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William Basinski on the Music

It was August 29, 1983, and William Basinski somehow found himself opening for David Bowie. Basinski was playing saxophone with a British rockabilly band called the Rockats, and he distinctly remembers being pelted with random objects by the crowd at Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark Stadium. “Nobody wants to see an opening act for Bowie,” he tells me, chuckling. It was only after Basinski let loose a shredding saxophone solo that the audience started to cheer.

That night, he was able to meet Bowie, his idol, for just a second, and give him a cassette tape he made of slowed-down, droning Muzak samples mixed with shortwave radio blasts. He never knew if Bowie listened to the tape, but those same sounds eventually turned into Basinski’s debut album, Shortwave Music, 15 years later.

Basinski’s career, much like his music, has never followed a linear path, or even felt tethered to the standard rules of time and space. In more ways than one, his creative presence has felt almost apparitional, and before he became known for his own music, he was an artistic figure of secret, almost invisible prominence.

Starting in the late ’70s, while living in San Francisco, he began recording the detritus of his day: errant traffic, random radio broadcasts, freezer buzz. He would then loop and manipulate such recordings, and they became the backbone of his work. His process of composition—cutting up, stitching together, and collaging little pieces of magnetic tape—was closer to painting, or even alchemy.

He later moved to a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—dubbed Arcadia—which became a mecca for the city’s most influential eccentrics and bon vivants. The cover for Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace was shot in his living room. ANOHNI and Diamanda Galás played a Halloween show in the loft at one point, and Basinski was even an early member of ANOHNI’s band. During this period, Basinski would sit in his thrift store, Lady Bird, and continue to record the ephemera of his life.

After years on the fringe, one morning in 2002, this proud outsider woke up to find out he was suddenly an artist of great acclaim. The reception to his inimitable 9/11 elegy, The Disintegration Loops, was ecstatic. The story behind that work has become something of a legend: an attempt to digitize a portion of his archive of loops was serendipitously disastrous—the magnetic tape decayed and crumbled as it passed through the digital recorder—producing eerie, unforgettable sounds in the process. Not long after, the planes hit the Twin Towers, and from the roof of his building in Brooklyn, the tragedy and spectacle was burned into his retinas forever. The music he made on that day was unimaginably melancholic, aware of how time turns everything into dust.

Despite the seriousness of his most renowned work, Basinski speaks warmly, and often hilariously, of his childhood in Texas and Florida—he once touched Neil Armstrong’s butt!—as well as the New York of his past, and the circuitous, almost accidental journey that took him from obscurity to notoriety. He’s nearing 60 now, and in the last decade and a half he’s travelled the world restlessly, sharing his music like never before. Speaking from the Los Angeles home he shares with his life partner, the artist James Elaine, he tells me about the musicians, songs, and albums that have stuck with him most, five years at a time.

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