Orchestra of Decay: William Basinski's Sonic Ruins and Vanishing Tape

William Basinski | Photo: ian.crowther/Flickr/Creative Commons License

While the World Trade Center tumbled to the ground, sound and video artist William Basinski became forever intertwined with the tragic events of September 11, 2001. From across the East River, Basinski watched the towers smoldering from the rooftop of his Brooklyn home. Distraught, and caught in a panic, he went downstairs and began playing his latest sound piece from the windows. "Here it is," Basinski remembers thinking, "Armageddon. The end of the world. The greatest show on earth. Here we go. I just turned on the music and we just sat there and listened to it and watched." The Disintegration Loops, as he called them, were a series of various 20 year-old analog tape loops that decayed as they were played; emitting slow moving orchestral movements that waver, erode, and finally fade into silence as the tape turns to dust. The haunting sounds of the slowly disappearing score, filled his Brooklyn neighborhood, wafting up like the smoke choking the Lower Manhattan streets.

Basinski then asked a friend to set up a video camera on his rooftop, to record the entirely of the burning skyline, as night fell on the city. Four of those images make the album covers of his four volume work. From this day on, Basinski's story and Septemeber 11th were inseparable.

Now more than ten years after this legendary, and often mythologized event, and the critical acclaim toward his 4 CD set of the Disintegration Loops, Basinski has left New York behind, making Los Angeles his home, still breaking ground with new works that explore chance, memory, and decay. For the September 11th commemoration in 2011, the loops were performed by a live orchestra at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of art, and performed again this August in London.

This Saturday, he performs a piece on reel-to-reel tape for the Schindler house, as part of the Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound's Tape Music Series . And in September, Disintegration Loops will be re-released by record label Temporary Residencies, as a special edition LP Box Set.

Artbound recently spoke with Basinski about creating music for the Schindler house, working in Los Angeles, and what really happened during his Disintegration Loops session on September 11th.

How did moving to L.A. from New York City change the way you thought about sound and your art?

I lived here full time since 2008, for one thing, it's much quieter here where I live, so I can hear my work a lot better, which tends to be quiet. The last two years living on North 11th St. in Williamsburg had become just mind bogglingly noisy. Now it's sort of like being in the center of the universe, that block. There's quite a lot of activity going on there. Here it's much quieter.

Brooklyn exploded in the last couple of years and became the epicenter of everything "cool," so many new people moving there, and I'm sure that was a big distraction.

It was interesting that's for sure, but you know where we lived, we didn't have air conditioning because the windows on our building were very unusual, so they were always open in the summer and you know we still had the fleet of street sweepers and garbage trucks from the end of the street going down first thing in the morning, one after another, like dinosaurs, but then a skateboard place opened up next door and you have aging hipsters trying to jump skateboards over a manhole cover, and it was really loud at three in the afternoon. And then the beer place opened up, which started up after that. So it was just crazy, but yea, so now I'm out here with my garden and my birds.

When you moved here, you probably went to dinner parties and met people that you didn't know before, so how did you describe what you do to people who have never met you before?

I usually say "I make ambient electronic music" and then if they're interested I'll say, " [I'm interested in] basically using obsolete technology to try to create some sort of eternal moment," you know, try to create a space that one can sort of inhabit, like a space station or a time machine. A lot of my fans are artists or writers, or people that work in the studios and with this music you can turn it on and just fall into another space and time. So that's kind of how I would describe it.

Disintegration Loops by William Basinski.
Disintegration Loops by William Basinski.

You're performing at the Schindler House this weekend. How do you go about composing sound for a space, do you go there first and look around? Or is it something that is based on memory?

I've been there before and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do yet [laughs]. It will be something new and I'll probably have some things that people who know my work might recognize, so we'll see, I don't know. I'm going to bring some stuff and we're going to see what it's like, see what it feels like.

It's the ten year anniversary of the "Disintegration Loops" and I was wondering if you could, for people that haven't heard it or are just being introduced to this, could you describe the thought process behind that and the practice of making them?

Well, really I was just showing up for work. I was in my studio and I was beginning to pick up where I'd left off with archiving this huge cache of twenty-year-old tape loops that I'd found in my storage space. And I was burning them to CD because tape, old tape decays, it's basically iron oxide dust glued on to plastic, the glue loses its integrity and the dust turns back to dust and then the sound particles fall off the tape and you're left with silence. So here I was, I put on this first loop, which ended up becoming Disintegration Loop 1.1 and the sound was just gorgeous and the sound just blew me away, it was just beautiful, brave, stately repeating melody that I didn't even remember.

In the early days when I was making all of these, I was really interested in mixing and being involved in the process, and composing, and trying to be a composer.

Sometimes I would come up with something that was so profoundly beautiful in itself, I knew it didn't need anything, and that would scare me, and I would think, "Well, is this mine?" So sometimes those get set aside and some of these loops got set aside for twenty years before I discovered them again, and so I thought, "Well, this is amazing. This is what I want. I'm going to make a new piece. Great."

So I began recording. And then after about 15 minutes, I started realizing that something was changing and I looked at the tape loop going around on the tape deck and I could see iron oxide dust particles down in the tape path, the tape was disintegrating as it went around and around. So I was just on pins and needles wondering what was going to happen, monitoring the recording. And by the end of an hour it had pretty much just decayed, all of the sustains went away and it left this remnant. It still had the core of the unique melody of this piece but all the unnecessary information was gone. It was just a profoundly moving experience for me and then over the period of the next couple of days, I just went through these six loops in order and they just sort of did their own thing, in their own way, in their own time. And suddenly I had this massive work, I had no idea what I was going to do with it, except call all my friends and tell them get over. And that's what happened.

Disintegration Loops II by William Basinski.
Disintegration Loops II by William Basinski.

I love the idea of decay as part of the piece; it's the antithesis of preservation. When you look at old art forms, if you think about the Sistine Chapel for example, people are constantly trying to restore it, instead of embracing the decay of it, which is like what you do.

Well, yes. I think that the Sistine Chapel, I guess you would want to preserve that, as much as possible.

But I think about the idea of ruin, that when you go to other countries and you see ruins of castles, and of Roman stuff, that there's this special feeling to it, that people haven't tried to rebuild it but embrace the ruins, you know? And it feels like some of the disintegration loops have that sort of aesthetic to them, they're ruins too.

Yeah, they do. I love ruins and I love decay and you know, our [Brooklyn] space, which we call Arcadia for twenty years in Williamsburg, was just an extraordinarily beautiful kind of ruin, when we got it, it was a ruin, it had been abandoned for years and years, it was an incredibly beautiful landmark. It was full of pigeons when we got in there and we restored it, and it just became this beautiful, beautiful space, so we kept a lot the old decaying paint and ceiling - I spent like a month scraping it - we just left it, and it was just an extraordinarily beautiful space and it had a beautiful acoustic to it. So, that was something that I appreciate.

Of course with the "Disintegration Loops," it's impossible to divorce it from the experience of September 11. Can you lay out the day for us, when you finished the project and then how that interfaced with the events as they unfolded?

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Ok, well there's a lot of sort of telephone line misinformation out there, it gets repeated about that. But I'll tell you what happened. The pieces were done in August of 2001 and then I spent the month listening to them and just marveling and thinking about them. And on Sept. 11th I was pretty much, the night before I was at my wit's end and I hadn't had any work, and I was about to lose it, I was about to be evicted and I did get an eviction notice on Sept. 11th, as a matter of fact, but I had seen a job for an administrative assistant at a [business with] offices in the World Trade Center and I was going to go there to apply to this job, and I knew people there had supported my work in the past and I thought, "I can get that job." But when I woke up in the morning, it had already started.

My friend was banging on the door, told me that the Twin Towers were burning and I said, "What?" And we looked out my window in my bedroom and saw the towers, both of them, after they had been struck. It was just smoke going and we were just, "What the hell are we looking at?" And you know, I went to turn on the television to see what was going on and then my friend screamed out, "Billy, it's going!" And we ran back to the window and we saw the top of the North Tower tilt and fall and we ran to the roof and people were all over the roof up there and we just stood there stunned and watched the landscape change once the whole thing went down. It was just horrifying shock. You know, none of us knew what was going on.

Eventually, we went down stairs and I turned on the Disintegration Loops really loud, the windows were open. And we just sat up there on the roof and sat and looked, stunned, stunned. Looked at the skyline and just thought, "What the hell is going on?" Eventually my neighbors got freaked out and asked me to turn off the music, so I did. But it was horrible being there in New York in those days, you can't imagine, because it just got worse and worse, fear and panic and everyone was losing it.

Disintegration Loops III by Willaim Basinski.
Disintegration Loops III by Willaim Basinski.

What made you decide to put the loops on?

I just thought, "Here it is. Armageddon. The end of the world. The greatest show on earth. Here we go." And, I don't know, I just turned on the music and we just sat there and listened to it and watched.

When you listen to the songs today, do you immediately think of that? Is it difficult to even listen to these tracks again after having that experience?

No, to me they were always, they are about much more than that. That day marked a point in history, and that evening my friend had her camera up on the roof - she had a penthouse on the other side of the building - I asked her to help me frame up this shot and just let the tape run out. So the next morning I got the tape and basically captured the last hour of daylight just looking at the smoke coming from Manhattan. So I took it and put it with "Disintegration Loop 1.1" and it just became this elegy. So then I decided I would use four frames from the film for the four different CDs that eventually got released the next year. An elegy. And so that's what happened.

Freud wrote about when people go through trauma that they have to regain mastery over that experience. So they repeat it over and over again, trying to try to change the outcome, or feel that they have control over the situation. I keep thinking of how that pairs with this idea of a loops in your works, and how that relates to America as a whole. Do you feel like America is stuck in a loop after Sept. 11th, our own sort of disintegration loop where the country is going back over and over again trying to live that life before that thing that happened?

I certainly do think that. You know my work deals with loops and feedback loops, and a feedback loop is something that can be very destructive. Everybody knows what feedback is, you've heard a squeeling microphone or something, if the microphone is too close to the speaker, you're going to get feedback. What I used to do in my earlier work was try to surf the feedback, but you have to be very careful about that because it will take and destroy the original message. So I think we're definitely suffering from some very serious disintegration loops and feedback loops in our global society. And I think things are changing and some people want things to change and some people don't, so, but things do change. And we have to move through that.

Disintegration Loops IV by Willaim Basinski.
Disintegration Loops IV by Willaim Basinski.

When you listen to the disintegration loops now, so many years since they were created, what do you hear in them now that you've never heard before?

I just came back from London, from Antony's Meltdown Festival, where he invited me to close the festival and I was able to have the London Contemporary Orchestra perform two new transcriptions. A dear friend of mind and somebody I used to work with in the Johnstons, of Disintegration Loop 1 and 2. So we had this incredibly beautiful, formal concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall last Sunday, sold out with just this 40 piece orchestra with just these brilliant people, an amazing young star conductor named Ryan McAdams, young American guy in New York that we used when we did the first reading of Disintegration Loop 1.1 at the Metropolitan Museum last year. And it was extraordinary to see these pieces move and to, the orchestral repertoire, and hear them play. Just an incredible experience. This is like a dream come true for me, so they are resonating in a new way now.

I was interested in how you brought up the idea "obsolete technology." Why is that important to your craft?

It's just what I work with, and the technology was becoming obsolete when I started using it, reel-to-reel tape decks and analog tape. The reason I started using it in the late 70s and early 80s was because it was cheap and available, and it has an incredible sound, so I really enjoy continuing to work with it, although it kind of gets harder and harder the stuff becomes more and more hard to find in working order. But I'm still trying to see what I can do with it. It's hands on, you know? You use your hands and you feel the tape. You hear analog sound, it's not digital, it's not sampled, it's actually like film.

William Basinski | Photo: Peter J. Kierzkowski, 2006.
William Basinski | Photo: Peter J. Kierzkowski, 2006.

With digital taking over - both in movies and music -- digital really captures crispness of sound and the way things actually sound, whereas with tape and film, there's actually not as much information captured. But that feels a lot richer and warmer, why do you think that is? And do you go about your practice thinking about this, that displaying less information creates a more impressionistic take on the world?

I don't know if there's less information, it's a different kind of information. When you're recording in analog or you're shooting film or when you're watching film, I read something about the difference between how your brain sees film and video. With film, your eye travels around, you're actually seeing the light and shadow and everything, with video, you're seeing pixels and you tend to just stare, and so you perceive in a different way. And with analog, you get a real actual recording of the sound. With digital you're sampling at a thousand times a second, or something like that, I can't remember exactly what it is, but you're actually just getting pixels. Also with analog, the tape also has its own feeling, the machines add something, they don't always play perfectly. And so you're going to get some kind of life in there that is coming from something else.

Ryan McAdams conducting the London Contemporary Orchestra in a sold out performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall of Maxim Moston's transcriptions for orchestra of Disintegration Loop 1.1 and 2 to close Antony's Meltdown Festival on August 12, 2012 | Photo: James Elaine, 2012.

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