An Awkward Pause With William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops in Marina Abramovic’s Opera

12.09.13 David Cotner

Perhaps no other modern composer – Springsteen and Neil Young notwithstanding – has been linked to the events of 9/11 as inescapably as William Basinski. Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops were accidental recordings created in the early hours of that day as he transferred his collection of nearly 30-year-old tape loops to digital media. The aging black magnetic tapes crumbled off their clear plastic backing, leaving an ambient dronescape of unearthly radiance in their wake.

Released in 2002 on his 2062 label to general astonishment and acclaim, The Disintegration Loops have become elegiac shorthand for that particular cataclysm.

You can hear The Disintegration Loops in the sound design of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Basinski’s latest endeavor. Directed by playwright Robert Wilson and with songs written by Antony Hegarty, it stars Abramović as two manifestations of her self; the other half being Willem Dafoe. She also plays her mother. The play traces her involved childhood in the former Yugoslavia to her work and life in the now. A quasi-opera, they call it.

We are nothing if not hamstrung by the metaphors assigned to us by others.

I’m glad we weren’t doing this interview around 9/11. It just seems like such a chore.

Me, too – and you know what? I was just so burnt-out by then; I’d been all over and talked about it about a million times. There was so much press about it in Europe and I just couldn’t do another 9/11 interview – so, sorry about that.

So what does 9/11 mean to you after all this time?

I dread the day. It’s always like, “Oh, no – here it is again.”

What was the nicest thing that you personally experienced in those days right after 9/11, when people were super-nice and concerned and humane to one another?

It was amazing. Everybody was rethinking everything. They were all collapsing into their own disintegration loops – rethinking what was important to them. Strangers on the subway would look at each other with compassion and sort of look after each other. It was remarkable.

Whenever they have the 9/11 anniversary, that’s one thing that gets forgotten: that compassion and humanity. Everybody was really good to each other for a couple of weeks. And no one talks about that now – which is very weird.

Well, the money bubble happened right after that – the real estate bubble – a couple of years later, and everything was just, “Free money! Here we go! Distract everyone! Shop shop shop!”

When you go back and listen to the Loops, are there certain sounds that come out that make you remember places, or even who you were as a person back then?

(Long pause) Sure, I guess it does that. It places you in a parallel universe. When that work was born in the studio, it was pre-9/11, and so… the work itself just blew my mind. I just listened to it for weeks thinking about it… pictures, and all this imagery… It had a profound effect on me, but on that day, everything changed. And then there was another layer around it — a profound layer added. I thought, what is this – the soundtrack to the end of the world now? But the themes are so beautiful, they’re magic.

When I first listened to it, it seemed like you had two themes working in tandem – eternity and disintegration – and they were both working at the same time.

Well, that’s life.

So are those the themes that sum up your life?

I’m always searching for an eternal moment. Disintegration happens because we’re human.

How did you get involved in the production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović?

I got a phone call one afternoon from Antony, and this was probably in Spring of 2010, “Oh, Billy, I wanted you to help me with something… Marina asked me to do the music for Bob Wilson’s new opera about her life… but I told them that I can’t do it unless you do it, too.” I dropped the phone. (Laughs) So then he talked to the producers and got the logistics set up and they sent us the books and we looked at them. I did a bunch of research on Balkan folk music and Balkan church music, trying to think of the music she might have been hearing on the radio growing up.

There’s this four-woman Balkan folk quartet in the play and provides some extraordinary music with Svetlana Spajić (Nb. the artist who for the past 20 years has been performing and teaching traditional Serbian and Balkan songs). Svetlana and all the girls are fantastic; they got Bob Wilson’s technique down faster than the performance artists that are part of the cast. Their music is just beautiful.

How did the production evolve from there?

Antony and I had a meeting and we started laying out ideas for certain scenes and then there was a rehearsal and then there was a workshop in Madrid in September of 2010. Bob and Marina picked Madrid because it’s so beautiful in September – and it was – and it’s incredible to work with Bob. In the 10 weeks that we were there, we pretty much sketched out the entire show. On the last day, all the directors were there, and they sat with me in the front row, and we watched it, and they said, “We watched the whole thing and it was very, very moving.”

I don’t believe there were costumes or makeup or anything like that – just basic lights. Bob is like a Rothko with lights. Antony put together the pit band, which is a couple of members of the Johnsons and Matmos – and at first I thought, “Oh, no – why’d you get those crazy queens?” (Laughs) I’m so glad he did, because Bob likes every color in the rainbow – and Antony and I are on the ultraviolet and blue range; Matmos can do all the oranges, reds, white-hots… so Bob had everything he needed.

I was kind of a nervous wreck in Madrid because the other sound designer was working on another show, and he wasn’t there – so it was just me and my computer. I don’t have sound design software – I’ve never done anything like this. So I was going back and forth between iTunes and live and then while he was working on something else, I’d try to figure out a way to do it and I’d say, “Okay, I’ve got it!” So my modus operandi was to say “No” and then figure out how to do it.

Where was Marina during this whole process?

She was there. When they got to Madrid, she was just ending her show at MOMA. And Antony was telling me he wanted me to go sit with her at the museum and I was just, “No no no no no!” I thought she was going to be extremely formidable – terrifying – but she’s not at all. She’s one of the most fantastic, lovely, darlingest people you could ever meet. She’s really funny, and a real doll. The first time we got to Madrid, the producers hosted a little get-together at this café, and we all met there at this beautiful plaza; had some drinks. Marina came in a little bit late, and I was talking to one of the musicians and she came over to me she sits down next to me – and proceeds to tell a string of her infamous filthy jokes from all over the world (Laughs) and had us all in stitches. I can’t repeat any of them! When she goes to different countries, she gets all the dirty jokes from people.

Do you feel closer to theater than you do art?

I don’t know; I’ve never done theater before. But let me tell you something: working with this huge cast and intense project like this, and it comes together because of all these international people coming together to put in a piece or a piece of that… There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s really an extraordinary experience, and we’re all real close now. I can’t wait to see everyone.

William Basinki performs the live sound design of “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović” at its U.S. premiere at the Park Avenue Armory from December 13-21. His entire Disintegration Loops cycle is out now as a 9 LP box set on Temporary Residence. 

(Photos: Courtesy The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, The Disintegration Loops, Peter J. Kierzkowski)