When I was ten years old, I purchased a little transistor radio. It was cheap and small enough to fit into my pocket. Although I was slightly embarrassed by its pink plastic casing, this thing kept me company on my thirty-minute walk to and from school. I remember taking the radio out with me to the playground one day and turning it on in. Each station, it seemed, was preoccupied with transmitting the same news. I didn’t know what the World Trade Centre was at that point, but the magnitude of what had just happened dawned on me very quickly.
In the 1970s, William Basinski sat in his Brooklyn loft making tape loops. His radio antenna was powerful enough to capture transmissions from the Empire State Building. These broadcasts relayed muzak cover versions of American popular standards. Basinski recorded them, capturing ethereal snippets on magnetic tape. This was sampling before such a concept really existed. Knowing that these recordings were good, but not yet having the confidence to use them in their own right, the classically trained composer boxed them up.
In the early 2000s, when Basinski finally came around to digitising the loops, he discovered that the tape had degraded to such an extent that bits of it would flake off every time it passed the tape head. This meant that the recordings would slowly disintegrate as they were being played and soon became ghostly versions of their former selves.
On the morning of 9/11, Basinski rushed up to the roof of his building and watched the second plane hit the South Tower. As the smoke billowed, he turned on The Disintegration Loops and listened. Beautiful, haunting melodies swelled up around him, mapping their own decomposition. They were at once both hopelessly melancholic and surprisingly resilient.
Unlike the moment with the pink radio, I don’t know where I was when I first heard William Basinski’s music. Most likely, it was a YouTube recommendation; a full-album stream of Watermusic II. My appreciation of his work had been gradual, much like his music is gradual. Things that at first appear static soon reveal themselves to be filled with dynamism. There is a wealth of possibilities in chance, simplicity and repetition. Basinski’s work showed me that you don’t necessarily need to ‘go anywhere’ with a piece of music. It can stay in much the same place and your mind can wander.
Originally published by The Thames Submarine, January 2021