Formally trained as a painter, James Elaine now works primarily in experimental film, often collaborating in installation and multi-media work with William Basinski. During his longtime work as a curator at both the Drawing Center in New York and Hammer Museum in L.A., Elaine has been celebrated for his discovery of many great contemporary artists. He now lives and works in Beijing, China.
JM: I know that you and James Elaine have collaborated on numerous projects. How does that process unfold? Is it discussed around the breakfast table?
Located in Flushing Meadows in the borough of Queens, NY, the Unisphere is a 12-story high, spherical stainless steel representation of the Earth. It was conceived as part of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair to celebrate the beginning of the space age and represent global interconnection.
WB: Well, with films and stuff, it happens in a few different ways. Jamie is amazing with the camera and he sees things that I can’t see, but then I’m really good at editing because I can instantly see rhythm and cut points and I can make decisions. Jamie wants to keep everything but I can choose shots well. So, the first films we made together were just shot and cut in camera. I would create the soundtrack live with synthesizers and things and build it up over a couple of passes. Now in more recent years, since we’ve lived three thousand miles apart, because of his work and my work, sometimes he’ll send me some new footage or something and I’ll just happen to be working on something new and pull up some loops. For example, the short film Melancholia, he sent this footage we shot at the world’s fair in Flushing Meadows with the Unisphere, which just happened to go perfectly with Melancholia II. So the camera follows through the trees, then everything opens up and it follows around the sphere and fades back into the web of branches. Back into this tunnel of trees.
Music in which some element of composition or realization is left to chance.
JM: Was that a purely aleatoric process?
WB: Yeah, although it took a long time to get it right. Jamie wanted to get it again and again and go back every year. But really the process is different every time. I’ll spend weeks and weeks editing to the music. But there are sometimes problems along the way. With “Variations” there have been a few of these. With the second one, I had to work all summer long. That particular film follows people walking down the streets of New York after a ticker tape parade – people rushing back to work through the dirty streets. He just followed people around and shot the people from the back.
JM: Was he filming with your piece in mind?
WB: No, just filming. I was just working on this first album release and he sent me all this footage, and there was a problem with his old Panasonic camera. There was dropout and I had to cut out the dropout and edit the footage in a different way. So, I spent months cutting this story together with all of these people, but I think it turned out really beautifully. It’s amazing how much you can find out about people by just viewing them from the shoulders down. There are all these different characters. There’s the super powerful business men – you can tell by the suit and the shoes – and then you have these old schemer guys shuffling around. Then the ladies out shopping, and this one beautiful older lady, smoking, who senses Jamie behind her and just steps back.
We have a real symbiotic relationship, Jamie and I. Usually I’ll do the edit and then bring it to him, and he’ll know exactly which spot I was having trouble with, without me even saying anything. He’ll go right to it. And I’ll be like, “I know, I was waiting for you to find that.” So, he can sit in on that process with me for, like, an hour and we’ll nail it. Basically, he shoots and I edit and we both look at the final cut.
“We have a real symbiotic relationship, James [Elaine] and I. Usually I’ll do the edit and then bring it to him, and he’ll know exactly
which spot I was having trouble with, without me even saying anything. He’ll go right to it.”
— William Basinski
JM: Compared to New York, has Los Angeles affected the process by which you gather and archive your loops?
Currently residing in New York City, Roger Justice is an abstract artist whose mixed media paintings often combine writing on paper with thick application, visual repetition and collage elements. See his work here.
WB: Actually, my process is different here. Back in New York, in my studio, I had this big control room with synthesizers, mic’s, early midi, and tape decks and all that kind of stuff. Big rooms, small rooms, the works. Now, here in L.A., all of that is in the garage and I haven’t found a studio space that I can afford yet. So, my process has changed. I use computers and I can do so much with this technology. As much as I could do with a whole control room 16 years ago. But, other than that, I still use my little old machines. [Walking over to his table of musical gadgets] These are my little UHERS. German 1970′s models. They both fit into my carry on bags. And these drawings are by my friend Roger Justice. He’s still in New York painting. He just sent these to me.
JM: Wow, these are beautiful. They seem to be all about repetitive motions… [At this point in our conversation, my daughter Juniper, pipes in and steals our attention for a moment or two.] Since having a baby, I’ve really been experiencing the world through her eyes. She’s experiencing the world through these little synesthesia goggles. I guess that’s what I wanted to touch on, seeing these drawings by Roger—how much have visuals effected your composition process? Do you find yourself translating these images into sound? You’ve been surrounded by visual artists, how has this influenced your work?
Home to the University of North Texas College of Music, among other universities, Denton, Texas has a rich local independent music scene supported by its college town atmosphere. It also holds the annual Denton Arts & Jazz festival and is currently and emerging cultural hotspot.
The Castro District
Commonly referenced as The Castro, is a neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States. It remains the largest, and a symbol of activism and gay pride events.
WB: When I was younger, I never knew anything about art or how to look at and appreciate it, but I learned that from Jamie. The whole Denton art scene was a very special scene. They called it Texas funk art. Seeing Jamie and Roger’s artwork early on, [they] were both huge influences on me. The first time I walked to Roger’s house (he lived in The Castro in San Francisco at the time), I was wearing these alligator skin stilettos and they were shooting sparks as I was sliding down the hill. I got to this bar in Castro and had to give my legs a break. So anyway, I walked into Roger’s place, he had no furniture, maybe a kitchen table and a few chairs, and in the living room was all these monochromatic paintings with objects on them. All the same. One painting was giant, orange with these curled up stilettos on it called TV in Africa. It had a TV stuck on it. He had all of these wonderfully evocative paintings and broken toys lying around. It was like an art installation.
Discreet Music is a 1975 album by British musician Brian Eno, marking his shift toward a more ambient aesthetic that would be solidified in his later albums. To create this album, Eno used a method called “Frippertronics” in which an analog delay system, connected to two tape reels playing side by side, routes the tape from each reel into one another with a slight delay, looping previously recorded sound while layering new sounds on top.
“[Roger Justice] had three record players all playing at the same time, scattered
around the room, they were all playing Discreet Music [By Brian Eno] at different parts
of the record.” — William Basinski
Anyway, he had three record players all playing at the same time, scattered around the room, they were all playing Discreet Music at different parts of the record. So you know, we smoked some pot and just listened to this and I was taking all this in, just like your baby. I was a real baby then—20 years old. So it just blew my mind and I just went, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” Jamie had all of these art appreciation books from school and I’d read them and learned to appreciate art and learned that I didn’t necessarily have to like it, I just had to let it talk to me. So, they turned me onto all kinds of great stuff.
JM: Moving to San Francisco seems to have been a major turning point for you…
WB: Oh definitely, yeah. As someone who wanted to be a composer I never knew what to do, but then I learned to just experiment. I saw the back illustration of Discreet Music, of this two-tape deck, Frippertronic feedback loop… so I went to the junk store and started playing around with tapes and feedback loops.