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Interview: William Basinski

In the Summer of 2001, Texas-born composer William Basinski decided to digitize some old tape loops he found lying around in the storage room of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft. When he picked a tape at random and started recording it, he discovered that something strange was happening: the iron oxide from the magnetic strip was disintegrating straight off the tape and down into his ReVox cassette player, so that instead of getting a carbon copy of the original tape loop, what he got was the sound of the work decomposing in real time. Equally breathtaking and heartbreaking, this recorded accident yielded one of the most impactful pieces of ambient music that the 21st century has seen thus far.

Basinski's completion of The Disintegration Loops coincided with the day two planes ran into the Twin Towers across the river from his home, and it wasn't long before he realized that the sound of a single fragment of music slowly dying was a pretty poignant metaphor for what happened in New York that day. In addition to its impending induction to the National September 11 Memorial Museum, The Disintegration Loops is being reissued next month by Temporary Residence Limited in the form of a 9-LP, 5-CD box set. To mark the 10-year anniversary of Disintegration Loops 1, and the 11th anniversary of the Twin Towers tragedy, we called Basinski from his Los Angeles home so he could take us back to the shock of the initial discovery.

How did you get into making music with with tape loops? I was in music school at North Texas State University, and it was a big jazz school, but they also had a very large composition department. Most of what was being taught in those days was serial music and twelve-tone music, and I had played that kind of work in high school. I enjoyed it for the mathematics and the challenge, but it wasn’t what I wanted to create. I guess it was around ’78 when I first heard the music of Steve ReichMusic for 18 Musicians—and all these pieces where he was using loops and feedback loops. Another very important moment in my early development was when Brian Eno’s Music for Airports came out, which had an incredibly profound melancholy. I said, Oh okay, this is interesting. This is allowed? And of course, John Cage, was a great inspiration to me. So with those three, I had something to work toward when I left school in ’78 and moved to San Francisco.

And what I could work with was what I could afford, and what I could afford was in the junk shops, and they were old tape decks and old tapes. So I got some old decks and started recording everything. The refrigerator: I loved the sound of compressors and things like that. You can get so many sophisticated overtones inside an old freezer. I rented a piano, prepared the piano. In 1980, we moved to New York, and there was this radio station on top of the Empire State Building, and it played American popular standards—101 Strings versions, pretty much. So with just the wires running around our loft in downtown Brooklyn, the sounds of this muzak would come creeping in. I’d started trying to make my own mellotron by taking randomly shaped loops and putting them on the tape deck on high speed-- recording a little bit of the string intro and outro to these songs, and then slowing them down and seeing what I had. In those days there was no Prozac; there were much better drugs. And there was muzak, and it was everywhere, and you just floated along. But if you took a little bit of it, and slowed it down, like looking at a microscope, you got this incredible melancholy.

At that time, I was very much interested in being involved in composing, and so I was mixing these loops with shortwave radio static and things like that, which ended up becoming Shortwavemusic [1998] and The River [2002], and did a lot of things with piano, which ended up being parts of Melancholia [2003] and the Variations releases [2004 & 2006]. And sometimes these loops would come out of the recording process so beautiful and perfect I knew there was nothing that needed to be added to them, and yet I just wasn’t sure. There was no context back then for what I was doing; I just wasn’t sure if I could call it my work at the time. So they got put aside, and I forgot about them.

Years later, when I was in my studio in Williamsburg, I came across these big cases back in the storage room-- The Land That Time Forgot, we used to call it-- and I found all my old tape loops. By then I had a CD burner, and knowing what happens to old tapes, I started to archive the loops to digital. In the summer of 2001, in late July or August, I pulled this one loop out that I didn’t remember at all, and put it on the machine. And it blew my mind. I started putting together a countermelody on my [Minimoog] Voyager synthesizer, and I turned on the recorder and started recording. After about 15 minutes, I realized something was changing—and I looked, and I could see dust in the tape path on the ReVox that was playing the tape loop. I sat there watching the recorder, monitoring it as this thing over the length of a CD-R completely disintegrated in the most profoundly beautiful way. The sustains sort of fell away, and yet somehow the core of it stayed-- the attack and the basic rhythm of the melody—hanging on desperately until the very end. I put the next one on, and it started doing it too. And that’s when I realized I didn’t need any countermelodies there; I just need to concentrate on what’s happening and stay out of the way and make sure the recorder is on. So over a period of two long days, these six loops did their thing in their own way and in their own time, and just moved me so profoundly that I was just on the phone calling everybody: Get over here, you won’t believe what happened!

What do you think makes The Disintegration Loops a good memorial? I guess it was a decision I made, on 9/11, to try to capture the last hour of daylight on video. My friend Peggy had her camera on [my] roof, and we had been up there all day listening to music and staring in shock downtown, watching the smoke and just going, What the hell now?  So I picked up a video tape and she helped me frame it up. I turned it on and I said, Just let it run out. And it ended up capturing the last hour of daylight looking downtown at the smoke.

The next morning when I looked at it, I put on Disintegration Loop 1.1 and just sat there and lined it up, and it was just so moving; I knew it was an elegy. It reminded me of Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore that Chanel suit for a whole day with her husband’s blood on it, and they were trying desperately to get her to change, and she said, No... I want them to see what they have done to Jack. So anyway, over the next few months of living through the chaos and the horror of the smell-- oh god, when the wind changed, it was so revolting.You couldn’t not weep, it was just so horrifying. Everyone went through their own loops of disintegration and despair. So I decided to release them one at a time, and to use still frames from the video for the four CDs.

What do you find yourself thinking about when you listen to The Disintegration Loops now, eleven years after the fact? You know, the music still does the same thing to me that it did the first time I heard it. It is what it is, like a force of nature. It’s something I discovered, not something I composed, so I find it mesmerizing still. What I’m so happy about now, though, is that the music is starting to become a part of the orchestral repertoire. And this is a dream come true for me, with the two new arrangements we have by the brilliant Maxim Moston. Disintegration Loop 1.1 was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur last September 11th, and then this summer, in August, we closed Antony’s Meltdown Festival in London with the London Contemporary Orchestra [playing Max’s transcription of Disintegration Loop 1.2].

How do you recreate this orchestrally, without actual tape loops? I’m just trying to imagine what blank space on the tape would sound like. Well, that’s just rest, they get to take a rest there. But for Disintegration Loop 1.2, Max did a really interesting thing with percussion for the tape decay, where he had one percussionist playing what they call “cling film” in England, like gradually unspooling and crinkling a roll of saran wrap. And then, later on, he had written in the score something like, Popcorn on the side of the hardware of the field drum. And Rebecca, this wonderful percussionist that we had in the London Contemporary Orchestra, just did an extraordinary job with the cling film and the popcorn. It was almost as if we had added, in honor of John Cage, a version of his 4’33” for orchestra at the end. Because the audience sat there for almost five minutes in silence, and then they went crazy.

What’s the story behind the video stills in the coffee table book that comes with the Temporary Residence Box Set? Like the music, it looks like they are degrading, getting darker and darker. The film was shot at twilight, and by the end of the film it was dark, so you can barely see what’s left of New York. Because there were so few lights on downtown, and so much smoke obliterating so many buildings, it was almost as if the skyline had gone back a hundred years, because you could only see the smaller, older towers with just a few lights on. And the camera was set on autofocus, and by the end of the film, there’s was so little light that it started trying to compensate, so it started kind of going in and out of focus. Which really annoyed me, but that’s the way it was for all of us. No one knew where to focus or what to focus on, so it is what it is—it’s just what happened.

Interview: William Basinski