Photograph by: Ian Crowther
This article was originally published on May 28, 2009. Temporary Residence’s box set edition of The Disintegration Loops is released this month (November 2012), and available to order here.
This year has seen the release of a “new” work from William Basinski, the veteran California-based artist known for his groundbreaking and achingly romantic work with tape loops – most famously Shortwavemusic (Raster-Noton, 1998) and The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2062, 2002-3), the latter a sprawling elegy to the victims of 9/11 and a meditation on transience and transformation in general.
Entitled 92982, it represents Basinski’s first release since last year’s collaboration with Richard Chartier, Untitled I-III; like so many Basinski releases, it’s actually based on archival recordings that he made in the 1980s and which have been lying dormant since, collecting dust and a developing a new sonic character in the process. As he explains in the sleevenotes, 92982 is “something from a long time ago…In Brooklyn, 351 Jay Street…A fruitful evening in the studio…Home at last after a day of work at the answering service, answering phones for Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger, Steve Rubell, and all the other somebody people…”
“In our space station: home in my studio experimenting live. James is in the adjacent studio painting masterpieces. Roger is in the front, gluing old shoes on canvas and painting them orange…I’m clicking the old Norelcos back and forth between channels…All the windows are open. The sound is spreading all over downtown Brooklyn mixing with the helicopters, sirens, pot smoke and fireworks…”
Like all Basinski’s work, 92982 is concerned with the evocation of time and place, the human conception and construction of the past. Memories, like his beloved tape loops, degrade and distort over time; they lose fidelity but accrue a certain richness as the years roll by, and it’s this very richness which Basinski captures and celebrates. As long time fans of the charming, flamboyant 51-year old and his perfect marriage of concept and technique, FACT figured it was nigh on time to track him to talk both 92982 and his fascinating career to date. We called him up at home in LA to talk in-depth about working methods and the trials of the artist as young man…
Does the word “album” feel like the right word to describe 92982?
“Absolutely….I’m just about old enough to know what an album is.” [laughs]
In that case, tell me about the origins of this album…
“Well, you probably know, and some of the people familiar with my work may know: in the late 70s and early 80s I was very busy making these tape loops, and made a pretty large archive of them which I’m still using. As far as I remember, this album came from a cassette tape recording which was entitled 92982 – that was the date of that session. September 29th, 1982: I was just experimenting in my studio with the loops. This was early work for me as far as my maturing as an artist and stuff; so you know, at that time there was really no context for what I was doing,
“But I was enjoying experimenting and trying to be a composer. I had my musical training, or formal compositional training, so I was just having a ball in the studio, enjoying what was happening. I’ve been wanting to release this material for the last year or so; it takes me a while to get around to each loop, and with archival recordings there’s a lot of very delicate work to do – particularly from my archive from that period, because my recording techniques at the time were very bad. So I spent a lot of time this year trying to just finesse the recordings so that they would sound on CD as I remembered them, and as I wanted them to sound. And then I agonized over it like I always do..”
Do your restoration and post-production processes bringing anything new to the recording, or is your aim really just to retain the sound and character of the original?
“You know, the first thing is getting it onto digital in its complete original form and then mostly for me it’s a process of trying to clean it up a little bit. There are things that always bother me about it, and I have to think, ‘Well, I can fix this now, so do I do it or do I leave it?’. I always try to get rid of tape hiss as much as possible – I know that some people love tape hiss now, and try to emphasise it in their recordings, but it’s something that always bothered me. Then there’s the problem of well, how far do you go? If you go too far you start losing some of the high-end…But then my work from that period has a fairly tight frequency range, so it’s really not such a problem.
“Then there are other things that I have to decide like, ‘Do I take this mistake out or do I leave it in or what..?’ So I end up remaning pretty much faithful to what’s there to start with. On the third piece, the piano variation that’s 92982 – the reason that I kept that in there was because it laid the context for what became a major focus from that session, and led to Variations and Movement In Chrome Primitive and a whole bunch of tape loop and delay/feedback loop studies.”
Is there a consistency from your early work through to your more contemporary recordings? Do you feel like the same artist now as you were back then?
“I would say yes…I take so long to do things, it’s just like one long process – it’s taken this much time to have a audience that digs it, you know, understands and responds to it. And as I said, now there are things I can do to fix certain problems that I had with recordings in those days. I’ve heard the pieces over the years, so I have my favourites – of course, there’s many pieces that I’ll never release – but I have my favourites and I’ll sit on them for a while and then one day it’s like, ‘It’s your turn, get out there and work! You’re 25 now, get out of the house!’ [laughs]”
Is New York in the early 80s a time and place you look back on fondly? Your sleevenotes certainly portray it as a bohemian idyll…
“Yes, I mean, it was a very happy period…New York, 1982. New York in that period was really run down and scary and it was very colourful – but dangerous and…exciting. You could get a loft – we didn’t have any money, but we saved and got a great big loft, and oh, we were just gonna make it, you know? We worked whatever jobs we could find – there weren’t many at that time – but I had this crazy job at this crazy answering service and it was really hysterical and nerve-wracking [laughs], and then we’d come home and work. We didn’t really go out – it wasn’t a party scene, we couldn’t really afford to go out – so we came home and made our work, and it was real exciting.”
Is working in close proximity to other artists something that has had an effect on your own work? Do you enjoy it?
“The two artists that I mentioned in the liner notes – Roger and James – well, Jamie and I are still together…He’s in Beijing now for a year doing work over there, but we skype every day or every other day and we’re still working together on pieces. In fact, we have a little video that we just did in a show that Antony [Hegarty] curated in Paris at the Agnes B gallery. So yeah, we’re still very close, and Roger is still painting and struggling in New York and we talk on the phone all the time – so I’ve always had my close friends and peers, and some of them have remained from that time. Antony for the last 15 years has become very close so we’re always, you know, sharing with each other and getting feedback and all that kind of stuff. Now, I’m pretty much like a monk – I live here alone in this little house we rent in Los Angeles, with a beautiful yard and flowers everywhere and…I do my office work and put out my orders and do my work and go and do gigs every now and then when I’m invited, and that’s just what I do, that’s my life – and I’m just so happy that it’s paying the bills, so…[laughs]”
“I got rid of the place in New York last year, it was the end, you know. Time to… ”
Was that the Arcadia place that I read about? That looked like a kind of palace. How long were you there for?
“It was 19 years at that space. And then before that we were at the Jay Street space, we were there for ten years. So we were in New York for pretty much a life sentence…” [laughs]
What prompted your move to the west coast?
“It was strictly a necessity. Basically, our lease on that space would’ve been up next month, and it went up every year – it wasn’t like the 80s when you got a loft and held onto it for dirt-cheap rent – this was a whole different kind of deal and it had become extraordinarily expensive, and so every year I had to get another graduate student or something in there in a room to pay the rent. Last year, when the rent went up in July, it had basically reached a threshold where for that price these kids could basically find their own studio somewhere, and no matter how luxurious the place was, sharing with five people and one bathroom was a nightmare…
“So anyway, they all left, and so I had to – on the spur of the moment, when I had the time in the summer – just go back to New York and as much as it killed me to deal with it all – I mean, 4,000 sq ft filled with stuff from 20 years, it’s like oh my God – I garnered my troops and we photographed everything, and my friend Suzy made a blog and she put it all up on Craigslist and we had a couple of sales and then we packed up the artwork and whatever didn’t sell and got two moving trucks and shipped some of it to Texas and some of it here. So I don’t know how I did it, but I did it – so it’s over now. I don’t have to worry anymore about that huge expense to cover it, so I’m relieved.
Do you feel like the music you make and the methods have changed since you move to California? Does the environment have conscious or subliminal effect on your art?
“In a way, yes. But for example in New York I had my recording studio and my control room and all kinds of goodies, so I could go there and work with all that stuff for a month or two if I wanted to. Now it’s sitting in the garage waiting to be hooked up again, so…But these days all that stuff that I had from the early 90s – my deluxe control room and everything – basically you can have all that on a laptop now [laughs]. It’s amazing how fast that happened! So I have a very small studio and office in the biggest bedroom in our little house and I’m still working with the old tape-decks – the last piece on 92982 is live recording using the two old Narelco tape-decks with microphones, and the mix is coming out of the speakers and I’m surfing this edge of feedback. That piece would’ve gone on longer, but the feedback got out of control and it peaked on the CD burner so I settle for a very restrained excerpt from that piece. I’ll work with that I have!
“Also, I love the ambient sounds of cities and different places. New York had gotten so noisy because of all the construction in Williamsburg and everything – right around my building, so it was impossible to work there because my work is very quiet, really…So that was a problem. And here [in California] it’s nice and quiet and I’m enjoying it.”
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“It must be in my chart or something…[laughs] Who knows? It’s just a part of me. And I have to say, I’m much happier now than I’ve been in a long time, so that’s nice.”
So much of your work is based on retrieving and experimenting with loops that you made in the 80s. Do you feel like your loops are taking on an extra melancholic dimension in the transition from ‘then’ to ’now’?
“I don’t know, I guess people will say that. I’ve already read a couple of reviews saying that listener will experience a great deal of melancholy, great sadness listening to 92982. And I thought it was a happy record! So I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Making the work and having that exciting laboratory of all that junk that I was using back then and creating this music that none of us had ever heard and were all so excited about – naturally I wanted to release it and share it with the world, but there just wasn’t the audience. OK, there was a very small audience in the art world in New York that I would perform occasionally for, but no one was releasing anything like that at that time – so that caused me a great deal of agony as a young artist.
“By the mid-late 80s, I was still doing my work, but I had also started playing in bands with my friends, and did that for ten years. I had a lot of fun doing that, though none of those bands ever made it because no one was really signing bands in New York at that time. But you go through and you try to find a way to see what’s going to work, and then…When digital technology came out, I started finding these cases of my old tape loops – I thought I had them somewhere, but I didn’t know where, and then I found them in storage – and so I started digitizing them. Then I started hearing all this music again and I thought, ‘This has to be released. We have to get this out now.’ And we were now at a period when you could release your own work and maybe find a way to get it to the right people. I was lucky enough to have met Steve Roden through James, and he gave me a lift of 50 names of people to send Watermusic to, which I had done in 2000, and people responded very well, and so it started with that, and then of course The Disintegration Loops happened, and everyone went nuts over that: that’s what set it all into motion.”
Your first commercial release was the Raster-Noton release, Shortwavemusic. How did that happen?
“That was very exciting. Carsten [Nicolai] and I first met around ’96. I think Carsten had a residency at PS1 in New York and he was living downstairs – he was ‘the German friend who lived downstairs’ [laughs]. We became friends and he heard Shortwavemusic and he just loved it; he’d started this label and said he wanted to release it. I was like, ‘Wow, no one ever said that to me! [laughs]. Fabulous, let’s do it!
” So that’s what we did. It took a while, but eventually it came out in 1998. And they made that beautiful clear record – and it basically just disappeared. I managed to get one at the record store down the street – I had a shop in Wiliamsburg at that time, and Earwax Records was just down the street – I went there and they had one and I bought it for $11. And I thought, ‘Wow,an import album for $11? That seems awfully cheap…’ [laughs]. But I got it and I was thrilled.”
Did that experience give you a new lease of life? Did it give you the sense that you could now release material on a wider scale?
“No, not yet. Because I was still under the impression that if I had a record company releasing my work, it would all just start to happen and nothing really happened. At that point I still didn’t really have a computer to get online or anything, so I never knew what happened with it –I was thrilled that it was out there and I played it in my store and people loved it and stuff, but you know, nothing ever seemed to happen. And I was just like [feigns a huff]. We were going to release The River and stuff but it took such a long time, so I was a little frustrated…
“A few years later Carsten and Olaf were visiting New York, and Olaf sat me down in the kitchen and told me, ‘Billy, you have to do more for your music.’ And I was kind of stunned by him saying that and I was thinking, ‘Well, I thought that was your job’ – which naturally I didn’t say [laughs]! But it really made me think. I thought, ‘okay, okay’. Around 2000 my shop experiment, when the internet bubble burst, everything immediately died, just when I was beginning to break even. So that was the end of that. Meanwhile I couldn’t get a lease out of my landlady so everything was telling me, ‘You’ve got to stop fooling around, and concentrate on your music, and if you’re not willing to lose everything then you’re never going to get anywhere – and you’re going to be an old alcoholic antique dealer with the shop that you won’t let anyone in…’ [laughs]. So I did it: I closed the shop, and I almost lost the loft twice, and somehow I managed to survive through…miracles.
“And now , if people buy the records I can continue to make them. I have a wonderful core of really devoted fans, who absolutely love the work. You know, people either can’t get enough or don’t get it at all… ”
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I have fans here too, but there’s just no support network for touring the kind of stuff that I do. I mean, I can’t just go and play in bars like rock ‘n roll bands…To be a musician in America you get a band together and you get in the van and you go and play in bars…”
Europe is unique in its provision of gallery and performance spaces for work like yours…
“Yeah, and studios in every little town with all the best equipment…”
Has your attitude or approach to live performance changed over the years?
“When I first started touring in this century yes, I was using the laptop and stuff like this. Now I try to get people to get me some tape decks that I can use. For the last year I’ve been bringing loops and actually playing with the spaghetti in a live situation – and I enjoy it much more. And I think the audience really finds it fascinating too because they have no idea what the hell I’m doing. It’s much more interesting to look at – if you want to look, if you want to have your eyes open, then it’s better than seeing someone standing there looking terrified at a laptop, praying it’s not going to crash or something.
“My job when I’m performing is…to try and let something resonate, you know? And that means trying not to do too much, because the tendency is to look busy when the boss is watching [laughs]. So I have to have a great deal of restraint and try to avoid that and just see what resonates in each particular room and try to let something happen and just enjoy it.”
Tell me about your audio-visual work with James Elaine…
“We’ve been doing it for years. Our work is so similar that it just sort of falls together, so it’s never been a burden, it’s always very exciting. And he travels frequently so you never know what he’ll come back with and it just might be that I happen to be working on something and we’ll just throw something together and see how it looks, we’ll edit it a little bit and see what happens.”
With ambient, often emotionally ambiguous work such as yours, often things extraneous to the music play an especially big role in how the work is interpreted. Do you give much thought to things like titles and artwork?
“Titling is very difficult, I never was very good at it. James has always been excellent at that sort of thing, so I think I’m getting better at it. These things certainly are very important so it is something I do think about. Sometimes they just come to me.
“I think it’s interesting that many of the reviews of my work tend to expound upon a very visual experience, you know what I mean? I think it would be interesting – and Ive never really seen anyone do it – for someone with musical training to really dig in deeply with some formal critique or extrapolation.”
When faced with music that’s instrumental and ambient in character, a critic lunges for visual corollaries…
“And I have no problem with that. I’ve been sometimes moved to tears by some of the things people have written about my music, maybe because it’s been such a long time coming to me. But I’m very happy about , so I can’t complain at all…
“Well, The Disintegration Loops is about a five-hour cycle of six pieces that came about quite by chance in the studio in the late summer of 2001. I was at a very low point and in danger of being evicted, didn’t have any work and didn’t know what to do, and finally decided, you know, ‘Get your ass in the studio and do some work, you have the time.’ So I picked up where I’d left off archiving these tape loops onto CD-R and I put the first one that was in the queue on – Disintegration Loop 1.1 it ended up being – and it was this beautiful, very grave loop and I just thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is exactly what I need right now.’ It was gorgeous and I didn’t even remember I had it until then. So I started working with that and created a kind of a French horn random arpeggiation counter-melody that was really cool going along with it on the Voyetra synthesizer. I got that set up and went to the kitchen to make some coffee and came back and after a few minutes I started realising that the tape loop itself, as it was going around on the deck, was starting to…disintegrate.
“Recording tape is a plastic medium. It has glue and iron oxide, rust basically, that holds the magnetic recording. So the glue loses its integrity and the iron oxide starts turning to dust again. I was stunned, and I was so glad I was recording, and I thought, ‘God, what’s going to happen?’. Over the period of an hour this loop disintegrated right there in the studio so I just left it, I let it go for the full length of the CD and then faded it out. And then I went on to the next one, and so over a period of two days I had this huge work. And the title came to me immediately. I was just blown away by what had just happened and I was incredibly moved by the whole redemptive quality of what I’d just experienced: each of these loops had disintegrated in its own way and its own time, yet the life and death of the melody was redeemed in another medium. I was a Catholic growing up, and I thought, maybe there is hope after all! [laughs]. So I was calling my friends, ‘Get over here! You won’t believe what’s happened!’. We had quite a few weeks of awe just listening to these loops and thinking about them…
“And then 9/11 happened, and that was a big shock. We were all stunned and terrified. Living in New York – it wasn’t like watching it on TV from somewhere else, that was bad enough – but to see it, and be there, it was…Hell.
“We had been up on the roof all day. That night, my neighbour had a penthouse on the other side of the building and had a video camera up there; I got a tape and I asked her if she’d help me set it up, and so I framed this static shot of downtown where the smoke was, where the towers used to be, and I just let the tape run out. So I managed to capture the last hour of daylight for that day, and then the next day I got the tape and put it with the first Disintegration Loops 1.1 and made this accompanying film.
“Then I started releasing it. I couldn’t afford to release a box set. For someone who was virtually unknown that wasn’t really an option anyway. So I thought, I’ll release them one at a time – it’s so much music, so it’s better to let it out a little bit at a time. Antony told David Tibet and David Tibet told everyone in London; pretty soon David Keenan wrote that wonderful review in The Wire right when it first came out and that was the beginning, that was like, ‘Wow, here we go…’”
“Well, I knew that it was a major work. I didn’t expect anything – because no one had ever really got what I was doing before. But you know, my friend Howard Schwarzberg is a visual artist in New York and he’s a fabulous guy – he was born in Coney Island and he has this fabulous Coney Island accent and he’s just a wonderful, wonderful artist. Anyway, he knows all about deconstruction and studied all that – everyone in the art world has been working that, you know, working with deconstruction for years. Howard came over and was like [adopts comically exaggerated Coney Island accent], “BILLY! YOU’VE DONE IT! THIS IS IT!’ [laughs]. So I think for those from a philosophical and art-world background – I didn’t have that kind of education – there was a lot of meat there to dig into. And the works are beautiful in themselves. And then with the whole deconstruction of the 20th century which came to a head on September 11th, 2001, I guess it was…the right time.
Were you worried that people would react badly to The Disintegration Loops’ “subject matter”?
“Yeah, of course – it was a very delicate subject. But I felt that, being there, and seeing it, was something you’ll never understand unless you were there. So I felt that this was an elegy and I felt that this had to be done. So I did it. And you know, there’ll always be people who have gripes about just about anything, but from my liner notes I think you can tell I meant it as an elegy and that’s really what it was.”
How did you respond to the success artistically? Was it difficult to follow something that you knew was a major work? Difficult to begin working again?
“No, not really. Because for the first time in my career there was appreciation, so it was really encouraging. I got incredible e-mails from people all over the world and the reviews were great and that was very, very encouraging for me, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep going’. The records were selling so I was able to continue making more.
“It took a couple of years – I think what really totally blew me away was in 2003 or 2004. It was like Good Friday and I was in California with James, at this other little place that we were renting at Venice, and I opened up my e-mail and there were like 100 messages that said Disintegration Loops, Disintegration Loops, Disintegration Loops…Apparently that was the day that the Pitchfork feature on the series came out, and instantly I had a 100 orders in my inbox and it just went on like that for weeks. I was completely blown away – I’d never even heard of Pitchfork! [laughs] That just really…did a number for me.
“After that I started getting distribution and so now I have a whole network of people, and I try to divide my year up into segments. I’m here by myself, I know my company’s called Musics International and stuff but really it’s just me. I spend part of the year working on the music, and then I’m in the office every day, I try to get the CD manufactured and deal with artwork, things like that, and you know, get it out there, do promotion, and then I do some touring and then come back and do it all over again. So I’ve got my little job and this is it, this is what I do.”
It must be satisfying to be involved at every level of the art-work’s execution?
“I mean I’d love to have help in certain aspects of things that I don’t do very well. I mean, I wish I could make the packaging much nicer than it usually ends up, but I’m doing the best that I can right now and of course there’s always room for improvement. I just need people to buy the records and not fileshare and stuff like that. If people buy directly from me they get a signed letter and a signed CD and I do it all myself; so I do have my very stalwart supporters that know that and they always getting everything first, so…”
“I wish you were out on the patio here in California. I’m sitting in the sun, the roses are just cascading and the blossoms are out and the birds are in the bird bath and I feel like an old English lady [laughs]…”
“The way I divide my time, it’s with a certain inevitability that there’s a periodic onset of what you might call melancholy. I just start to feel weird. Or depressed, or at a loss. And I say to myself, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant, OK. Get thee to the hospital – get in the studio.’ [laughs]
“Showing up for work is the most important thing. And then allowing things to happen is another element. I have to get in there and listen, and inevitably something will grab me and I’ll be like, ‘OK, let’s see what happens with this…’ Each piece requires its own concentration and some pieces just pop out. It’s like having children. Some are just difficult births and take a very long time…like The Garden of Brokenness – that was a very difficult piece, even though it only really has two loops in it. That one took a lot of very concentrated work over a period of months, but I was generally happy with the way it came out in the end. El Camino Real was the opposite: it just showed up, you know, it was this beautiful loop that I didn’t even remember making.
“When I was working in the 80s, some sessions I’d just create loops – I’d listen to them, and sometimes, if they were just perfect by themselves, they scared me – because I didn’t know if I could call it my work. I want to mix things in the air, and create something – you know, I wanted to be involved! [laughs] So loops that I really remember from those days are ones that I worked with and got really deeply into; others, like the one which became El Camino Real and the ones that became The Disintegration Loops, were set aside because I knew that they were perfect as they were, and I wanted to play – they didn’t let me have any fun, so they got set aside for later! [laughs] Their time eventually came…
“So I’ve still got this huge trove that I’m going through. Right now I don’t have my studio with my synthesizers and things like that, so I can’t use those right now, but if things go well this year, there’s so much real estate going empty around here maybe I can find a small place that I can use as a studio and archive and set up the equipment in there. Right now, I’ve got plenty of stuff to work on.”
“I’ve got another new record coming out soon which is another stunner, I’m very happy with it.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’ll tell you a little story about it…It’s another very amniotic, long piece; it’ll be the only piece on that record – the recorded version is about 45 minutes long. It’s something that I developed out of necessity about a year ago. I was in New York to do a project at the Issue Project Room, and they have this really cool, computerized 16-channel atmospherical-type speaker system hanging from the ceiling, so the guy who developed it can position sounds in three-dimensional space or whatever. My work’s genuinely very low-tech, it’s basically a stereo mix that comes out, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings – so I said, OK, what can we do here? And he said, ‘Ohh, we can make it float around the room like water!’ and I was like, OK, that sounds perfect…
“But to go back in time a little…I needed to create a new piece for the performance first, so I started digging around in all my boxes of loops and I found this one main loop which was just a stunner, and then I found this little lunchbox full of these other loops. In my studio I tested them out with the main one and selected about a dozen or so that worked really nicely with it, so when I’m performing I have the two tape-decks and have the main loop on one tapedeck and then select a loop from the lunchbox at random, mix them together, see what resonates. When I was in the studio working on this, at that time last year my sister-in-law was pregnant with my niece, Vivian; they’d already named her, she was late, she wasn’t coming out, and everyone was waiting and it was getting to be summer in Texas and it was hot, and Vivian was keeping everyone waiting – and I said, with a name like that I imagine she will have people waiting on her her entire life [laughs]. So I thought, well, I’ll make something really amniotic and really gorgeous to try to get Vivian to come on out.
“So that night at Issue Project Rooms I did this thing with those speakers, and this watery, beautiful, gold video that Jamie had done, and the next morning it turned out that Vivian had been born in the night. And as well, my cousin’s first granddaughter Ondine was born, so I think the album’s title will be On The Birth of Vivian And Ondine or something like that.”
So much of your work, thematically, has been about decay and disintegration, but this is an album about the very opposite…
“Yeah…but in a way, it’s all transformation, you know. And I’ve been sitting here for the last year watching Monarch butterflies hum and feed and lay their eggs on my butterfly weed that I planted a few years ago and I’ve been filming all last winter these caterpillars munching and munching, getting fatter and fatter, and then they pupate on the oleander, these gorgeous green chrysalises that have teeny peep-holes in them and it looks like the sun is inside them – it’s just extraordinary. And then they’re born and they fly away onto Mexico. Just moving onto another phase of transformation, I guess.”