William Basinski, the Los Angeles-based experimental electronic composer, will be one of the guest composers at the 2017 New Music Festival. He will perform The Deluge, 2015, and will participate in the 12-Hour Drone Festival. His Disintegration Loops, 2002, a response to the tragedy of 9/11, is universally considered an ambient masterpiece. In the late ’70s he moved to San Francisco with his partner and collaborator, the painter and cinematographer James Elaine. William Basinski spoke to Border Crossings on November 30, 2016.
William Basinski live at the Empty Bottle, Chicago. Photo: Seth Tisue, Creative Commons. All photos courtesy the artist and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
BORDER CROSSINGS: What got you interested in using obsolete tape recorders to pick up ambient sounds, when you were living in San Francisco?
WILLIAM BASINSKI: Let’s go back a little bit. When I was 18, I went to the University of North Texas and tried out for the big bands. I was never good at auditioning because I got very nervous. The guys I heard warming up were monsters. They would come off the road from professional big bands so they could sit for a year and smoke weed and play great music and not have to shine their shoes. I totally fucked up the audition and didn’t get in to any of the bands, so I switched my major to composition. In one of the contemporary music classes the teacher turned us on to John Cage and that was the first big door that opened. I realized you don’t have to write it all down, and anything goes. He taught us how to listen, like what Pauline Oliveros does with her ‘deep listening,’ to stretch our ears and place them in three-dimensional space. I started working with a little cassette recorder and put a piece of tape over the erase head. My roommates had a Fender Rhodes piano and you could get it to distort a little bit. I started randomly working on these themes and variations. All my friends were music buyers and I was hearing what they were bringing over. The classical part of the music school was still very much into 12-tone serial music, which didn’t interest me. I had gone to one of the top music high schools in the country and we were playing Paul Hindemith and winning contests. Then I started hearing Terry Riley and Steve Reich and I was mesmerized by this new tonalism and minimalism. So there were places where I was drawn, and I knew it was okay to wade into the waters.
I suppose you had the advantage of being able to do whatever you wanted because you didn’t know what the rules were?
William Basinski performing at Église Saint-Merry, Paris, 2016. Photo: Guiseppe Fregeni.
Exactly. You make them up as you go along. James had always been a massive record collector; he had worked at record stores for years; in fact, he was working at one in Berkeley when I moved there in 1978. Every day he would come home with arms full of stuff. He had everything: classical, early avantgarde up through the ’60s, psychedelic and rock, and the German experimental stuff, Klaus Schulze, Conny Plank and Conrad Schnitzler. I got to hear all this amazing music. My ears were exploding. Then Brian Eno’s Music for Airports blew my mind with its elegant melancholy. When I saw the diagram on the back of Discreet Music with the two tape decks showing the “Frippertronics” tape-delay system, I thought, I can figure that out. I went to a junk store around the corner and bought two big old forty-pound portable Philips Continentals from the ’60s, a bunch of used tape, and went home and started playing around by cutting up tape and making loops. I had rented a piano and I could prepare the piano by adding things; I could play the saxophone into the piano with the pedal held down, and I could record the compressor inside the freezer. It was such a great sound.❚