William Basinski talks to Thomas Harrad

Text by Thomas Harrad

Photography by James Elaine

On September 11 2001, electronic musician William Basinksi and friends listened to the Disintegration Loops on a Brooklyn rooftop as the Twin Towers crumbled. Completed the night before, the Loops are his most famous work; extended pieces of music formed by accident, when aged magnetic tape began to fragment during the digitising process, gradually leaving gaps and holes in the sound. Listen to the Disintegration Loops now, and you hear the haunting, beautiful sound of music slipping away. For Basinski, however, they will always be synonymous with 9/11. Last year, the Disintegration Loops were played live for the first time, for the disaster's 10-year memorial service. Basinski recently brought them to London's Southbank Centre, as part of the annual Meltdown Festival.

Thomas Harrad Why do you think that the Loops still resonate with 9/11? How do the films you made that day relate to the pieces?
William Basinski On the evening of September 10th, 2001, I was in a panic. I was flat broke, about to be evicted (I got the notice the next day) and in deep despair. I had been on the computer all day looking for work and found a listing for an administrative assistant at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council which was located in the World Trade Center. As the night went on, I grew more and more despondent and was on the phone for hours with my boyfriend, Jamie, who had taken a job in Los Angeles a few years before. I was beside myself and just wanted to end it all. I was literally exhausted, but at the same time I had the Loops; this amazing new work which I had no idea what to do with. Jamie listened to my diatribes for hours and talked me down from the brink. Exhausted, I went to bed planning to go to the World Trade Center in the morning to try to get that job.

I woke up in a Truman Capote dread and as I was lying there saw a plane flying low out my bedroom window. There was a loud banging at my door; it was my friend Lon. He was babbling: "Twin Towers are burning…" We ran and opened the drapes and there we saw the two towers with the catastrophic fires in asymmetrical spots. I went to turn on the TV and Lon at the window screamed: "Billy, it's going!" I ran back and we watched in complete shock as the top of the south tower fell to the side and disappeared below the skyline. Eyes and mouths as big as saucers, we ran as fast as we could up to the roof to see just what the fuck was going on. People were on rooftops all over Brooklyn and we just stood in stunned silence staring as clouds of smoke and dust overtook the lower Manhattan skyline. It was one of the most beautiful mornings I had ever seen in New York; crystal clear blue sky, air so clean after the previous night's storm that you could hardly see any heat distortion as you looked downtown. What we were witnessing was so astonishing, so horrifying, so unbelievable we just stared stunned as if it were something on TV. Before long, we watched the north tower with the tall television antenna on top slowly begin its cascade straight down disintegrating before our eyes. The whole world had changed.

My friend and neighbour, Peggy, had the rooftop loft on the other side of our building. We sat on the roof in disbelief, playing the Disintegration Loops though the open windows all afternoon. I borrowed Peggy's video camera and asked her to help me frame up a shot of the smoke cascading from downtown. I inserted the tape, framed the shot and asked her to just let the tape run out and I would pick it up in the morning. The next day when I downloaded the video I saw that it captured the last hour of daylight as day turned to night on that tragic day. Towards the end of the video, there were so many lights out downtown that the skyline seemed to have receded back in time 100 years and the camera - which I didn't realise was set on auto-focus - began having trouble figuring out what to focus on with the dim light, not unlike the rest of us.

I put Disintegration Loop 1.1 with the film, and immediately realised that this was an elegy and made the decision to use four frames from the video as covers for the four CDs in the series. This was not a marketing decision. I wish that day had never happened and I find it hard to talk about it or even think about it, but I wanted people to know what had been perpetrated, no matter who the authorities say was responsible.

These works had come into being on their own and suddenly, in one day, they had acquired a profound new meaning beyond the personal meaning they had to me. To this day, I find it very hard to watch. I know what I am seeing.

TH Outer-body experience, hypnosis, visions, spirituality; just a quick glance at YouTube comments shows a deep emotional reaction to the Loops among listeners. Did you expect this?

WB I certainly didn't expect it at all, but I had the same. A profound mind-altering experience hearing these developments unfold in the studio and then listening to them with friends in the immediate days and weeks after they were created. Naturally, when the first disc finally came out I was just overwhelmed and thrilled by the response. For me, it had been a long time coming.

I think people either get my work and can't get enough or they don't. I get emails frequently from artists in their studios, writers, architects, students, working people who find solace; a time out of time in my music. This makes me profoundly humbled, and fills my heart with joy and hope for our troubled world.

TH How did you first get involved with Antony Hegarty's Meltdown Festival? Did you know he was an admirer of your work?

WB Antony and I are old friends and met in NY in the early '90s when I was producing young bands and performance events at Arcadia, my loft in Williamsburg. When he went on to start the Johnsons Orchestra for a show I was producing for the Kitchen, I played clarinet and saxophone for him. I continued to play with the Johnsons until my career began to take off in 2002 or 2003, largely due to Antony's great promotion of my work. He is a champion in the truest sense of the word, and just an extraordinary musician and friend. When he asked me to do this year's Meltdown Festival and I found out I could have a rare opportunity to present the Disintegration Loops 1.1, and 2, transposed by the brilliant Maxim Moston, naturally I was thrilled beyond measure.

TH The music feels like a distant fading memory, an attempt to try and capture something that is producing diminishing returns. How do you feel listening to the Loops today?

WB In the early '80s when I was just building my archive of loops to work with in my experiments, there was a period when I began recording small bits of the intros, interludes and outros of American popular standards off the radio. The radio in New York played nothing but muzak all day and all night. Now, the signal was so powerful that sounds would get picked up just by the speaker wires we had running throughout our loft in Brooklyn, so it would show up in my recording sometimes whether I liked it or not. I always loved strings and for years had dreamed of the unattainable goal of owning a Mellotron tape loop string synthesizer. I decided to try to make my own, grabbing little bits here and there on loops at the high speed on the tape decks, then slowing them down to see what lay under this muzak. In the '70s and '80s there was no Prozac, only muzak, and much better drugs. I found that beneath this anaesthetised haze, if I grabbed a bit and slowed it down, there was this hidden well of melancholy.

These loops resonated with me, and sort of scared me. Is this my work? Can I call this my work? They eventually got stored away in various containers only to be rediscovered 20 years later when I began the process of digitising my old work to save it from oblivion. It was then they began to disintegrate. As to how it feels to hear them now, they still move me as a beautiful child might move its parents... with wonder and mystery at this new creature. §


  • William Basinski