‘We’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information… The flow is constant. Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention.’
This passage from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise occurs to me from time to time when I listen to William Basinski’s music. Spoken by the character Alfonse Stompanato, a sure-minded New York professor, the quote explains the still prevalent idea that a constant barrage of information technology, both visible and invisible, wears down human intelligence, reducing people to shadows of their natural selves.
Basinski’s music fits neatly into this sketch of 20th Century reality. His early work is awash with specks, waves, particles and motes, the fragmented crackles and sparkles of spectral soundwaves. It’s music borne out of the world of moon landings and airborne toxic events, a world where technology felt so new and pregnant with danger. Through his use of bygone synthesisers and more notably decaying tape loops, he’s able to capture this ominous mystery and crystallise it in musical stasis, morphing the arcana of the late 20th Century soundscape – the bleeps, bloops and crackles of radio frequencies and tape loop malfunctions – into something altogether more tranquil. His ambient, post-classical compositions like Cascade/The Deluge, The River and Watermusic act as meditative experiments, deliberately evocative of open, natural space, designed to reconnect the listener to a reality exterior to the blaring televisions and endless newsfeeds of everyday life.
It’s the last sentence of Alfonso’s rant that really stands out though. “Only a catastrophe gets our attention.” Indeed, for years, Basinski’s work was a labour of love, carried out without the recognition it deserved. His music was too slow, too esoteric, for critical or commercial acclaim, and it wasn’t until the tragedy of 9/11 occurred that the world slowed down enough to listen.
During the latter half of 2001, Basinski had been digitising a bank of his old recording experiments from the 1980s, and had noticed that the magnetic coating on the strips of plastic tape would slowly degrade as they played. When the tragic events of 11 September occurred, he could literally see the smoke filling the sky, and so he set up a camera on his Brooklyn apartment roof to film it through the twilight. The next day, setting the video to the music of one of his decaying loops, a sort of alchemical magic happened and The Disintegration Loops was born. It was to become, you could argue, the definitive avant-garde expression of post-9/11 grief, and it earned Basinski a global audience in the process.
Nearly fifteen years have passed since the The Disintegration Loops were released when we speak, and Basinski’s voice carries the weight of his years. He’s comfortable in silence, and contemplative, yet precise and economical with words. I detect a slither of severity in his tone, and picture an imposing capital-c Composer, but after a short while warmth blossoms in his voice and he starts to speak with infectious energy. Not wishing to focus unduly on a single work in his decades-spanning career, I forego The Disintegration Loops and take the opportunity to ask him how it all began.
"￼When I started, I didn’t know if I was composing or not. But I was painting with sound, making something out of nothing”
“I really started in the late 70s in San Francisco,” he tells me. “I was just getting some old tape decks and used tape at the Cancer shop dirt cheap, and seeing things like the Frippertronics illustration on the back of [Brian Eno’s ambient record] Discreet Music, showing two tape decks and the tape delay running into one and taking up on the other. I started making tape loops and I was getting results really quickly and so I thought ‘Wow! This is cool!’ and just kept going. I didn’t know then if I was composing or not, but I was playing around, painting with sound, making something out of nothing.”
As Basinski’s early experiments grew in scale, so did the scope of the source material they fed off. We discuss the radio, a place from which he gathered so many of his early recordings, and he appears as concerned with the form of the soundwaves as he is with the content of the sounds themselves. “In 1980, the most powerful station in New York was coming from the Empire State Building,” he remembers. “It was playing ‘1001 Strings’ versions of the popular American songbook with no lyrics and the syncopation smoothed out, and it was powerful. I could hear the mixes even it wasn’t turned on; it just got picked up.”
What’s most interesting, according to Basinski, is that the spaces in between the music were of equal importance to the music itself. “You were hearing actual particle showers coming down from space in between the stations”, he says with a sense of wonder. “All that sparkly, static-y sound that’s in The River, that stuff is coming from other worlds.”
Basinski grew up in a planned utopian subdivision near a NASA site, watching flickering broadcasts of rocket launches on a black and white TV. His father worked on the lunar module for a NASA contractor in Florida, and from there he spent balmy evenings watching rockets blast into space from his back garden. Clearly the wonder of these early experiences left an imprint on his mind: the vernacular of space travel and science fiction bleeds into his memories as he recounts them, just as it feeds into his process of composition.
“I had just pulled out my old Voyetra 8 synthesiser which had been in storage for seven or so years,” he says, piecing together the process of composing his new piece Shadow in Time. “I pulled it out, plugged it in, and fired it up. It was like finding an old dirty starship enterprise abandoned on a planet with the keys in it. You’re like: ‘Woah!’”
On another occasion, he refers to The River as “my ‘music of the spheres’”. It’s a reference to musica universalis, the ancient philosophical idea that the movement of the celestial bodies such as the sun and moon create a sort of music together, not literally audible, but harmonic and mathematical. It’s an interesting peep-hole into his holistic understanding of what music can be, combining as it does the structural vocabulary of science with the impressionistic beauty of art.
As cosmic as our conversation gets, however, Basinski’s always able to pull it down to earth. He begins telling me about a new piece he’s produced. “Last night there was an opening at a little gallery here in Los Angeles and I was asked to put in a little sound piece. I was trying to find some loops and kept digging deeper until I found these old bits of tape that had been chewed up by my roommate’s cat in New York, this big fat motherfucker. But I cut a couple of them together and immediately – Oh my God! – I knew this was exactly where I wanted to go.”
He mashed these loops together with some saxophone experiments from the 80s – “a really cool, weird loop like something from the B side of Heroes, [which worked] as we going through our mourning for the genius David Bowie”. The new track, titled For David Robert Jones, had come together.
The Bowie-inspired piece, Basinski tells me, will be performed alongside Shadow in Time at Basinski’s forthcoming Union Chapel show in London. “It’s a new drone experiment,” he explains of Shadow In Time, “dedicated to a young friend in China who didn’t make it, who committed suicide, it’s very sad; it’s a discreet piece… I’m really looking forward to this show, to resonate the church in the way it was meant to be resonated, with sound. That’s the thing that’s so mystical about these big stone churches, they really are crystalline.” And after this tour?
“I’m sort of playing the saxophone again and synths and…” stopping himself. ‘We’ll see. It’s a very different kind of side project coming out of here later in the year. It’s fun, it’s not commenting on the world, I mean, God, how can you comment on this crazy bullshit? The Disintegration Loops said it all. So, it’s about loving and dancing and lounging. We’ll see!”
Whether the project goes ahead or not, what’s telling is the way William Basinski discusses it. From listening to his majestic compositions, not many people would have him down as the loving, dancing and lounging type, but in person he’s warm and open, buoyed by wonder with the universe, refreshingly sincere and free-spirited. While the bulk of us are staring at screens, suffering from brain fade, Basinski’s music invites us to share in something timeless and transcendental, and it shouldn’t take a catastrophe to make us pay attention.
William Basinski will premiere Shadow In Time at Union Chapel, London, 23 February