Happy accidents aren't unusual, especially for artists who keep themselves open to chance, but rarely has serendipity altered the aesthetic direction and career of a musician to the extent it has with William Basinski.
A classically trained clarinetist who also studied jazz composition, Basinski began creating tape loops on reel-to-reel machines in Texas in the late 1970s after encountering Brian Eno's seminal ambient album Music for Airports. He made several ambient-inspired loops over the next few years. But it wasn't until he revisited those tapes almost two decades later, in 2001, that he discovered the raw materials for a multi-album project that he would release to wide acclaim as The Disintegration Loops.
As he transferred the aged, brittle tapes to a digital format, they began to deteriorate as they played, creating a haunting sound that was somehow both melancholy and oddly comforting. It was something Basinski had never heard before; his original music was transmogrified into an elegy for itself. Each of the tapes disintegrated at a different rate—some started out slightly warped and took a while to stagger into nothingness, while a few were mangled from the beginning, their decay a jarringly disruptive listen.
"It was such a profound experience while it was happening," Basinski says from his home in Los Angeles, where he's lived for about a year. "I was gobsmacked. It was like a death and rebirth at the same time. The physical loops died but the memory of the essence was preserved."
The result is ambient music that refuses to serve as background noise, its ever-shifting nature never allowing the listener to be indifferent to the sound as it falls apart. Basinski released nine of these recordings as the four-volume Disintegration Loops CDs in 2002.
"Those were the ones that changed everything. It was a major, major breakthrough," he says. "I had no money and no work at the time, so I decided to start archiving everything. Most of those loops were ones I'd made years ago and had forgotten about."
Between recording those original tapes and releasing The Disintegration Loops, Basinski moved to Brooklyn. During the '80s he played clarinet and saxophone in various jazz and rock groups, while continuing to work on his own compositions. He spent most of the '90s producing work by other musicians and running the Arcadia club in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, where performers such as Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, and the chamber-rock group Rasputina first gained attention. Basinski's first record under his own name was the striking, small-batch release Shortwave Music in 1998, but it was the first volume in The Disintegration Loops that brought him wider attention, not just from circles that follow electronic and experimental composition but from relatively mainstream pop websites like Pitchfork and Stylus.
The Disintegration Loops has been hugely influential on contemporary ambient and sound artists, most notably the recent hauntology musicians in Britain (so named by Simon Reynolds, the same critic who coined the term post-rock), who use older source material and artificial methods of aging to create a fractured, obscured sound. Basinski's influence can also be heard in fellow Big Ears artists Tim Hecker and Ben Frost's work.
While many of the musicians in his wake use computers to alter their recordings, Basinski continues with his reel-to reel tapes, resorting to a laptop when performing if a particular loop he favors has "gone to heaven."
"It's hard to fake that process," he says. "It happens unexpectedly, and when a tape disintegrates you never know how it's going to sound. It's a really exciting thing."
Basinski has continued to work with older tapes, integrating loops to create long-form works of hypnotic repetition that can alter the sense of time for some listeners. At Big Ears, he will perform a variation of his latest recording, Vivian and Ondine, a work composed to coax a past-due niece into the world. It bears a resemblance to some of the Loops—you can imagine the tapes originating from the same process and time period—but the sound is more tranquil and clear, the all-enveloping, lulling drones befitting the incipient idea for the piece.
"I travel with my lunchbox full of loops and play them on a reel-to-reel machine, mixing live," he explains of his performance method. "For this piece there's a main theme, then I have 10 or so loops I'll pull out randomly and see how they sound live in a certain room. If one's not working for me I'll play it a few minutes then switch it out. So it's different every time."