The Beauty of Chaos

Composer William Basinski's work drew praise after the Sept. 11 attacks -- music whose roots began during his time at North Texas in the 1970s.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
William Basinski
William Basinski (Photo by Danilo Pellegrinelli)

William Basinski could see the Twin Towers from his Brooklyn loft. After he and his friends watched the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, they sat on the roof in shock and disbelief, and he put on his latest composition that he just had completed -- The Disintegration Loops.

"When we were on a roof looking at the buildings collapse, I felt like I had been commissioned to soundtrack the end of the world," he says.

As the world began to process what happened, word spread about his work. It is now considered a masterpiece, with part of the work featured in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Career Beginnings

His career took root in his time at North Texas from 1976 to 1978.

"Those days were very interesting," he says. "Denton -- it was a sleepy town filled with old people and wild music and art freaks. The music and art departments were filled with very interesting and creative young people."

When he arrived, Basinski was trained classically on the clarinet and had played saxophone for his high school jazz band in Richardson. North Texas was known for the One O'Clock Lab Band and, he says, "I wanted to see if I could get in."

But he got nervous at auditions. And then he heard "those monster cats."

"They were professional musicians coming off the road with Woody Herman and other big bands who just wanted to play great music and not have to pay stupidity tax for not having their shoes shined, and to rock," he says. "I had never heard anything like that."

He switched his major to composition and, living in Bruce Hall, where his fellow dormmates would go through the charts together, he began to develop his own style.

His private composition teacher was the late Larry Austin ('51, '52 M.M.), the world-renowned composer and director of UNT's Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia -- although Basinski didn't realize how well-known Austin was at the time.

When Basinski brought his work to Austin, the composer told him, "Do more."

Basinski was heavily influenced by artists such as David Bowie. But during an experimental music class, he discovered composer John Cage, a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music and non-standard use of musical instruments.

"This was the first big opening in my mind as someone who was never going to be an orchestral transcriber or arranger," he says. "It gave me a direction to go in."

Basinski not only found his voice in music, but as a person. He met a group of art students who "were fabulous and gay, and I found out I wasn't the only weirdo."

One of those fabulous weirdos was artist James Elaine, at the time known as James Erwin Jr. or Jamie ('77), who had graduated the year before with a degree in painting and drawing and was in town for a visit. They fell in love. Elaine lived in San Francisco, and Basinski left North Texas to follow his dreams there with Jamie. They've been together ever since.

Through the years, Basinski recorded music and worked a variety of jobs. They moved to New York City in 1980 and lived in a loft that received transmissions from a radio station at the top of the Empire State Building that played American popular standards. Basinski loved the string sounds, especially the intros and outros, which he made into tape loops and slowed them down.

"All of a sudden I realized there were these huge waves of melancholy," he says.

Mixing the loops in real time, he recorded them to a cassette with short wave radio static. And he earned respect as one of the world's top composers of ambient and experimental music.

Making a Masterpiece

Two decades later in the legendary Arcadia -- an underground cabaret he set up in his sprawling loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that hosted concerts, readings and performances -- Basinski began archiving the old loops to a digital format.

But he was under pressure. After closing his store earlier that year he hadn't had much work and was behind on his rent. He knew the tapes were in danger of disintegration. They were 20-year-old loops made of used tape he bought in the late '70s in a thrift store in San Francisco.

He put on the first loop that eventually became the Disintegration Loop 1.1.

"This is so beautiful," he thought. "This is what I need now, so grave … I didn't even remember this loop."

He created a randomly arpeggiating sort-of French horn countermelody on his rare Voyetra 8 synthesizer, checked the levels and hit record.

He then went to get a coffee in the kitchen, but when he came back, he realized something was changing. The tape loop was disintegrating … there was the dreaded "drop out."

"I could see dust in the tape path of the vintage Revox reel-to-reel," he says. "This is what I was afraid would happen.'"

He checked his level to make sure they were good and didn't go back for another coffee until the end. By the third loop, he realized he didn't need a countermelody.

"This wasn't about me, it was about listening and paying attention," he says.

"After the two-day session recording the six loops in order, I was blown away. All I could do was call my friends and tell them … get over here! You won't believe what has happened!" he says.

The works became the four-volume album The Disintegration Loops. Orchestral transcriptions of the first three Disintegration Loops have been performed internationally, the first of which, Maxim Moston's transcription of Disintegration Loop 1.1, was first performed at the Metropolitan Museum Temple of Dendur by the Wordless Music Orchestra on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 to a sold-out audience.

During the pandemic years, Basinski hired his orchestrator friends, out of work with symphony and Broadway show performances, to transcribe them all.

All six movements have now been transcribed and will be available for performances in the orchestral repertoire when the pandemic permits. There will be an Ambient Church performance of a new version of Maxim Moston's transcriptions at Riverside Church in New York City on Sept. 11, 2021 -- the 20th anniversary.

"I realized, even in the bleakest of times, use the time you've been given," he says. "Get in the studio, get back to the work, one never knows what can happen."