An Hour of Watching William Basinski, Blacking Out, and Realizing that Nothing Ever Dies
At National Sawdust in Williamsburg on Friday, the legendary avant-garde artist's music was confounding, overwhelming, and—just for a moment—eternal.
Photo: Kate Mason
In a slim-fitting, sequined black jacket, a pair of mirrored Aviators around his eyes, his blonde hair draped over his collarbones, William Basinski walks onto the small stage at National Sawdust in Williamsburg—a few hundred feet from the roof above his loft where he watched the Twin Towers fall on September 11, 2001—and picks up the microphone next to his MacBook Air. "Alright you crazy motherfuckers," he says in a thick drawl that makes him sound like a Southern lush. His voice is at odds with everything: the careening black and white lines of the walls around him, the purple light that hangs over the room, his reputation as an avant-garde musician, and the weight of the looping compositions that his audience expects. He tells the crowd to sit down. This is going to be "some serious requiem for dead friends and heroes," he says. "Just close your eyes, because this ain't gonna be pretty to look at."
A Shadow in Time, Basinski's latest album, is cut into two distinct sections. Like every one of his albums, it is an experiment in repetition and expansion: on one side there are short samples, often decaying with each successive loop; on the other, drawn out semi-melodies, mingling with ephemeral noise. Few of Basinski's records have shown such contrast as Shadow. Here, there are two 20-minute tracks. First is "For David Robert Jones," a plaintive eulogy for the late David Bowie; the second, "A Shadow in Time," is a droning, cosmic piece of orchestral minimalism. "This first one sounds like a New Orleans funeral," he says tonight, flicking his hair back over his left shoulder. "Then we're going to go to the stars." The microphone thuds clumsily back onto the table.
The opening chords of "For David…" struggle through the speakers. Twenty minutes pass and he's still standing there—the 5-second loop that sounded hopeful at first has slowly been intruded upon by crackles and sinister feedback. A semi-tonal sound interjects—here it sounds like a brutally compressed guitar, but on record it's a saxophone. It hangs over the track like a buzzsaw bouncing above a femur.
Speaking to John Doran at The Quietus around the reissue of The Disintegration Loops in 2012, Basinski recalled the sounds of his Bay Area apartment. "The old refrigerator we had in our place in San Francisco had this amazing sound," he said. "The compressors in the freezer had such beautiful overtones[...] The sounds there… I don't know what it is. The position of the hills, the bay, the fog, the water all around it. The clicking of the electrical lines, the sound of the fog horns, the creaking of the cable car lines… it all makes for an extraordinary listening experience." For Basinski, everything can be music.
So he copies these sounds onto tape and then loops them and the tape decays as it plays because that's what analog audio mechanisms do, tape especially. When we listen to a William Basinski album, we're listening to a recording of a reality, copied onto a machine, pressed onto tape, digitized, compressed, and copied again through headphones. Like all music, it's a copy of a copy of a copy. Whether it's deployed by Taylor Swift, John Legend, or Kraftwerk, a keyboard is still just a machine that can play a once-recorded piano sound; a record is just an impression of that impression. It's what we hear on any album, regardless of how digital or analog it might seem. With Basinski, we're forced to confront that reality explicitly. Every piano key plays alongside a tape deck's static and all the static relies on the piano keys; Every sound is a part of the machine, and the machine is part of every sound.
But live, this can't be closed off so neatly. Those incidental noises that Basinski hears as parts of a symphony can't be cancelled out in a room full of 300 people with a full bar to the side and a Brooklyn Friday night raging past the door. The shuffle of sneakers on the floor, the clinking of wine bottles behind the bar, the sound of my pen clicking as I take notes—they are all part of a new song. And as the tape player whirrs beneath Basinski's left hand, the tape inside of it decays a little more, put upon by the machine, destined to make a slightly different sound the next time as a result.
You think about these things, watching Basinski onstage. He stands perfectly still, the sequins bouncing the light back around the room. The way that the buzzsaw saxophone calls back to its subject, Bowie—the initial sample reminded Basinski of Bowie's "Subterraneans"—and the way that the "eternal moment" that Basinski wants to capture in his music really is eternal, especially after death, when the human can't make any more edits. But you think about it in a way that isn't quite thinking, because your mind is overwhelmed by the repetition and the volume, and all you can register, even if you try, is the way that a bass note has started to swell into the track, the way that the loop has turned tinny, notes coming through through an old can, and you half-realize that there's nothing truly hopeful about what you're hearing, at least not in the conventional sense. And then you snap back 30 minutes later when a bright, high piano note fanfares in and you realize that you've spent thirty minutes thinking about death and machines. And you forget that you're going to die, or at least you don't care, because these gathered samples and tape-deck experiments were dead in their own way anyway—the sounds and the subjects might not be material anymore—but they feel alive now because you're hearing them, and that has to count for something.
The cosmic second half of his set, 25 minutes of "A Shadow In Time," works through this in reverse. Almost indistinct sounds—screeching feedback, compressed piano glissandos, a wavering drone in the middle of it all—oscillate between major and minor keys, depending on which he gives precedence to. That high-up hum that holds a pretty, meditative, slow melody can be overridden in an instant if Basinski flicks his right hand on the desk and draws the atonal feedback into the mix. After 15 minutes, the melody falls away entirely and it's just an orchestra of white noise, rising and falling, that same bass drone softly punctuating it. He plays these two off against each other for fifteen minutes before things fall away. And then, there's something more familiar—a piano melody, definitely played by somebody at some point, in a room somewhere. Three spare, descending chords and some mournful flourishes over the top. The white noise is still throbbing, but the familiarity of the piano is all that matters, so that's all you hear, and you have to close your eyes again because it feels too real to be coming out of these speakers in this room, out of a tape deck that's chewing up the tape a little more with every loop.
There's a 15-second silence between the end of "A Shadow In Time" and the first snap of applause from the audience—Basinski doesn't move in the meantime and nobody else dares. And then he loosens and picks up the microphone again. "Thank you so much, my friends and lovers." He kisses out into the audience with a mwah. "My children, you guys were great, I love you. Thank you, thank you."
He jokingly asks for someone to walk him down the three steps to his dressing room, but halfway back, he decides against it. "I just thought of something." He wants to play a song from his new project, Sparkle Division, something he's been working on with his engineer, Preston Wendel. "And I was thinking, why don't we just, like, I hate to—that mood's over, that funeral's over. You all wanna hear Lenora singing one of her classic songs?" That Lenora is Lenora Russo, an outgoing, cult-famous Brooklyn figure known as The Queen of Williamsburg, a fixture of the neighborhood whose character bridged a gap between the old and new. She and Basinski were close, before he left Williamsburg and fleed the new condos. Lenora died last November at the age of 91. "Known for her impeccable vintage outfits, her big sunglasses, and for chatting up anyone who would listen," her obituary read. The same obituary also said that she used to boast about her younger figure. She'd ask, "If you like my peaches, why don't you shake my tree?"
Basinski plays "The St Louis Blues," Lenora's interpretation of Ella Fitzgerald's version—a copy of a copy. Every sound is pushed to the front of the speakers—the high notes overloading the original microphone that went to the tape deck and then went to Basinski's MacBook and now comes out of the speakers. "If you like my peaches / Why don't you shake my tree," Russo sings. Here, she sounds alive. And, inside the machine, and inside everyone's heads, for a moment, she is.
Alex Robert Ross is sort of conscious again now. Follow him on Twitter.