I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Coaxing elegies from tape loops, the composer propels us from the San Fernando Valley to deep space, then into “the long-form beyond.”
By my third year of living here in New York City, I became interested in the possibilities of using magnetic tape in tandem with my already established woodwind instrument practice. I procured a few semi-functional reel-to-reel players for experimentation and quickly became fascinated by their materiality—an appreciation that then turned to the aesthetic and conceptual significance of using the recording medium itself as a method for compositional abstraction.
It was right around this time, in 2010, that I first saw Los Angeles–based musician William Basinski perform. ISSUE Project Room was staging a concert to inaugurate their new space in Brooklyn and commemorate the life of their founder, Suzanne Fiol, who had recently passed away. I was told that the near-constant soundtrack to Fiol’s twilight months had been Basinski’s Vivian and Ondine (2008), its gentle swells of sound helping with the transition. Like many of his works, this composition seems infinitely extensible, somehow enacting the passage of cosmic gulfs of time in under fifty minutes.
Behind two large reel-to-reel decks, Basinski masterfully threaded together a series of cascading tape loops. At times grounded in the recorded material—far-off orchestra fragments and choice cuts of ambiance—the sound also slipped away to reach into the acoustic warp and weft of the marble-surfaced room. This had the effect of stretching out my perception of the present, and I came to a deeper understanding of both that piece of music and the creative capacity of the tape medium.
This past November, I was lucky enough to perform on a split bill with Basinski in The Hague, where we also gave a public talk together. The following conversation, conducted coast-to-coast earlier this year, picks up where we left off and stems from our mutual affection for idiosyncratic musical processes, finicky equipment, and all things still falling away into the past.
Lea Bertucci People tend to call your music ambient, but what’s your perspective on this categorization?
William Basinski Well, I’m definitely coming from Brian Eno’s school of thought, but I’m also always shooting for transcendence. Call it a bubble of eternity, the long-form beyond. People put things in boxes and give them names, sure. Some say contemporary classical. They can call it whatever they want.
LBRight, and maybe it’s also marketing. But I want to push on this because I feel your music, though ambient, is never passive or boring; it has this deeply human quality. There’s an emotional atmosphere, an occupancy to your creation of space.
WBSpace, yes—and outer space too. I grew up around Houston, in the aeronautics and space industry. My dad helped put men on the moon, and as children we were fascinated by all this. We went to church with the astronauts.
LBYour record On Time Out of Time (2019) focuses on this subject matter.
WBIt was commissioned by Isabel de Sena, a curator who does a lot of stuff involving art and science. Here in Los Angeles, at Caltech, she was doing this project about astrophysics with the artists Dmitry Gelfand and Evelina Domnitch—who I must mention are really glamorous people, just beautiful. Anyway, they were doing these visualizations, trying to show how two black holes combine to form a wormhole, by connecting whirling vortices in a pool of water. They were working with scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, where an actual collision of black holes that created a rift in space-time 1.3 billion years ago was discovered. They heard this in their giant vacuum chambers. They hear things we’ve never been able to see, which is so damn interesting. And this collision sounds like a click.
LBLike a pulse?
WBSort of. They asked me to work with the material and sent all these samples—amazing waveforms, crazy stuff. At first, I thought they wanted something objective, like hard science, so I took that route. But then they were like, “No, we want you.”
LBThey chose you for a reason.
WBRight, duh, so I got back in there! Isabel booked an arts and science show called Limits of Knowing at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin last summer, and a long piece was commissioned for a concert at the opening. This became On Time Out Of Time. I grabbed samples, some synths, and tried to imagine these gravitational waves traveling through space for a billion—a billion!—years before reaching Earth. It gets very romantic—a love story about two black holes fucking.
LBScrewing into infinity.
WBThe two biggest vampires in the universe ripping a hole in space-time.
LBHow exactly did you approach subject matter so massive, so abstract?
WBWith my imagination and a huge library of sounds. I just wonder about things and intuit my way through, throwing in a dash of this or that, changing envelopes. It’s new every time.
LBAnd probably contingent on the performance space too.
WBYeah, it’s about space-time after all.
LBObviously, but the passage of time in particular seems to be the overarching theme across all your work. You rarely break long-form pieces up into more digestible tracks. Is everything from The Disintegration Loops (2002) until now a natural extension of this interest?
WBSure, but a forty-minute performance is pretty standard for me. If you do it right, it seems like five minutes. More than that and the audience gets antsy.
LBSo true—though I did a three-and-half-hour La Monte Young piece once without any trouble. Talk about losing your sense of time.
WBThat’s different; that’s a master at work. Did you see the six-hour-long Morton Feldman String Quartet No. 2 (1983) at ISSUE Project Room several years ago? I planned to go for just a bit and then escape for brunch, but I ended up staying the whole time, just lying mesmerized on the carpet. You have to be prepared to be taken in. A master knows how to surf time.
I remember, in the early ’80s, my partner [James Elaine] and I visited La Monte’s Dream House to see him play The Well-Tuned Piano (1964–present) for like five hours under Marian Zazeela’s magenta lights. Incredible.
LBIt’s wild how the Dream House space is so open and minimal, while Young and Zazeela’s apartment below is much the opposite: floor-to-ceiling books, magazines, tapes, everything.
WBIt happens! Look around my house, girl. That’s a Soundcraft 600 mixing console in bubble wrap, which I hope to hook back up soon. The shelves are packed with Jamie’s Kungfu movies, comic books, and old radios—colorful things. Back in Texas, we’ve got a barn full of vintage cars. They’re not even running.
LBYou’re a secret hillbilly with a stable of broken cars out in the yard. (laughter)
WBHoney, it’s no secret. We could be on TV, on Barn Find Hunter or something.
LBYou’re interested in the world around you. You’re a collector.
WBI love beauty! Libra rising, you know. I love old things and have been collecting antiques my whole life. I even ran a shop. I have cool junk, and the reel-to-reel tape decks are part of that. They break down and do weird things. Their batteries drain or get fried, then suddenly something entirely new comes out of them. I remember during a soundcheck at Cafe Oto when this one deck, all on its own, started doing a beat—almost like Jlin. It had nothing to do with what was recorded on the tape. It was the machine saying, “I’m not feeling well!”
LBLast year, I started a collaboration where I creatively misuse a tape deck to live-process the vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. She’s trained in Carnatic vocal music as well as free jazz and Western classical, but the process I use to alter her voice works well with the semitones and types of ornaments found in Indian classical music. With the machine, I can push her voice into superhuman ranges, bending and twisting what she sings.
WBLike by changing speeds?
LBThat, yes, but also by holding back the tape so it doesn’t pass across the transport in a consistent way—like wow and flutter [pitch variation]. But I’m realizing this technique is slowly breaking the deck because I’m overdriving the motor. I’ve burned through two already, and it’s terrifying. I’ve got to figure out how to make this method sustainable.
WBWhich machine are you using?
WBI have two of those. When running a loop, you have to override the mechanism. You’ve got to trick it. Stick a piece of cardboard underneath the tension arm. I have eight Uher decks that break all the time, and no one will fix them anymore. They’re small and not too heavy. I fit two in my carry-on when I travel because if I checked them as baggage, they’d be totally destroyed.
LBIt’s hard to tour with these machines. It’s not digital; there are fragile moving parts.
WBI’ve been working my ass off touring for the last fifteen years, and in Hamburg I bought an aluminum top-of-the-line suitcase for like $1000. Two flights later, it was impaled on a pole in handling and practically halved. I had a bottle of fresh olive oil from Italy in there, stuffed into a shoe. I was lucky that didn’t break!
LBThat’s wild. (laughter) You’re always on the road.
WBYep, in February I’m doing the Pitchfork Midwinter Festival at the Art Institute of Chicago. There will be concerts and installations throughout the museum. They offered me my choice of several spaces, so I asked to do The Disintegration Loops with the orchestra in the concert hall. They loved the idea. I’m super excited. Then the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Maxim Moston’s transcriptions of “DLP 1” and “DLP 2” in February.
But tomorrow I’m off to Australia—solo shows in Melbourne, and dates in Sydney with Lawrence English, performing our new collaboration Selva Oscura (2018).
LBHow does the collaboration with him manifest?
WBI have two tape decks and a laptop, running material from one and taking up with another. Lawrence has all sorts of toys. He’s such a doll, and I’ve known him for years, and at some point he sent me some stems he made. I had free reign, so [my assistant] Preston Wendel and I worked on them, then hit the ball back. I don’t know how, but Lawrence made magic out of it, then suddenly there were two complete works. We just released a gorgeous edition on marbled vinyl.
LBWhile we’re talking formats, I’m curious which you think is most ideal. You’ve been making music for a long time, and were really active performing as a saxophonist, but your own releases came later in the game, mostly on CD in the 2000s.
WBTo get good quality on vinyl, you have to stick to twenty minutes—which is a great length for a meditation. But my pieces can be much longer, so it has to be digital. For the last fifteen years, I’ve tried to release a couple of albums a year. I would get 2,000 CDs made, and the distributor would be like, “We’re out.” Because it’s cheaper, I would order a few thousand more and get stuck with them. I have back stock in storage, and I don’t want to pulp it. There’s so much plastic in the ocean already. Mediums change, and you just keep working.
LBI know you’re interested in exploring the possibilities of these various formats—not only in terms of duration, but also with frequencies.
WBWith bandwidth, most of the older tape-loop stuff is midrange-y, which itself is an amazing sound. Newer stuff has all kinds of bandwidth, especially low end, below what you might ordinarily hear. This can get tricky when you play at venues with huge, powerful sound systems, like: Whoa, I’ve never heard that before. Now I know which frequencies to warn the sound guys about. “Let’s keep our eyes on 100, 300, and 80 please.”
LBI played an all-tape set at a venue that was also a dance club. They had these gigantic subwoofers and, just as you say, elements of my own music, sounds I wasn’t even aware of, revealed themselves. Tape encodes all this extra, incidental information.
WBThat’s fascinating to me. But at every show I take full advantage of the soundcheck. I write down the technicians’ names and make time for the lighting person too. It’s synesthetic, so you have to get these artists to understand the nuances. Dial it in.
LBThe visuals at your recent show at Outpost in Ridgewood were so unique—these subtle projections of abstract forms made of color that moved or shimmered along with what you played.
WBThose were done with analog equipment by Seth Kirby and Brock Monroe, these brilliant polymaths. It’s quite a sophisticated setup, with folded titanium and swiveling mirrors.
LBOften that sort of thing can overwhelm the music, since audiences gravitate like moths toward the play of light. But this felt like a highly developed accompaniment.
WBIt was a special occasion, but I would love to tour with those guys. Last spring, we did an all-night “sleep-a-thon” benefit for The Lab in San Francisco on 4/20. (laughter) Have you ever performed there?
LBI don’t get out to San Francisco too often.
WBThe director, Dena Beard, is fantastic and it’s a big, beautiful sounding room. People brought their pillows and blow-up mattresses, and were stoned or tripping. I did a whole bunch of pieces, and Seth and Brock were all in, making these responsive organic projections.
LBWhich is precisely why they fit so well. You’re known as a tape artist, and that medium’s organic quality is always present in your music, even when you use a computer. What’s your take on analog fetishism?
WBI’m for it! Analog is a surprise, and each machine has a different personality you can learn from. It’s hands-on. Tactile.
LBI’ve had people get huffy and say, “Can’t you just use a laptop?”
WBDo they think we’re dragging this heavy stuff around for fun?
LBFor me, it’s a process-based way of working, where you discover the disparity between what you’ve heard and what you’ve recorded. It’s the process of capturing a sound and hearing the way it’s altered through the recording medium itself, and through its built-in features. Speed variation is endlessly fascinating.
WBSlowed down digitally is not the same as playing tape at a slower speed. And a digital loop is nothing like a tape loop. The tape can be tight or loose, shifting as it passes across the head. You might get a bit of information from the reverse sneaking in, like phasing, and the result is unexpected. I allow chance into the studio. I want to be surprised.
LBThe process leads to discovery, which feels alchemical to some extent. That magic can get lost in the digital process—though I’m sure a lot of producers will take me to task for saying so.
WBThe two mediums can inform each other because they’re different. Computers do what you tell them, while tape machines do what they want—including chew up your best material if you’re not careful.
LBI think one of the most inspiring aspects of how you work is the way you mine sounds from the world to create something entirely new and sometimes even subversive. In works like The River (1983) you’ve plumbed the more melancholy aspects of Muzak, a style that was made to be innocuous.
WBThe most powerful radio station back in the ’80s broadcasted Muzak from the top of the Empire State Building. There were all these “Thousand and One Strings” compositions of popular American standards with the lyrics and syncopation stripped away. The sound just floated along in a valley of haze inside the shopping malls.
LBThere’s even that compilation album titled Mall of 1974 (2018). The horn arrangements are ridiculous. I guess the intention with Muzak was to encourage consumerism, to set the shoppers at ease.
WBAnd calm folks down in elevators. It was the Prozac of the ’60s and ’70s. By 1983, I was plucking it out of the airwaves, putting it on tape. I was into the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that mechanically used looped-tape samples of flutes and strings. I couldn’t afford one, so I tried to create my own. I found that by grabbing snippets of intros and outros, then slowing them down, it was like looking under a microscope at this well of melancholy hidden underneath.
LBCan you talk a bit about this era, about living as an artist when you first moved to New York and how you found the freedom to make noncommercial music?
WBWe were lucky back then. Jamie and I had moved to New York in 1980, having saved up money for years while in San Francisco. We still couldn’t afford SoHo or Tribeca, so ended up in downtown Brooklyn, in a 5000-square-foot loft on the sixth floor. There were twenty-seven rotting windows that overlooked a park, and we could see the World Trade Center in the distance. After nine years, the block was torn down to build MetroTech Center. We fought for a settlement alongside other displaced artists in the neighborhood, got it, and moved into a loft in Williamsburg. I built a studio, but no one was getting my music. So I founded the venue Arcadia and started producing bands and putting on shows there, using my talents as I could. I did every freelance job in the city: sheetrock at the Museum of Modern Art, cabinets for galleries, you name it.
LBYou can’t get large, raw spaces like that now.
WBNot in the big cities. But it might be good for our country that all these creative folks, who used to run away from small-town USA to New York or San Francisco, can find a place in their own area and start a scene. If you build it, they will come—this is true!
LBThese smaller places in the States have tightly-knit communities. I’m playing in Milwaukee soon and teaching a workshop on graphic scores, so I’m curious to check out the scene there.
WBI saw that score for your percussion trio [Mass of Dissolution (2019)]. How did you go about making it?
LBI got all these custom rubber stamps made at a shop in the East Village. It’s run by this eccentric Irishman; the place is a total mess but very endearing. The stamps are pictographic notations for percussion instruments, each indicating the use of things like bells, triangles, crotales, etcetera. I smooshed the stamps around on the page, so that the visual representation in the score illuminates the aesthetic of the music, with certain parts that are supposed to sound chaotic and jumbled being very dense. The piece is like a giant military machine that seizes up and fails.
WBHave you heard the results?
LBWe actually had the first full rehearsal earlier today, and I have to say, I got some shivers hearing it.
WBDid you record it? Record everything, my dear. Don’t even tell the players it’s happening; just let it run.
LBOh I did, which is such a great thing about digital technology. You can constantly document things and create an archive that continues to evolve.
But I want to return to scenes of the past. There were art enclaves. I’ve read that Sol LeWitt was just up the street from Eva Hesse on the Bowery. Things were localized.
WBThat’s how New York used to be. Just run downstairs and see what your neighbors are up to. There were little zones, but they weren’t always in contact with each other—like people ask if I met Julius Eastman, and I never did.
LBIt’s a different landscape now, though I should say there’s still a vibrant community of young people making radical art here. The constraints are cranked up, and the pressure to make money is intense.
WBThat pressure was always the case; it just grew exponentially. It’s the same old story of developers and greed. New York turns into Rome and London, a place to park money in empty apartments.
LBThe thing is that despite this bleak inevitability, artists are resourceful enough to find a way. When did you move to Los Angeles?
WBAround 1999, Ann Philbin, who had taken over at the Hammer Museum, asked Jamie to come along to LA and run their Hammer Projects series. So he went out west, and I stayed behind at Arcadia in Williamsburg. I started to visit him first at this charming little bungalow in Venice Beach, then a few years later we had to move and found another cute place in Mar Vista. Eventually, I decided to get more roommates into the Brooklyn loft and only go back every few months to scare them and clean and work in my big studio there. By 2008, it was all over. We had to leave, and that’s when I moved to LA full time.
Last year we were in a panic because our landlord was selling the house, and I couldn’t find anything affordable to rent or buy. At the last minute, a miracle occurred and my sister-in-law, who’s a real estate agent, found us this house in the San Fernando Valley—a little piece of the California dream. It’s a mid-century wonderland, designed by this amazing architect, Edward Fickett, who built thousands of affordable modern tract homes all over LA for GIs coming home from the war. Ours is so charming, with lush fruit and flower gardens. I’m in heaven, but I tour all the time, so I’m hardly here!
LB That’s always the trade-off. Would you say LA influences your music?
WBNot really, though it certainly influences my health. New York burns you out—always scrambling to keep that roof over your head. People are grumpy, and you get used to it. I did my time, almost thirty years. I love that city, but it’s changed. I was twenty when I moved there, but now, someone of that age would need a trust fund. And the cold gets to me.
LBCalifornia fits your constitution as a Southern boy, right?
WBRight! I pick bay leaves fresh off the tree. And there’s a pool for swimming.
LBThat’s the most classic LA thing!
WBNext summer, honey! Come on over. We’ll barbecue. But about New York, I have to ask: Did you see the giant blue power-plant explosion in Queens the other day?
LBI didn’t. If I had, I’d have thought the end times were nigh, that the universe was collapsing.
WB(laughter) The New Agers are saying there were electrical disturbances all over the world at the same time, that it was the Pleiadeans saying, “Don’t fuck this world up, people. We’re watching!” Here comes that Rapture, girl!
Lea Bertucci is a composer, performer, and sound designer. Her discography includes a number of solo and collaborative releases, including, most recently, Metal Aether (NNA Tapes, 2018). She is coeditor of The Tonebook, a multi-volume survey of graphic scores by contemporary composers, published on Inpatient Press. As a solo artist, she has performed across the US and Europe with presenters such as MoMA PS1, Blank Forms, Pioneer Works, and The Kitchen.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee