Blackhole Mysteries: William Basinski

02 November 2018

An interview with William Basinski from the 14th 25 FPS Experimental Film and Video Festival in Zagreb, Croatia.
You do not see the moon disappear. Earth’s sole satellite, a bright, silver coin distracting the periphery, is visible through a high window in the French Pavilion: until it isn’t. William Basinski, under a mauve-magenta shroud, introduces the performance with which he’s closing out the 14th edition of Zagreb’s excellent 25 FPS Experimental Film and Video Festival: ‘This is a love story about two fucking blackholes.’ Outside, through the window: a dark blank.

This is the spectral realm. The moment you realise something has changed is the moment you understand its irrevocability. This is, at least, my working thesis. As Lefebvre noted, even when a thing repeats itself, it changes: in the sequence A + A, the second A is different by virtue of it not being the first.

30 September 2018: I’m in town, between festival screenings, to shoot a film. Davor Preis’ Nine Views, installed with little fuss across the Croatian capital in 2004, is my structuring device. A scale model Solar System sized and distanced in relation to Ivan Kožarić’s The Grounded Sun, Preis’ urban installation provides the basis for a film consisting of nine segments, all equal in length but consisting of fewer shots as the film unfolds: nine in the first segment, eight in the second, seven in the third, and so on. Time’s a gimmick: I discovered Pluto, the remotest planet, on Aleja Bologne in December 2013. When viewers decode the temporal structure of my film, they might want to watch it again: prejudiced by context, new knowledge. A different film. Pluto, in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune, suffered the indignity of being demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006; Preis’ surrogate, a tiny orb mounted on a plaque in an underpass way out west, has been missing for as long as I’ve known it.

You can mechanically capture time, measure it, manipulate and mangle. But no returns. The chief tension in William Basinski’s work is between the perceivable and imperceivable: changes across time take place, here, but their gradual-durational nature resists human comprehension. We notice shifts only when it’s too late: a slow dissolve. Skip forward, cheat the system (mangle, manipulate), and the change becomes a smash-cut. Let it play out, do its thing: it draws you in and drags you out. Into other temporalities.

Melody (notes in sync), rhythm (notes in sequence), repetition (sequences looped): it’s all here. Music on a human scale stretched to approximate the cyclical qualities of the cosmic: blackholes fuck. In Zagreb, Basinski described his latest work to me as ‘a love story creating a rift in spacetime’. On Time Out of Time — a subtly beautiful, drone-based composition that swells like a steady release of pressure — takes as its starting point the collision of two blackholes recorded at LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory sited in the northwest (Hanford, Washington) and southeast (Livingston, Louisiana) of the USA.

‘These Caltech scientists woke up one morning,’ Basinski notes. ‘They checked their tapes and heard a little click and it was the sound of two blackholes colliding 1.3 billion years ago. They sent me all these different slowed-down recordings, this and that and other things to work with. I got to use this stuff and I went off and imagined how this magic played out over 1.3 billion years to where we could hear it, travelling through space and opening up. It starts out very weird and droney, and then it opens up and ends up very romantic. I think it’s lovely.’

It is. Basinski, for better and worse, is still primarily known for Disintegration Loops (2002-3), a series of recordings that began with the musician attempting to digitise older recordings from deteriorated tapes. Looped, allowed to continue, their condition worsened: cavities opened, eternities, vulnerabilities. The music haunts like a slowed-down shiver. Fortuitous mythologizing followed: the completion of the four albums coincided with the 9/11 attacks. The artwork featured stills from Basinski’s video footage of that day’s sunset: an unreal real-time survey of the darkening sky, and of new vulnerabilities opening up, where the Twin Towers had stood at sunrise. Again, you watch the smoke rise, develop, dominate the frame — but you don’t see the change.

‘The fascinating thing about that night, and that film,’ Basinski tells me, ‘is that I managed to capture day-to-night on the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world changed dramatically. New York City, the landscape: I mean, what? We saw it, from our rooftop. That doesn’t happen. Steel buildings do not collapse. Are you kidding me?’

Basinski and a friend set up a camera on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment block. ‘I managed to get a tape and asked her to help me cue it up. I said, “Just let it run out.” We caught that Turneresque, horrifying sunset when the world changed. What was interesting about it, when I looked back at it the next day in iMovie and put Disintegration Loops 1.1 over it, was the way it sort of went back in time. There was electricity out all over downtown, but some of the buildings were still lit — the oldest ones. As it started to get darker, you saw it, a hundred years ago: downtown Manhattan. The camera was set on autofocus, and in the very end it starts losing focus, and you’re seeing people on other roofs in the darkness, in Brooklyn, walking back and forth. You don’t really see them, but it causes the camera to move in and out of focus. We were all trying to find focus at that time.’
This speaks to another tension across Basinski’s work, between the mechanical qualities of technology on the one hand and the contingencies that can happen despite and because of them on the other. That interplay, between set parameters (rules, stipulations) and chance (hazard, chaos): it provokes me, endures. My Zagreb film is another steady-stare escapade, a durational film without being merely long: can something concern itself with time, it asks, without taking up too much of it? Quick shots, amateur set-ups: walking here, walking there. The rhythm of feet on a sidewalk, urban energies in a frame. At one point during Basinski’s 25 FPS gig, a dog — untethered from its owner — flopped nonchalantly into view, gravitating towards the musician, who barely seemed to notice the canine as it sniffed at him before moving on.

‘I have to have something happen that I’m not in control of,’ Basinski says. ‘The one class I had in music school at North Texas State University that really resonated with me was the contemporary music class. We learned about John Cage, and I learned that you don’t have to write every note down. You can use radios, you can use anything. Silence. This opened up a huge door for me. I do have formal compositional training, and I use it, but if I had to write down every note when I’m in the studio I’d be bored as shit. I have a lot of work that I’ll never release. You work, you try things out, and sometimes magic happens. You open yourself up to it.’

When magic happens: how does he know? ‘You know. You know. Your hair stands on end and you’re like, Yes!’

The magic, for me, is in its duality of rhythms: the slowness, the drifts, are conducive to internal meanders, perspectives, humilities. Basinski isn’t wrong to talk of ‘opening up’: exceeding our reach, the universe demands modesty. If the French Pavilion seemed somehow inappropriate for his performance, despite its obvious architectural beauty, it was perhaps due to the crucial intimacy required of the music itself: those intensely private rhythms (biological, neurological) that can be too-easily ruptured, deflated, snatched away in the wrong setting.

My relationship to this work operates on a direct-feed basis: jealous, greedy, unwilling to share. I sat at the front: minimise distractions. Others lay down, as if under stars, eyes closed. That I noticed these at all spoke of my own disturbance, my own struggle to settle down and take it in. If anything, the French Pavilion, an open, cylindrical hall built in 1937 and reopened in 2014 after two decades of restoration work — and located within the festival hub, Zagreb’s Studenski Centar — didn’t seem cavernous enough. It needed to be steeped in darkness for the blackhole mysteries to fizz: focus is sensorial displacement.
Impulsive and patient: two types of time. The human is measured against that which is not: underscored, devalued, heightened. Check your vanity. At its best, Basinski’s music is everything at once. I love the simultaneity of its hair-raising euphoria (notes on a scale) and the melancholic register of its extended processes (notes across time).

He agrees. ‘Yeah. I mean I make it for me. To heal myself. A lot of musicians are record-collectors. I’m not. I always had friends who turned me onto stuff. I created what I wanted to hear. I’m doing it for myself. It takes me a long time to get off the pot sometimes. When I first started there was no context for my stuff and nobody was buying it. But I played in bands, did other stuff. I’m a trained musician; I kept going. I knew that magic was happening, and so did the friends that I was living with. I got some gigs in the art world in the early Eighties when we moved to New York, and it looked like it was going to happen, but if never went very far because back then you had to have a record label. You couldn’t release it yourself. When my work all fell apart, twenty years later…’

It had found currency. ‘All the people in London went crazy! I got into The Wire. Then Pitchfork went nuts over it. It launched.’ Persistence and contingency, energies played out over time: with blips, aberrations, breakthroughs. It parallels the work itself.

‘This is something that is very tricky with loop-based work. I work with tape loops and analogue. This is what I grew up doing. It’s not the same when it goes around like a digital loop is. There are slight changes, warble. For example, Variations for Piano & Tape [2006], which is one of my favourite pieces — I think it’s two tape loops, I can’t remember — but they’re playing on these big old portable forty-pound Norelco tape decks. They don’t have any bells and whistles, there’s nothing to keep the tape tight, and if it gets a little bit loose it might sink a little bit and start to play something on the back side of the tape in reverse. You let it happen. You don’t want it to get chewed up in the machine, because that’s the end of it, but you keep it going and see what happens. Chance.’

‘On Time Out of Time’ is released on Temporary Residence in January 2019. All images by the author.