William Basinski: Time after time
William Basinski is not happy.
He has been holed up in his gorgeous mid-century home in LA – with a pool – for the duration of his quarantine, but such creature comforts are not enough to distract him from “doom-scrolling all day long, watching this tear-gas-fucking-ridiculous-reality-television-bullshit going on every minute, with this incredibly stupid, ignorant, deluded narcissist that just can’t get enough of his bullshit. And we have to live with that. It’s sheer insanity.”
And though Basinski professes to be lacking inspiration, a quick overview of his year indicates something quite the contrary. At the beginning of lockdown back in March he dropped Hymns of Oblivion via Bandcamp Fridays, a collection of material recorded during his “goth Lestat phase” at his nightclub/recording studio Arcadia in Williamsburg, circa 1989-1991. This summer saw the launch of To Feel Embraced, his debut album as Sparkle Division – a duo he comprises with longtime studio assistant and collaborator Preston Wendel. And to top it all off, this autumn sees the release of his latest solo record Lamentations, confirming that “no energy” Basinski is still more productive than almost everyone you know combined.
“Digging deep into the archive I found this collection of loops. They weren’t the lush, beautiful ones that I’ve used throughout my career”
With a career now spanning over four decades, Basinski has settled into a role that is rare in the pantheon of art rock heroes. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, to a devout Catholic family, his earliest musical memories are tied to the “mystical” sounds that emanated out of visits to church. After picking up the clarinet at the behest of a middle school teacher, he would go on to study saxophone and composition at North Texas State University. Basinski has stated that he knew he was gay from a very early age, and it was here, in the college town of Denton, that he would finally find a tribe of like-minded, artistic queerdos. This community would go on to shift his sonic tastes towards the unusual, crystallised by what he describes as his “holy trinity” of influences: John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno.
It was around this time – a chaotic period in the late 70s in which Basinski dropped out of school, joined his partner in San Francisco, and later settled down in New York, where he would remain for many years – that he developed a singular musical vocabulary with his revolutionary use of tape decks. Through recording and re-recording over untold spools of tape loops, he defined a primordial style of ambient music; a cavernous well of feeling that, quite literally, incorporates shades and spirits of the past.
Basinski became an indelible part of NYC’s artistic community during his time there, recording with and producing for a parade of musical projects and working with a who’s who of the creative braintrust of experimental music (one of his bands, the Rockats, once opened for David Bowie. “Oh my god, it was unbelievable,” is how he sums it up). But it would be many years until he gained a reputation in his own right, when a twist of fate would forever link one of his projects to devastating tragedy.
© William Basinski
The Disintegration Loops is an enormous, four-volume work with an extraordinary backstory. Basinski was in the process of digitising his decades-old collection of tape loops for archival purposes, when the tapes themselves began to slowly disintegrate from old age. What should have been a simple task became a musical study of entropy carried out in real-time. Towards the end of the recording process, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred – an event Basinski only narrowly escaped himself (he was due to have a meeting at the World Trade Center later that day). From his Brooklyn rooftop he documented the unfurling disaster on videotape, and stills captured from the footage would go on to serve as the artwork for the series, released individually over the course of 2002-2003. The Disintegration Loops has since become one of the definitive artistic statements on 9/11 and is on permanent display in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Yet in spite of all this, Basinski still retains a sense of the underground, likely to gain name recognition from only the savviest of your musically-minded friends.
As to why that might be the case, he’s the first to admit he “never really could own that kind of frontman thing”, though his persona both on and offstage would seem to indicate otherwise. When he speaks to me from the comfort of his living room, he looks every bit the grizzled rock god, black Aviators and chunky jewellery adorning a magnificent mane of charcoal grey hair; a true lion in winter. This is to say nothing of his charisma – a sweet, Southern boy charm mixed with the wit of a man who’s hung out in the company of drag queens most of his life. It’s jarring to reconcile this colourful, quippy character with a body of work that is, in broad strokes, melancholy, opaque and ambiguous.
Clearly, Basinski is a figure who thrives behind-the-scenes, having spent a large portion of his career as a producer and studio technician. “I was pretty insecure,” he tells me, reflecting on his earlier years. “I had to grow into that [frontman role]. Now I can pull it off, but no, I’m not going to start a new band and start singing or anything.” Luckily, for anyone curious about what a William Basinski album with the musician re-cast as a lead-singing dynamo might sound like, we have Hymns of Oblivion. Hearing it now is not so much a blast from the past as it is a portal to an alternate universe, one where Basinski never became an elder statesman of ambient music but instead swerved into the lane of campy post-punk crooners in the vein of Alan Vega or Nick Cave. Simply put, it’s a gift; a slathering of volcanic power-pop that perfectly encapsulates his Bohemian baroque period in pre-gentrification New York. A commenter on Bandcamp sums it up best, describing it as “the outrageous desperation of a young soul crying hopelessly.” Basinski readily agrees.
Equally as camp, though in a decidedly less vampiric fashion, is his miraculous record as Sparkle Division. Together with Wendel, who has been working with Basinski for almost seven years, he presents us with a collection of fuzzy, psychedelic electronica – an album he views explicitly as “cocktails and dancing by the beach and all that… lounge music.”
The duo finished the record way back in 2016, but for reasons we can all painfully recall, they “got cold feet”, feeling that perhaps it wasn’t the right environment in which to release a batch of tunes so utterly carefree and hedonistic. But each ensuing year brought only more misery, and the more time Basinski spent with it, the more he was convinced they had something special on their hands. “I kept listening to it and said, ‘This is fucking good. This is really jazz, man. This is new jazz.’”
Arriving in the summer of 2020, the timing of its release could not be more fitting. “I mean who doesn’t want to feel embraced right now, for god’s sake?” Basinski quips. But on the other hand, its delayed release meant two of the album’s principal collaborators – the “Queen of Williamsburg” Leonora Russo and jazz legend Henry Grimes – passed away before hearing their contributions to the record. The former, who graces the meme-worthy album cover in serious, fashion-granny style, was a very dear friend of Basinski’s and a neighbourhood fixture – “she was like my Brooklyn mother,” he reflects.
While not directly inspiring his upcoming solo project, one can’t help but feel the bittersweet victory of To Feel Embraced presages the emotional turmoil of Lamentations. A quintessential Basinski record in every way, it’s a profoundly moving – and at times, unsettling – piece of music.
“These were kind of rejects,” he says of the album’s beginnings. “Digging deep into the archive I found this collection of loops. They weren’t the lush, beautiful ones that I’ve used throughout my career. But at the time it felt like, ‘Nope, there’s something here.’”
The loops in question – a haunting, evocative set of opera vocals – form a 15-minute suite which serves as Lamentation’s jaw-dropping climax. But the album showcases an expansive breadth of Basinski’s archive; O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow is built from a sample he recorded with ANOHNI while the pair served as co-music directors for the opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, while Tear Vial holds an even more special significance. “That, I can tell, is one of my earliest piano loops,” says Basinski. “It’s from 1978, in San Francisco. The reason I can tell is because when I first started making loops, I didn’t know to cut the loop on the bias, so you get a little cross fade. And I would just cut them, right angles. So there’s a click. But I love it, so I decided, ‘OK, yeah let’s just leave that.’”
As The Disintegration Loops so brilliantly realises, time itself is a crucial element of Basinski’s artistic practice, to an extent which feels wholly unique to him. “Honey,” he exhales when we attempt to discuss his perception of it. “It’s elusive. It speeds up, it slows down. I don’t know. It is what it is, as the president says.”
Over the course of our conversation, we frequently return to our shared anxieties about the cataclysmic events around us; the catastrophic failures of leadership, the litany of senseless death, the pervasive climate of paranoia and confusion. In many ways, it runs parallel to the world which bore The Disintegration Loops: a world where a cartoon president who lost the popular vote is presiding over a series of hackneyed decisions and spiralling further and further into chaos. Only now it’s “much worse,” Basinski laments.
“I think we’re in the middle of Disintegration Loop 4,” he begins. “Which is the one that just cascades to shit very quickly, hopefully. And then maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to Disintegration Loop 5, which offers some respite and peace. We’ll see, but yeah, everything’s fucked up.”
To Feel Embraced is out now via Temporary Residence Limited