The sound of two black holes colliding has inspired a romantic instrumental involving vampires - we meet the legendary composer behind it
Cai Trefor
22:30 9th March 2019

Few musicians means as much to New York as William Basinski. The ambient legend, who’s often mentioned in the same breath as Eno, was a staple in the pre-gentrification Brooklyn music scene in the ’80s and ’90s; and reached his biggest audience with the four-part ambient masterpiece Disintegration Loops (2002). Written in his Brooklyn flat during the months surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks, it's work that accidentally became a heart-wrenching requiem for 9/11. These atmospheric instrumentals, which stand the test of time, are particularly evocative thanks to his ear for beauty and melancholy, and, importantly, a strange yet brilliant recording process. This process involved Basinksi recording easy listening stations onto tapes, which he then spliced and stuck it together to create a loops and stored them away. Years later, he then dug them for archiving. He found them falling apart, but proceeded to bounce them on to digital anyway. Such was the poor condition of source material, each was played until they physically disintegrated. It’s a magical listening experience hearing loops recorded like this.

But the Basinski Gigwise meets today has settled for a long-distance relationship with the city that made him. Having moved to Los Angeles' The Valley, after a few years living closer to the beach there, he’s now lobbed his anchor in a more serene spot. Chatting to him over Skype, we see his back garden with a beautiful pool, and he's keen to point out the Meyer lemon tree, which he says produces the tastiest lemons. It looks like a fantastic place to unwind when off tour, but being off tour seldom happens at the moment. Touring an album he made Lawrence English; working with orchestras on reimagining The Disintegration Loops; and performing the new On Time Out Of Time album – his schedule is pretty full. Plus, he takes a hands on approach with some of the nitty gritty of managing a record release, despite having a record deal. Things such as mailing hand written notes to fans and over-seeing pre-orders. It's an impressive juggling act.

Despite the myriad projects, Gigwise is here mainly to talk to Basinksi about the new album titled On Time Out Of Time (out 8 March via Temporary Residence). It's a record recorded originally for an exhibition in Berlin and samples waveforms that were detected by two black holes merging and causing a rift in space/ time. Meet the brilliant, prolific William Basinski below:

“LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a large-scale physics experiment and observatory to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool.”

Hi William. Let’s hear about the samples from LIGO [they supplied sounds of the merging of two distant massive black holes, 1.3 billion years ago that created a rift in space/time]. I understand that you got the recordings from a cocktail party?

William Basinski: I met Jamie, who is one of the scientists from LIGO at Caltech [California Institute of technology] at a party, after a lecture by Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand. They were down there working with the guys from the science department on some new art instillations that are truly beautiful. And, it turned out Jamie was a fan and we were talking and he said: 'We have these recordings. Would you be interested in maybe doing something with them?’ And I said, 'Yeah, send them to me'. So, they sent me a whole bunch of these digital files that they had done different things with so we could hear it, really. Fascinated, I used some of them. And then extrapolated with my other loops and synthesisers other things in my archive that I blended together like a paint.

How did they [LIGO] get them to make sound?

WB: There are these giant vacuum chambers underground in the south east and the north west of the United States. In fact, they're the largest vacuum chambers in the world. And, they've been working on this for years. But finally – in November 2015, I think it was – they registered a click. I'm not a scientist so it's hard for me to explain. My understanding, though, is that they woke up the next morning and there was a reading of this gravitational wave that hit the earth from the merging of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. To analyse the sound, I think they did some various things with the readings – slowing it down or speeding it up – but I don’t know exactly what. I do know they sent me a bunch of wave forms. Some of which are really scary looking and kind of odd, too. One of them was unlike any other wave form I'd ever seen. It was so complex. It's hard to describe.

It's well documented that your father worked with NASA in some capacity. What was his job exactly?

WB: My dad was a mathematician and an engineer. He started in the Navy and then when we were young he was working for different contractors working for the space programme. First in Clear Lake City, Houston, Texas, which is where NASA is. He worked on the early space programs. Then we moved to Florida and he was working for another contractor on some aspect of the Lunar Module. Probably trajectories or something. I have to get more information from Dad about that.

Recordings from space aren't anything new to you, then, I imagine. What was it about the LIGO recordings that drew you in? You could have made a space sample album in any point of time, right?

WB: I collect some of the sounds from space and I think they're fascinating and everything. I mean, I've been collecting sounds from space just with short wave radio static for years. Those are particle showers coming in.

You use that a lot in your recordings already?

WB: I listen when I see these posts about the sounds coming from Saturn or Uranus or something like that. But it's never, 'oh, I'm going to use that or something.'

So there was something particular about this event, because it was a world's first?

WB: Yes, but not just that. It also just fascinated me. Black holes are fascinating! And colliding black holes are very massive and terrifying and fascinating. So, it just happened. I was commissioned to do a piece with it, so I did. I was commissioned to do a longer piece, so I did.

Oh so you did the track 4(E+D)4(ER=EPR) first?
The digital and CD version of On Time Out Of Time is divided into two tracks: the above, and a 39 minute masterpiece title track.

WB: Yeah that was for Evelina and Dmitry's installation.

Limits of knowing thing [at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin]?

WB: Yeah. And then the people at the museum were very interested in having me perform so I was commissioned to make a new piece, so I made the long piece for the performance there and that's the record.

The longer piece [‘On Time Out Of Time’] has more ebbs and flows which , to me, implies a narrative. I know you mentioned there was lots of scary sounds and you had to trim bits out because you wanted to write a love story?

WB: Well, when I first started working on the piece with the files for Evelina and Dmitry I thought they wanted me to stick with the subject so I did this piece and they're like, 'oh, it's great but Billy, we want you'. I said, 'What do you mean?' They answered, 'you know....'. So I was like, 'alight, alright, I get it. But let me work on it some more.' And then it ended being much more beautiful. That's the short piece. Then I was inspired by them when I was working on the long piece to make a narrative. And it is an epic love story: the attraction between two massive – greatest vampires in the world, or something.

On the single you've got a visual that Dmitry and Evelina created, right?

WB: That is a photograph of one of their installations - it's lasers in a tank of water that is creating this spiraling counter clockwise vortex. And you can see how they can connect underneath so they're showing how wormholes can form in these kind of situations. And they’re showing it in a way that people can see in an art gallery. This is the kind of thing they do.

The long piece is quite emotional even after only a handful of listens and I’ve started to feel the drama in it. Are you pouring parts of your own personal history into that? Can you recognise parts that reflect where you were at emotionally at the time of recording?

WB: I don’t know. I'll tell you this though: The second half of the piece – it starts to get very romantic and everything and more atonal – is from an older work of mine I created using synthesisers. It was something that was originally done for this vampire album I wanted to do. It's called The Lovers and that never happened. It just worked so well coming out of the middle. As the waves start expand and reverberate throughout space/time (this is all in my imagination and everything), then all of a sudden it's getting closer to earth – and life as we know it – and so it occurred to me to find this piece. That's what happened and I think it's quite beautiful.

Definitely. Nothing feels segued in or abrupt. I spent the whole time trying to work out as well – because I know there's different sounds in there – which bits are from the LIGO recordings?

WB: It's really clicks, beginning, and some really low cloudiness, and some low-mid cloudiness.

The clicks that sound like door switches, or someone walking down a corridor?

WB: That's what the sound was basically!

I thought that was the most human part for some reason. I thought he's recorded himself putting the lights off.

WB: It got a click is my understanding. They slowed it down a million times to see what was in there and then it starts to get really strange.

What is that – someone called it a wine glass experiment sound in the Popmatters review?

WB: We used a virtual Mellotron and it had a glass orchestra setting, which I love. It’s one of my favourite instruments.

How have you found revisiting the Disintegration Loops for the Pitchfork live event [with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra]?

WB: That was such a trippy experience. And to have it move on to a new life with orchestras is just great for me. I just love it and it's a completely different thing. I love seeing the musicians so concentrated – it's a very difficult piece. Max [arranger Maxim Moston] is brilliant. It's all written out. The time signatures change so you can get the Disintegration the way he heard it. And we were fascinated to watch this brilliant conductor with the Chicago Philharmonic at rehearsal. They get one day of rehearsal for these two difficult pieces. They get their parts on their stands at the first rehearsal and the conductor has already studied the score, talked to Max, and then he goes through and takes them through the main numbers. Morning rehearsal on one piece and afternoon rehearsal on one piece the next day. There's a sound check where they run through one of them, and then the concert. They’re world class.

So you get to be sat in the audience?

WB: Max and I sit there, I give notes to Max, but he already has them in his head so I don't have to say anything anymore really. We talk about things. We've only heard this six times now, so you know it's new every time and we might make a few little changes or something. And then in the concert. We have reserved seats on the side and get to listen and watch and come down and take a bow, which I love. It's an incredible experience really.

How do you go about performing On Time Out of Time live?

WB: I have a laptop and a little tape deck – a reel to reel with one loop. The tape deck’s not on the record, it's a special thing for the show at the end. It takes a lot of work before the show, too. There's so much bandwidth in this piece, which is kind of rare with my work – a lot of the tape loop stuff is very mid-range-y and stuff. In soundcheck I have to listen to the room with the engineer and some rooms ring in a certain frequency, and some ring in another frequency and we have to EQ it carefully. […] I'm basically moving faders during the performance and listening very carefully.

What’s it like being immersed in this emotional piece so regularly? Have you found it's changed the way you think about the world in a way. You have relationship with the source material, so do you think about the concepts and the things that go on in there?

WB: Yeah, sure. I love this piece! I'm very happy with the way it turned out. And super thrilled to be able to be doing this now. It was my dream. I'm old now it takes a lot out of me touring but it's what I always dreamed of doing so it's a real blessing. And I love performing the shows. The music gets me really tripped out and it's a very concentrated thing. I kind of lose track of time and it's like all of a sudden, 'oh wow 40 minutes just went by'.

Is it like being in a gong bath or a long massage?

WB: I have to go to the dressing room for a little while and come back into my body after the show I can't just start talking to people.

Do you feel less individualistic, find yourself thinking philosophically? Do you feel more in tune with certain people? How does it change the way you think?

WB: Well, it's a communal experience that we all go through together. It's been great. People really respond to it. It seems to have a very uniting effect on the audience and me. We're all in it together. And out of time. We're out of this crazy world we live in for one hour, which is a real blessing. It's almost like what going to church used to be like for a lot of people. So it's kind of like a mass in a way.

Is there anyone who you admire the work of who’s come forward and complimented it?

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William Basinski traverses the galaxy at Ambient Church #ambientchurch #williambasinski

A post shared by @ jgthirlwell on

WB: Yeah it happens all the time. Ooh, we're just doing this new thing with this amazing group called Ambient Church. Brian Sweeny's group that started in New York. He's got this world class team of people and they put on these multimedia performances in churches. Eric Epstein his video guy and his partner Maddie are geniuses. They data map the churches for the structures and have all this amazing video stuff. They invited me to do a show at a church in New York a couple weeks ago and one in Los Angeles last week. We had to do two in New York because of the demand. It was mind boggling. I can't even see any of the stuff they're doing, but people's mind was blown! You can go to Instagram on #williambasinski and see some clips of this stuff. This is what I want to do in Europe next year with this piece. Just this Ambient Church thing because there are so many churches all over Europe and they're happy to have people there because not so many people go to church anymore and they want people in there and so this is what I'm hoping we we’ll be doing more for On Time Out of Time next year. It will be a big expensive show but it's just off the charts! To answer your question, Jim Thirlwell came to my show in New York – JG Thirlwell. He’s fantastic. Have you heard of him?


WB: He's maybe a couple years older than me and has Foetus, Manorexia. He does the soundtrack for a couple of amazing cartoons, including the Avenger Brothers on Adult Swim. He's a fabulous New York polymath. He's going to do the transcription for Disintegration Loops IV - that we talked about. So that one’s really intense. But he was there loved the show. I'm lucky to meet this amazing community of artists touring around the world. It's very collegial and friendly.

Did you write this new album alone?

WB: I have my young engineer Preston who's fantastic that helps me with the new stuff like Ableton and virtual synths. He's been a real blessing. Today he's out packaging materials. We’ve got a bunch of pre-orders to go out today. We've been packing orders today.

Have you always been attracted to the DIY ethos?

WB: I mostly did everything myself because it's the only way you can make any money. Since the Disintegration Loops boxset Temporary Residence has done my LP’s for me. Now we're talking about them doing all the manufacturing and distribution because it's getting to be too much. But we'll see. I still have my own mail orders. I sign letters and send things out to people. Make it personal, you know.

Do you find you spot a tape machine that you never seen before. Do you still expand the studio and think of new ways of doing things?

WB: Yeah I do. But I don’t get to be in the studio as much as I used to because my life is now administering the work and touring it a lot. Being the office, doing emails. Watching the world collapse around us.

Yeah you really have to work hard to survive as an independent artist in the age of streaming, huh.

WB: It's the revenge of the nerds and the jocks, and ‘the socials’ as we used to call them. All the freaks are dropping dead and all these other people are destroying everything. It makes it difficult but I'm not quitting...

William Basinski’s On Time Out Of Time is out now. William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops will be performed by an orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall in Manchester on 11 April. And he will perform with Lawrence English on 29 March at St.John’s Hackney, London.

Photo: Press