The Life and Timing of William Basinski
William Basinski, the Los Angeles-based experimental electronic composer will be one of the Guest Composers at the 2017 Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival in January. He will perform The Deluge and will participate in the 12 Hour Drone Festival. His Disintegration Loops, 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 in November, 2016 for the Borderview section of the magazine. What follows is an extended version of that conversation.
Border Crossings will host an After Concert Party on Sunday, January 29th at the New Music Festival to launch our latest issue, which also includes an interview with Composer-in-Residence, Meredith Monk.
BORDER CROSSINGS: You started out playing saxophone and clarinet didn’t you?
WILLIAM BASINKSKI: Yes, I was trained classically on the clarinet from the age of 12 up through high school but I didn’t want to be the first chair clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic like my teachers wanted me to be. I wanted to be David Bowie. So I got a wonderful private clarinet teacher who also worked part time at a musical instrument store and he fixed up a beautiful old Conn Pink Lady big band tenor saxophone for me and I was able to buy it with my lawn mowing money for $250. So in my senior year I started playing blues and jazz. Then I went to North Texas State University where they have a very big music department and a particularly specialized big band department. In fact, a couple of years before in 1975 and 1976 the One O’clock Lab Band, which was the top Lab Band, was nominated for Grammy award. Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny were in the band at that time so you can get a sense of the quality of the musicianship the band had.
What do you think the school band Director at the school your mother took you to meant when he said you looked like a clarinetist? If you’d looked like a trombonist would we have a completely different William Basinski?
You’d have my younger brother, Patrick.
But you played with Anthony and the Johnsons for a while, so there was no repudiation of your classical training.
No. I played in a lot of different bands in New York from rock n roll to avant-garde and from jazz to contemporary. I lived there for 30 years and I met a lot of musicians and we always had big lofts, so we had places where we could make noise and make music. I’ve been out here in California for the last ten years and there aren’t so many people to jam with but I am making a new record with my wonderful young assistant and engineer, Preston. He is into all kinds of crazy, foot-worky, dancey stuff and we started jamming together last spring and now we have an album of tunes that will come out in the summer. The project is called Sparkle Division and I’m playing the saxophone again and it is completely different from anything that anybody knows of my published work. It’s just a one-off record. I don’t know if we’re going to tour because I don’t have time to get my chops back. But I’m not ruling out anything.
What was it that got you interested in using obsolete tape recorders to pick up ambient sounds? Did it seem to you at the time a radical shift from the musical training you had had?
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 with professional big bands so they could sit for a year and just smoke weed and play great music and not have to have shine their shoes. I totally fucked up the audition and didn’t get into 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. I enjoyed the technique but it wasn’t what I wanted to create. 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?
Exactly. You make them up as you go along. Jamie had always been a massive record collector and he 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 amazing stuff. He had everything: classical; early avant-garde and up through the sixties; psychedelic and rock; and the German experimental stuff: Klaus Schulze, Conny Plank and Conrad Schnitzler. 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.
So no sound was alien to you and all sound had some possibility?
Yes especially because I was listening. My ears were turned on. When I got to San Francisco the sound of the city was the best droney electronic thing you could ever want. There was something about the hills and the water and the fog and the clicking electric buses and the wires and the foghorns. There is inspiration everywhere. But it was good that I got out of Texas when I did. It doesn’t make it easy when you don’t finish your degree because going through the academic process can help you with mentors and all kinds of opportunities that you don’t get when you don’t finish. So I had to do it my own way by going to the Punk Rock School of Hard Knocks.
I’m interested to hear you talk about the elegant melancholy of Brian Eno. You have referred to a “rich well of melancholy” that was especially resonant in your own work. Pieces like the Nocturnes and the Hymns of Oblivion seem to suggest that you have a melancholic temperament.
My greatest wish growing up was that I hadn’t been born or that I was dead.
Is that a romantic disposition?
Melancholia is a romantic disease so I guess you could characterize it that way. It’s not always pleasant but creating the music helped to heal me, so that was positive.
How does your collaboration work with James Elaine?
We grew up together and he taught me every thing I know about how to look at and to appreciate art. It wasn’t direct teaching as much as watching him paint, reading his art books when I first got to San Francisco, and being around visual artists. In the early days those were most of my buddies until we got to New York and started meeting more musicians. But Jamie and I think alike and we’ve always lived and worked together. Every place he’s painting I’m in the back doing my own kind of painting with the tapes and the sounds. He is an incredible painter but he is an equally incredible cinematographer. He can really hold a shot; you can see it like the eye sees something. I’m a terrible cameraman who has gotten better from watching how he does things. But I am a really good picture editor. He’s a collector and he likes to keep everything, so for the last 20 years we have benefitted from being three thousand miles apart. He will send me some footage and I’ll be working on something and I can just plop them together because I know how to cut to the music. Usually there will be one little thing and he will zero in on it right away and I’ll say, “Yeah, I know” and we fix it. So he gets to have his say and that’s always nice.
Your piece called Melancholia connects to Durer’s famous etching from 1514, as well as to Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621. When you named it were you playing off either of these sources?
Not so much because I was pretty ignorant but since then, of course, I have seen the Durer and I have had the wonderful Anatomy of Melancholy for years now. Jamie taught me a lot about titling, which he’s very good at. Melancholy was the feeling that piece evoked, so the title came from a personal place.
How important has the visual been for you? When you talk about Robert Wilson and his work on The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic you say he is, “Rothko with lights.” Often your comparisons are in visual and not aural terms.
I grew up in the gothic Catholic cathedral in Houston Texas, so the first things I saw were magnificent stained glass windows just like in Europe. Incense and music and organs and the Latin Mass all made quite an impression on me. I have always said that if I had been born 10 years earlier, maybe even five years earlier, I would have been the one in the family who became the priest. But obviously I wasn’t right. I was bright but girlie and flamboyant.
In a critical response to 92982 the writer refers to the sound of eternity and you talk about your work aspiring to eternal perfection. The measure of music is time and here you are talking about the feeling of endless time. Is that what you are after?
If I can create what I call a bubble in eternity and slow down or stop time, then that is what I want. Sometimes it works. In my concerts people who know my work get ready to go and then we go off somewhere for 40 minutes. If it works, it seems like five, so it’s not redundant. People who don’t know my work, or who aren’t into work like it, can be very uncomfortable with a repetitive phrase going over and over again because they can’t turn off their minds. So it can become a problem.
When you play live you talk about listening to both the resonant frequency in the room and to the audience. Is it exhausting to perform live because you have to be so attentive?
It really does put one into the alpha zone, I’ll tell you that. After I’m done, I can barely find my hands. Sometimes people want to come up and talk to me and it takes me a minute to catch my breath and come back to my body. It’s trippy.
When I was thinking about your work I began to think about endless time, combined with this idea of wearing down. Disintegration, which was what was happening to your old tapes, leads to entropy and one of the characteristics of the entropic is disorder. But instead of moving in that direction, your work achieves some kind of radical coherence, or completion, even transcendence. How does that occur given that you are dealing with the disintegration of things?
You show up for work and you never know what’s going to happen. I just happened to be recording it at the time, thank god, and there it was. It was transcendental and I knew it when it was done. I had a Catholic epiphany because it was about redemption and not just death. It was all recorded and remembered and renewed.
And that is where you make the connection to prayerfulness and meditation?
So you just wait; it is there and you have to be receptive? It comes to you as much as you go to it. That’s more passive than we think the act of making is.
That is true. My mother comes from an Irish Catholic family and she is one of eight siblings, four boys and four girls, who were all movie star gorgeous. They had lots of kids—I have 27 cousins who lived in Houston and in San Antonio—and because the family was very close, we would get together frequently. One of my Mom’s brothers, Uncle Hank, Henry Grover, was an historian and a State senator when we were growing up. He ran for Governor in Texas as a Democrat in 1967 but by then the South had switched to Republican and he didn’t win. But Uncle Hank was a great scout leader and he would have all the boys over to his house. One night we were playing poker or maybe 21 for pennies and I didn’t win and he said, “Billie, you’re as patient as a saint.” I had to learn patience. I had to wait a long time to have any sort of recognition for my work and that gave me years of sadness and agony and frustration but I kept doing it. You can never give up.
What was it in 2001 that provoked you to locate your old tapes and transfer them to the CD format?
It was because of the technology. They came out with CD burners.
It was that simple. The technology was available and you realized this was a way to save what you knew was going to be lost otherwise?
Pretty much. A lot of that work was my earliest experiments from 1978 up through the mid-’80s. It had been stored away because I was working on new things. I was working on Hymns of Oblivion for years and producing other bands. I went back into our storage space, The Land That Time Forgot, and found all these cases that I had forgotten about. I started listening and I went, “Oh my god, this stuff is amazing.” So I started transferring it.
There are two revelations here; one regarding the quality of what you had done and then the recognition that in the process of preserving it, you were losing it. That’s a loaded moment.
You got that right.
Were you apprehensive when you realized what was happening?
I started hearing what was happening. My first thought was, “Is it recording?” “Okay, it’s recording, I wonder what is going to happen now?” I was on pins and needles and it was quite a heightened experience. It came at a very dark time. I was about to be evicted; I had no money; I had closed my shop a few months before and hadn’t had any work. But it was a beautiful summer day, I had just read The Way of Zen and I thought, “Get up and go back to work and use this time you have.” So I went into the studio. I started in a Buddhist moment and ended in a redemptive Catholic moment.
You’re going to be doing the Canadian premiere of The Deluge at the WSO’s New Music Festival, which is a companion piece to Cascade, a work that Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker called your “most severe and darkest work.” What is the relationship between the two pieces?
To me Cascade is a transcendental, jewel-like organism floating in space. It was just one tape loop and it should have been so easy but it wasn’t. It was old and crunchy and I remembered the way it used to sound and I wanted to get that sound. After working on it for months with my engineer and almost throwing it out three times, we finally got it where I wanted it. I just love it. To me it is not dark at all; I find it quite relaxing and beautiful. The live version of The Deluge starts out the same but then it gets sent through different lengths of delay patterns until it starts building up different feedback loops and creates this chaotic tension, which eventually fades away. Then there is The Denouement, which is like the end credits. The Deluge is a dark piece that warns when you focus too much on the jewels, the gold, the money or whatever you want, you can get caught in a lot of bad feedback loops. Look what’s happened to our country and the world right now; it’s this race to the bottom. And the metaphor is the flood: “Oh, it’s starting to rain; great, we need rain” and then it’s like, “Oh, it’s still raining” and then, “Oh my god, when is it going to stop raining?” So you cut a hole in the roof and when it stops you look out and everything has changed, the whole world has been destroyed. But you’re alive.
It is interesting that you say The Denouement is like film credits: it sounded orchestral and filmic to me somehow.
It is. The tape loop came from an old reel-to-reel playlist someone gave me which turned out to be an excerpt from Johann Strauss’s Weiner Bonbons. When I tour I use two small Uher reel-to-reel tape decks which have 4 speeds. They are from the ’70s and can be fussy sometimes. In between tours I realized one of my decks would only play on one speed no matter which speed I picked, and it wasn’t the correct one. It was a big problem. So I decided to randomly cut some used tape from my cache of random reel-to-reels people have given me. I had to cut the tape fragments as the same size as the original loops, then copy the original loops so they would play on the naughty machine at the speed it preferred. Once that was done, I turned the tapes over to see what was on the other side. The loop which makes up the main theme of The Denouement was on the B-side of one of these tape loops. It was in the same key and worked beautifully with the other loops, so I had my ending. It was my transcriber, Maxim Moston, who discovered where it came from. Again, it pays to show up for work.
You’re also part of the 12 Hour Drone Fest here and I wonder how you will fit into it? I think of your work as being more melodic than much drone music.
I have a lot of drone-based work, some of which hasn’t been heard. But I started listening to overtones and microtonal small juxtapositions in drones. I don’t like most of what is called Noise Music because I have to protect my ears but a great drone is something I can get into.
You told me that you don’t listen to the Disintegration Loops but I wonder if the hearing of them changes as the world changes. In a post-Trumped America, do you think the Disintegration Loops will have a new and different resonance?
I think so because people discover them all the time. There is something profound about that work and it is certainly apropos to our times. It just keeps getting worse.
I am charmed by the idea that you were once the impresario of Arcadia, a place where lovely people make lovely things. Is that an impossibly Utopian vision to hold today? I don’t mean in Williamsburg or in Los Angeles but the idea of Arcadia?
I don’t think it ever is, especially with young people. They’ll find ways to get together and make things under any circumstances. Of course, when you get to be my age, it gets harder and harder.
But you don’t seem to be lacking the ability to make things.
Well, I don’t because that is my job and it’s what I do. This is what I always wanted and it was what I wanted when I was 20. Now I’m almost 60 and touring is exhausting and I have to take long periods of rest and I’ll start to feel depressed. But then I’ll just say to myself, “You’re pregnant! Get in the studio; it’s time to make another piece.”