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“To be there, and to see it…was hell.” Unspooling the past with William Basinski

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  • published
    10 Nov 2012
  • interviewed by
    Kiran Sande
  • photographed by
    Ian Crowther
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    William Basinski
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William Basinski interviewed

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…

 

“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.”

 

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.”

 

“New York in that period was really run-down and scary and…exciting.”

 

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]

 

“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…”

 

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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