William Basinski is an artist who should need no introduction. Since the release of his seminal tape loop masterpiece The Disintegration Loops in 2002, Basinski has shone like a beacon in the fields of ambient and drone music, with his unique blend of sustained resonances and acute emotionality winning fans across the globe. In the wake of last year’s Nocturnes and a sell-out concert at St John’s Church in Hackney, Basinski is set to return to the same venue for a week-long residency in March of this year. Joseph Burnett caught up with the man to discuss his unique career, singular approach to music-making and the background behind his best release in years.
Joseph Burnett: Could you please tell me a bit about the creation of Nocturnes? Am I right in thinking the two pieces on the album were created at very different times?
William Basinski: Yes. The title track was a very early, very formal experiment that I did in, I believe, 1979, in San Francisco. At that time, I was working with tape loops and experimenting with prepared piano. I would hit the note and then hit the record on the loop to cut off the attack, and see how it sounded without the hammer on the string. This helped to create the great sense of suspension in Nocturnes. I had a very formal graphic score laid out for the piece, and had decided on twelve or so loops which I laid out over a time period, almost how the programme Live Score is laid out, with lines and sections and tracks. Unfortunately I got a little indulgent at the end. Understand that I was multi-tracking on a cassette deck, so I had a piece of tape over the erase head to overdub. But these kinds of overdubs are not like recording on separate tracks that you can go back and change. Once the piece was done, that was it; they were all hardwired on top of each other. You could be bouncing in and out of different levels, which was great, but at the end I added these things that I decided almost immediately I wished I hadn’t. Sometime later, digital editing comes along and eventually I was able to go back in and take out these little overindulgences and correct things. So the piece, which I always thought was really good, now has had its little plastic surgery or tooth cap (laughs).
I’ve been so busy travelling the last few years that I haven’t put out a record since Vivian & Ondine in 2009, so I decided to release Nocturnes. I thought it was a good time to release it. It’s a very dark album, kind of a warning, with an unsettling theme. I had recently done The Trail of Tears, with a couple of loops on a couple of tape decks with delay, and the loops just melted into this drone. I then put in this other loop at the end, which creates this wonderful resolution. Finally, I got the album and the artwork done, so it came out in May.
JB: As you’ve said, the album is very dark and melancholic. What made you aim for this particular mood?
WB: It’s a lamentation, so it’s not a happy album, but it is what it is. I think the resolution does something really amazing at the end. Sometimes you have to walk a trail of tears so you can find your epiphany.
JB: Do you have this sort of central idea or theme on each album you release?
WB: It’s not as though I start out going “I want to do this”. It’s like painting: you have to make the first mark and then you have to resolve that mark. Then you make another mark and have to figure out what’s going to happen next. It paints itself, and when it’s done you have to know that it’s done. That’s when it teaches you what it is. From there, you think about that and maybe come up with a title. It’s a learning experience.
JB: How do you go about the tape loops you use? You must have quite a few to root through!
WB: It’s just what strikes me at the time. I dunno… it’s hard to describe. It’s just what resonates at the time. It’s like taste, y’know. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you don’t eat a pickle.
JB: So it’s very intuitive?
WB: Yes, yes, exactly.
JB: Has your way of recording and selecting loops evolved a lot over the years?
WB: Yeah, of course. I’ve gone through a lot of different changes and lots of different techniques, working with lots of different equipment. In the beginning, I had nothing. Tape decks were cheap, used tape was cheap, so that was what I had available to me, how I began. It’s how I developed my sound: creating all those loops was like building a synthesizer. I had my patches. Over the years, without having anyone beyond a small group of friends being able to understand that it was even music, I began playing in bands, doing all kinds of stuff. I continued doing my work, but before the internet and being able to self-publish, there was just the music industry. If you wanted to be a player, you had to do what was accepted as pop music.
When James [Elaine, William’s partner] and I moved to our second apartment in Brooklyn in 1989, we had fought for years against a local development, which was going to be built by tearing down all the buildings in the neighbourhood. They had to settle with us, and we found this ruin in Williamsburg, which we rented and spent a lot of money restoring. It was an extraordinarily beautiful place, which became Arcadia [Basinski’s performance space and studio until 2008]. I was able to build a proper studio and control room, and we had a sound system, and this wonderful mini-ballroom with this beautiful sound. It turned out like a Venetian palazzo or something overlooking Manhattan. We were holding the Arcadia evenings, and I was producing bands, working with synthesizers and better recording equipment. I tried more pop music then, and worked on a song cycle with my friend Jennifer Jaffe, a poet and member of an art group called TODT. I tried to get this very gothic work released in the nineties, but there were no takers.
Eventually, when CD burners came out, I got one and found all these cases with my old tape loops in them in a storage room we had, which was full of old furniture and Jamie’s paintings and all this junk. I didn’t know what had happened to them! Knowing what tape does, that it would disintegrate, I started archiving the old work. Around this time, Carsten Nicolai came to New York, I think for a residency at PS1, and was staying downstairs with my German neighbours. We met when I was working on shortwave music and listening to that again, and he just flipped over that, and asked to release it on his label. I’d been waiting to hear that for a long time! So that was the beginning of being able to release work, and it turned out that all of a sudden there was an audience of people who were about the age of these tape loops who were ready to hear my work. It’s been incredible, because I never thought I’d live to see the day.
JB: When you performed in London, I noticed you used a laptop. Do you find that computers and synthesizers allow more freedom and a wider range of possibilities than tape loops?
WB: Well there certainly are benefits. There are certain things I do with computers that I can’t with tape loops. But I’m an old dog and I’m not so good at learning new tricks, so I have certain things I can do. For example, in shows the computer is sort of a back-up. Sometimes the tape decks break or don’t function properly. In London, one of them had crashed or something. When I started the tour, it was perfect, but after one of the early shows it came back and it was only playing on one speed, which was a speed faster than it was supposed to. I had enough time to cut and record new loops for this machine on the speed that it wanted to play at. I was using this old tape that Richard Chartier had sent me, so I just started using them and something amazing happened. On the back of one of the loops, there was some recorded material already there, and at the speed I had it going, it was this incredibly beautiful thing that happened to go beautifully with these variation loops that I did at the end of the concert. It might even have been some Beethoven or something, slowed down, that came in towards the end of the concert. These little accidents can happen, and it’s always a blessing. The computer is also good for remastering analogue material, digitising it and preparing it for release, but I don’t create sounds with it like a lot of people do. I’m not proficient at that. Like I said, in the last twenty years in Williamsburg, at Arcadia, I had a control room with synthesizers, MIDI and a big console with multi-track tape decks. Unfortunately now, all that is sitting in my garage, waiting for a place for me to set it up. But I’m hoping that after this year-long tour, I’ll be able to look for a studio space I can install it in and get the old spaceship back up again. That’ll be lots of fun.
JB: You’ve mentioned the tour that you’re currently on. How do you approach performing live as opposed to recording in the studio?
WB: In a way, especially when I’m working with loops, it can be very relaxing for me, because it’s kind of just like when I’m in the studio. Often, there’s a random element. I have a plan, but you never quite know what’s going to happen. Things can go wrong, or sometimes interesting things can happen. Time just disappears. Every room is different. You’re moving air and resonating a space, so there’s always the time in soundcheck when I get to work with all the nice technicians, boys and girls who know their space and know how to fit the resonances in this space. I’m listening the whole time, just trying to surf these waves.
JB: Your music evolves at a very gradual pace. Does that present a challenge when performing live, and do you find some audiences more receptive than others?
WB: I was very nervous this year, because I wasn’t sure how Nocturnes would go over, but it’s been amazing. The audiences know what to do, they know the work. People either get it, and can’t get enough, or they don’t, so this year my experience has been that the audiences are there. They get prepared, smoke pot or do whatever it is they do, and then just sit or lie down and close their eyes and go there. They’ve been so quiet, so great, and the response has been fantastic. I’m just thrilled to death.
JB: When I saw you at St John’s in Hackney church, I was reminded of a performance of Eliane Radigue’s music, also in a church, from a few years ago…
WB: It’s the best way, it’s all you have to do: just open your ears and… I’ve got Jamie’s beautiful video. It’s not necessary, but it’s beautiful and great, and it creates an atmosphere. But if you close your eyes, your own movie will appear. And the time just goes away, changes.
JB: The first adjective that comes to mind when describing your music is “emotional”. Does emotion play a big role in your music?
WB: Yeah. It’s very much a part of me and who I am. In fact, I have to be careful, because I get so hung up about stuff and tend to respond emotionally! I’m a year of the dog, I always get my back up, so that’s definitely all over my chart, let’s say.
JB: It’s impressive the way you’re able to communicate that back to the audience, just in the way you select your sounds.
WB: Thank you. It’s been a good run (laughs).
JB: About a year ago, I saw an orchestral performance of The Disintegration Loops in London at The Royal Festival Hall, and noticed the difference between the tape loops on the record and how it came out when performed, but the end effect was the same.
WB: That was extraordinary. Those young musicians were brilliant, to do that there, and the audience was incredible. I think there were five minutes of silence after the last note. We were blown away! Max [Moston, the arranger] did an incredible job, he’s amazing.
JB: A lot is being written right now, by music journalists, about silence and quietness in music, and I recently saw a film called Silence that approached that very notion outside of music. Zones without people, if you will. Do you find that to be something that resonates in your music?
WB: I heard about that film! Absolutely, and silence is such an ephemeral thing, it’s something we can hardly ever experience these days. We were just on the island of Pantelleria, near Sicily, this volcanic island, and we’ve been there six times, but the difference this year was incredible. After the big economic crash, it was silent. There was no-one there. You could hear the ocean and the wind in the trees. There are hardly any birds on this island. It was incredible to have that. Like in films, there’s always some kind of sound. It’s not a digital silence, because that’s so unreal, in a way.
JB: The Disintegration Loops recently received a lavish reissue as a beautiful box set. Did you anticipate at the time that it would become such an influential and important work?
WB: Not really. Jeremy Devine, who did such a brilliant job art directing and overseeing the whole thing, and releasing it, came and talked to me in LA about it, and I was a little wary at first. When I got my copies, I was like “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. So yeah, the response has been incredible. It’s quite a lovely object to see on my shelf. When it first happened, over two days in my studio, I called all my friends to tell them to come and listen to it. Everyone just flipped, we just lay around the loft and listened to it all the way through.
JB: When I interviewed Antony Hegarty recently, he mentioned that he first met you when you were handing out fliers for a Diamanda Galás concert at your loft. You must have a lot of fond memories from that time in Williamsburg. Do you miss it?
WB: Well, I miss my beautiful castle, that’s for sure! It was such an amazing place and home. It was a home for artists. But we have a lot of recordings from that time, and a lot came out of it. It was a huge petri dish that really grew something. And [in March 2014], we’re planning on doing a series of Arcadia events in London, over a period of a week, with a bunch of creative friends of mine from Europe.
JB: Finally, what are your plans for the future? I know you’re touring a lot, but do you have any releases planned also?
WB: The two don’t go hand in hand. I just released Nocturnes, you greedy bastard! (laughs) I’ve been going all year, and won’t be doing so many next year so I can get my studio set up, and then we’ll see…
William Basinski’s Arcadia residency will be held at St John’s Church in Hackney from March 12th-20th, with performances by Michael Gira, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham, amongst others. Excitingly, composers or ensembles can apply to perform a support slot within the series through the Sound and Music and Art Assembly.
Main picture by Peter J. Kierzkowski.