Photos by Magdalena Wosinska
Words by Andrew Parks
“The first thing I did was get cigarettes,” says ambient composer William Basinski, recounting the day he watched the Twin Towers fall from atop his Brooklyn loft.
“My friend and I had just quit smoking,” he continues, “but here we were, searching for five- year-old cigarette butts. I thought, ‘The world’s ending. We’re going to have some real cigarettes.’ So I got them, went back home, and there was chaos on the TV. We turned that off and turned on the music.”
Basinski had recently wrapped his Disintegration Loops series, so he cranked the volume, cracked open the windows and went up to his roof, where he noticed a friend across the way, who had a video camera out.
“It was the last hour of daylight,” says Basinski, “so I asked her to help me frame the camera and let the tape run out. It was just devastating.”
This year, the resulting audiovisual piece was added to the permanent collection of the September 11 Memorial Museum. Temporary Residence Ltd. will also release a lavish Disintegration Loops box set on November 13th. We caught up with Basinski, calling from his LA home, on the anniversary of 9/11…
When did you first get involved with making music?
We were brought up studying music, beginning in the seventh grade. I actually started in Florida, during junior high, but in high school, we moved to Dallas. And my parents put us in a school that had one of the best music programs in the country.
Was it a private school?
[It was] a big public school; we had 3,000 kids, 300 in the marching band, a huge symphonic band, an orchestra, a jazz band. I enjoyed working hard on the clarinet, and then I pissed off my band director in my senior year when I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. [Laughs]
Was the clarinet not your choice of instrument?
It was chosen for me by the band director in junior high. My mom wanted me to take choir, and I said, ‘No, please, I’m getting beat up enough already.’
Were your parents musicians as well?
Amateur. My dad was a mathematician and worked as an engineer for NASA when we were young. He worked on all of the different space programs.
Is that why you moved around a bit?
Yeah. We were in Houston during the early days with the Apollo; I went to church with the astronauts. Then we moved to Florida and dad was working on part of the lunar lander.
So does that mean a lot of his calculations kept things from getting fucked up in space?
Could be. They were all using slide rulers and pocket protectors. [Laughs] The [lunar lander] was made of aluminum foil.
What did your mother do?
My mother raised five kids—four boys and a girl.
Were you the middle child?
I was the second of three boys, in a row…She was a tough cookie, but she did a great job.
Did they try to introduce you to music earlier than seventh grade?
I remember taking piano lessons when I was really young and in Houston—maybe 5, but I didn’t like my teacher. He kinda scared me.
Is it true that one of your parents wanted you to play banjo at first?
My dad teased me about that. My older brother had gotten a guitar and we were all into the Beatles, old enough to have seen them on Ed Sullivan and that was it—the world changed. My brother started playing guitar, and I wanted one, but my dad said, ‘How about we get you a banjo?’ I was like, ‘Ew!’
Why didn’t you fight to play the guitar?
I don’t know. When they said no, they meant no.
So did you shift to sax because you’d discovered artists like Coltrane?
More like I wanted to be David Bowie instead of a first chair clarinetist for the philharmonic, which is what I was being trained for.
So Bowie was your gateway out of the classical world?
Yeah, you know, ‘rock ’n’ roll’. And then I [went to] North Texas State University, a big music school outside of Dallas. It had a real strong big band program in the late ‘70s…When I went to audition, I heard these guys play stuff I’d never heard before, and I got so nervous, I just fucked it up real bad. So I didn’t get into any of the big bands, and changed my major to composition and started on that path.
But you mostly listened to rock records at that time?
Yeah, I was never much of a record buyer. My older brother always bought them, and I had a friend who worked at a record store, so he always had everything. He had his parents’ old car—a 1962 Lincoln Continental, baby blue with baby blue leather interior, just huge. So we could fit eight people in there and cruise around Dallas really slow, listening to Yes and Gentle Giants and all the latest trippy, weird stuff. Bowie, Elton John, you name it.
So did you end up finishing the composition program?
No, I stayed there for two years, and had some really great classes and teachers, particularly in the experimental music program. They taught me about people like [John] Cage, which gave me inspiration [to try] a lot of weird things. I started using tape and did this one piece with electric piano and a little portable cassette deck. It was pretty successful for a sophomoric experiment. Then something happened in my life that changed everything. My friends at that time were all in the art department on the other side of town—all of these gay people, that really fabulous Rocky Horror crowd. They had a friend named Jamie who was sort of the king of the art scene there, but he moved to San Francisco like they all did at that time. But he came back to visit and we fell in love.
So you met him in Texas?
In Denton, Texas. I ended up moving to San Francisco on Halloween in 1978…
You literally jumped on a plane on Halloween?
Was this symbolic in any way? Were you wearing costumes on the plane?
I had this very “Time Warp”-y outfit on—black wool pants from the ‘30s, black alligator stilettos, white shirt, little tie, and a huge vintage black wool cape with red satin lining, a Cinderella mask, and my saxophone in a teeny suitcase.
That’s all you brought?
That’s all I brought. And the stewardesses were so nice. It was me and like three or four other people, so they brought out the champagne and we just had a ball.
Was that a typical outfit for you back then?
That might have been something to go out in. We were pretty flashy and liked to do what we called ‘wrecking’.
And what would that entail?
Getting dressed up, going out and being outrageous. Wreck faces, you know? We were fashion warriors, you know. Very innocent, but we were crazy.