A Certain Intent, a Certain Strategy and a Certain Artefact:
Rashad Becker in Conversation
Graphic-music, originally pioneered by figures such as John Cage in the second half of the 20th century, uses configurations of symbols outside of the scope of traditional music notation. These alternative scores frequently employ illustrations and other graphic devices to instruct musicians what to play. A similarly unconventional method of composition and attitude towards scores also laid the foundation for Rashad Becker’s recent releases on PAN, Traditional Music of Notional Species Volume I (2013) and Traditional Music of Notional Species Volume II (2016). Becker employs a structural framework that draws heavily upon the written word with spectacular results. I got to talk with the Berlin-based artist and he explained to me some of his strategies for creating music, why he doesn’t like the term experimental and the didactic potential of track titles.
Speaking before his performance at Meow in Wellington, Rashad Becker outlined some of his philosophies and the intriguing compositional method behind his first two albums. “I’m always sort of rebelling against the label of it being experimental music because it’s essentially not. There’s no laboratory. I’m not twisting knobs and seeing where it can get me. All the sounds and musical structures emerge from an idea that comes before the music.” The structural approach he has taken with these releases can be seen as a translation of sorts, for the artist uses the written word as a score from which he creates his otherworldly soundscapes. These narratives are initially conceived as text before being systematically translated into their aural equivalent. “Designing sounds comes pretty easily to me, and to anyone I guess with the range of technology at hand, but that is not enough for me to claim authorship or claim the artefact that finally faces the world,” he explains. This highly considered approach allows Becker to present his narratives fully-fledged and simultaneously explore his curiosity about composition. “I’m very fond of Fluxus art, which uses the score, not necessarily a means of producing music, but just as a medium for making a connection between a certain intent, a certain strategy and a certain artefact.” Although stories dictate the form of his pieces, for Becker, it is not important for the audience to know the specifics of them, even if, for him, it’s the most important part.
Although Becker has been performing for decades now, it was not until 2013 that his first full-length release emerged. It took some years of persuasion by PAN label head Bill Kouligas before the artist’s debut release saw the light of day. This hesitation to publish material can be partly attributed to the value that the Becker places upon live performance as opposed to recordings, an interesting stance as one of the world’s most respected mastering engineers. “I was never eager to publish recorded music,” he states. “I have a different relationship with recorded music than with live music.” Of course, attending a live performance is quite different to the experience of listening to records. The potential for further musical inquiry more limited. “It doesn’t have to withstand the scrutiny being listened to on your commute to work and things like that,” Becker explains. “You can’t really exploit it for your moods. And that’s why live music is more interesting and more precious to me.”
Given the professional relational between PAN and Dubplates and Mastering, where Becker works as a mastering engineer, I was curious to find out whether he had drawn inspiration from the other music on that imprint. “I mean obviously, there is a certain aesthetic. There’s a shared momentum, aesthetic momentum, to some of the releases, but I feel no proximity,” says the Berliner. “Mastering work it’s not a part of my cultural horizon. It’s a service industry job and I’m not there to be inspired by music and I don’t listen to music the way I would listen to music in my own time. It’s a totally different request and a different address.” Although his work does seem at home among the eclectic ‘experimentation’ that has defined that label, it is also uniquely singular. Listening to Traditional Music of Notional Species Volume II, one is struck by the breadth of sounds employed, constantly developing and morphing in unexpected ways. Vol. II is enthralling yet disquieting. The track ‘Themes VIII’ is an excellent example of the tension that Becker creates. Throughout this piece, there is an interplay between slow droning tones and higher oscillating frequencies, both of which fade in and out in, what feels like, a drunken stupor. As one sound recedes into the background, something unexpected and uncanny comes to the fore.
On Volume I and Volume II the tracks are divided into ‘Themes’ and ‘Dances’ and numbered I, II, III etc. Eschewing greater detail in his titles, these vague differentiations relate to Becker’s narrative intentions. The Themes can be seen as stories that detail specific events and situations, whereas the Dances deal with broader ideas. These titles are still ambiguous to the outside observer however, tying in with Becker’s uncertainty in naming tracks. “It’s very rare that I hear a musical piece and the title is compelling. Like, that is exactly the title for that piece or that it is puzzling or enigmatic or anything like that, ” he says. In regard to the track names on these albums, Becker believes that such goals were not met. “I don’t think it was necessarily achieved,” he states, “but it was kind of the most elegant way I could deal with it.” Rejecting more conventional titles is not something new for avant-garde musicians, perhaps for good reason. Ascribing titles to musical works is likely to influence the audience’s attitude toward the piece. Similarly to the narratives that inform his music, Becker views titles as being of little importance to the audience, undesirable even. “This is trying to inform and to teach your audience and it has a certain didactic, or even authoritarian, connotation to it.”
Through my discussion with the artist behind these engaging yet oft-puzzling works, mysterious processes came to light as well as some more commonplace attitudes toward creativity. Foremost is Becker’s dedication to concept informing content. “If there’s just a melody, I don’t care how great that melody is, how fond I am of it or how much it sticks in my head. I can’t make peace with it if I don’t know why that melody is there.” It would seem that his enigmatic music stems less from a desire to create bizarre sounds than an allegiance to his singular method and aversion to cliché. “I get so much music and it’s difficult to add to it. It’s not that adding something isn’t an achievement in its own right, but it’s difficult to add if I don’t know why I would. The reason why is always outer-musical. It’s never musical.”
I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Jeff Henderson of Audio Foundation, Liv Pullman, Maggie Tweedie, Miles Buckingham, RadioActive.fm and Rashad Becker.