. If I find something I can listen to over and over and over again and it doesn’t become redundant, then I think, “Oh, wow, that’s nice.” The reason The River is on two CDs is because you can’t put 90 minutes on one CD. But originally it was on two sides of a cassette, so if you had one of those cassette decks that would turn the tape, then it was just this thing that went on and on, you just kept it going forever. With the loops, if I found a loop in the old days that was on the tape deck, just going around and around and we loved it, sometimes we’d leave it on for days.
Do you ever worry about repeating yourself?
Yeah, I worry about everything, dahling. I’m a worrier. As I get closer to every release, there’s the worry factor. Am I doing enough, or am I going to be able to pull this off? Have I gone too far? There’s the, “Follow your gut, I love this piece, it’s so beautiful, I want to release this because I love it so much,” and then there’s the, “Well, I wonder how long before they start going, ‘Ho hum.’” Then the other side, with other music I did in the late ’80s and early ’90s which is more, almost like post-rock, it’s like, “Well, should I or shouldn’t I? Don’t alienate the fan base, blah blah,” all this bullshit that gets in your head. I basically try to take my time and think things through and see what happens. It’s tricky.