A classically trained musician and composer from Texas, William Basinski has worked in experimental composition and media for over 30 years, formerly in New York and now in California. Most recognized for his compilation The Disintigration Loops, inspired by and made from sounds of decaying tape loops, Baskinski often works with analog tape loops, found sounds and various outmoded technologies to create ambient music at once melancholy and hypnotic, meditating on temporality and memory. Basinski also produces a range experimental films and installations in collaboration with artist and filmmaker James Elaine. You can find his work here.
Joe McKee is a London born singer-songwriter and composer. He was raised in Western Australia where he began writing music and teaching himself guitar. In 2003 McKee formed the band Snowman which released three albums through Dot Dash Recordings. At 23 McKee relocated to London where he began writing songs for his debut solo album, Burning Boy. Today Joe lives in Los Angeles with his wife Adarsha Benjamin and their daughter, Juniper Lucy Lee. Listen to Burning Boy here.
I first became aware of William Basinski after his seminal collection of The Disintegration Loops was compiled and released via Temporary Residence. Not being familiar with his work at the time, I was patiently waiting for a significant or sudden shift to occur in the music. It never came and I was so relieved. I reached a point, about five or six minutes into the piece, whereby it had become almost entirely subliminal. I’d never encountered music of such disciplined restraint before. It was as if the music and the machines had been allowed to communicate and live completely on their own terms, with no interference from the composer beyond the initial spark—like a wildlife documentary filmmaker allowing nature to run it’s course. As the piece played on, more and more ‘silence’ crept in. It felt like more of an accumulation than a disintegration to me. An inverted kind of entropy. It gathered moss and dust along the way and was eventually absorbed back into the ether. It seemed to be such a concise analogy for the slow, natural decay of life.
The Disintegration Loops was heavily informed by the events of September 11 in New York City. In fact it was finished on that very morning. The music is accompanied by a film piece documenting the Twin Towers burning to the ground. I was curious as to how much particular places and particular times influence his work.
I shared the following conversation with William in his Los Angeles home.
Joe McKee: When did you move to Los Angeles from New York?
William Basinski: Lets see, we left New York in 2008. Jamie [James Elaine] and I had the loft in New York and he had the house out here. The lease was ending in New York, so I moved out here in 2008.
JM: And how do you find the L.A. lifestyle compared to that of New York?
WB: For me it’s much better. As the year of the Earth Dog I need to be surrounded by nature instead of all that stimulus, otherwise I’d become a nervous wreck! So it’s been wonderful. I love having this beautiful garden with humming birds and butterflies… and I can finally hear my work. New York where we were would be just impossible now.
JM: I suppose when you’re living in a place like New York City, creating this kind of meditative music is a way of creating some solace amongst the haste. So how does living in a relatively tranquil place affect your writing? Does it mean you’re leaning towards composing…
“I still crave silence. I don’t really have music
on unless I’m working on something.”
— William Basinski
WB: Noise and dissonance?! (laughing) No, not really. I still crave silence. I don’t really have music on unless I’m working on something.
JM: I know that when I relocate to a different city, as I’ve too often done, I notice that my memory of my former home begins to fade. Perhaps because there are no longer any triggers to remind me. No familiar streets or faces. All of a sudden that foreign place feels a little oneiric. When you’re constantly digging through the archives of the tape loops you’ve made over the years, is there a desire to make some kind of lucid reconnection to a specific place and time?
WB: Y’know, music is a very strong trigger. When you have a favorite song in a particular time in your life, whenever you hear it you’ll perhaps go back to the first time or the happiest time you heard it. Now, for me, certain loops bring me back to my studio on Jay Street in New York and what that evening was like. So they store a lot of memory.
Where are you from, the U.K.?
JM: Yeah, I was born in London and grew up in Western Australia from the age of six. I moved back to London as an adult and experienced the place in a very different way.
WB: Wow, yeah so of course you would feel some kind of displacement. I read something recently that said somehow you are rooted to the place you were born. I was in Houston last year for a show that Jamie and I did for the Contemporary Arts Museum there. Houston was where I was born and the museum district is the neighborhood I was born in. It’s a very beautiful, old neighborhood. Streets lined with these majestic live oak trees. Now it’s the gay neighborhood too, so all the houses are restored. It’s beautiful. It’s a very interesting swampy kind of place.
JM: So, I guess you would have felt some kind of intrinsic connection to that particular neighborhood while you were there?
WB: Yeah, I was eight when I left, then we moved to Florida. Then, when I was fifteen, we moved to Dallas and I went to high school there. My dad worked as a rocket scientist and worked for GE and NASA, so we grew up with the astronauts and went to church with them and grew up with their kids. Then, when I was about eight, he took a job with this company in Florida and they were working on some part of the lunar module there. After the space industry and moon landing kind of finished, he took the job in Dallas. I went to high school there and then went to Denton, Texas for two years at North Texas State University, a jazz music school, which is where I met Jamie, and eventually I moved to San Francisco with him.
JM: And you studied clarinet and saxophone while you were there in Texas, right?
JM: Do you still find yourself playing those instruments?
WB: No, not so much. I’ve done a little bit of work with Antony [Hegarty] but, since I moved here, I don’t have the big loft performance space to play in and the people I used to play with in New York aren’t here. But I did recently get one of my tenors restored, so I’ll begin again.
JM: How do you think those breathy, woodwind timbres have affected the way you create music? Do you think the clarinet has informed your way of playing or composing?
WB: That’s a good idea, maybe so, a little bit. No one’s ever brought that up before. I suppose it has had an effect on it in some way. Especially with the breathing.
JM: Yeah, there’s a natural breath and rhythm with your music and also this airy kind of texture.
WB: Yeah, that’s true. I think there must be something there… yeah.
JM: Tell me about how Melancholia came about musically? It seems to contain some familiar, classical elements.
Founded in 1996 by James deVine and currently based in Brooklyn, NY, Temporary Residence Limited is an independent record company that produces genres of experimental and rock music. You can explore the label here.
WB: Well, these pieces could all be the length of a whole CD. I was archiving these in maybe ’99. I had found this collection of these particular loops. I was making a notebook of these loops for a friend of mine I think, like a compilation, and I ended up really liking it. So, after the success of Disintegration Loops, I had an audience who liked my work. I needed to get out of some debt so I released a few new records. I released Water Music II, Melancholia, and Disintegration Loops II.
People seem to like Melancholia—maybe because the pieces are more like songs. There are recognizable instruments and it’s like a sampler or an introduction to my work. One of my most popular pieces is Melancholia II. And so, last year, my friend Richard Chartier, my collaborator and colleague, helped me redesign the packaging for my catalogue. He’s a great graphic designer. We came up with this beautiful artwork with a painting of Jamie’s for the cover. Then Jeremy from Temporary Residence offered to press some vinyl. He does such a beautiful job of the printing and pressing. So, here it is!