Image via: Neumann Schneider
Rashad Becker lives in his studio.
It is a classic Kreuzberg construction: a tall, graffiti-covered townhouse entrance plastered with haphazard buzzers, behind which is a series of courtyards and a boxy building. He wanders across the road, stopping to speak gently with a passing friend, and greets me at the door, bleary eyed from a flight from Moscow the previous night.
A few storeys up, Becker opens the door to his unit. It is a sizeable, airy room, treated with acoustic panelling, that looks like the midway point between a squatted office building and an electronics workshop. We sit on sofas in the corner, Becker dressed in the uniform in which he can be found in virtually every photograph of him: chore jacket; peaked hat; rollup. His favoured outfit is a neat metaphor for his demeanour: simultaneously workmanlike and scholarly; at once the proletarian and the intellectual. Becker sits with his back to the bulk of his equipment, set out in a ring of patch leads and unknowable black boxes in the centre of the room. There is a bass guitar languishing on the floor at his feet. Occasionally he will mention a trombone and gesture casually to his right, as if there is a cabinet full of unexpected instruments somewhere in the corner. Which, I am sure, there is.
Becker has been disappointed that talk of his music has been projected through the prism of his day job, and yet it is difficult to speak about him without acknowledging the singular presence in dance music that his 9 to 5 has wrought. In 1996 Becker began working at Dubplates & Mastering, the studio established by Basic Channel. Today he is one of the world’s most sought after mastering engineers, splitting his time between Dubplates and his own Clunk. Discogs credits him with more than 50 releases so far this year, notable highlights amongst which include Keith Fullerton Whitman’s split with Floris Vanhoof, Dozzy Plays Bee Mask, and Stellar Om Source’s Joy One Mile.
Becker has also mastered all but a handful of the releases on Bill Kouligas’s PAN, the label on which his debut LP Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. 1 is released, and to whose head the artist refers as “Don Kouligase”. Becker’s name has become one of the label’s calling cards, seemingly a fundamental element of the label’s aesthetic project. “I wouldn’t have released anything without Bill,” Becker says. “He just pushed me into making a record. It’s not so easy for me to find the impulse to add something to the multitude of millions of records being released. There is a lot of music going through my hands. That raises the threshold to be eager to throw something in there.”
Becker’s record is an acutely physical thing. Split into ’Dances’ and ‘Themes’, but with both sides more or less sharing a palette, it is a series of vistas of an odd new world, sometimes ghoulish, sometimes vaudeville, inhabited by burbling, intensely talkative creatures. Even without having seen the title of the record it would be easy to identify these noises as somehow vocal. They move dramatically across the stereo field, at times appearing as elongated screams and at others as delirious incantation, interlocking with each other in an unsettling chatter. The landscape, meanwhile, creeps slowly beneath them, undulating with contorted bass frequencies. Very occasionally a melody will appear, seemingly accidentally, only to submerge itself back into the mire almost immediately. It is a ‘challenging’ record, certainly, but far from an impenetrable one. The act of listening feels more like travelling; of having an aberrant new planet, complete with its own peoples, thrust in front of you, as in a snow globe.
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Despite its biological feel, Traditional Music contains just one acoustic sound. “It’s a filing cabinet,” Becker explains, from which emerges “structure-borne feedback. It’s nine points of microphones that I can route to three points of transducing, via a matrix mixer. By opening a drawer, I can retune the instrument, because it’s all about the physical dimensions.
“It’s a very fun live instrument,” he says, “but it also reeks a little bit of novelty act.”
Although Becker has not visualised a new species to which his traditional music is attached, the creatures that inhabit his world are each distinct – and even named. “I write the characters first,” he says, “and then I sit down and sonify them. To me it’s really animated sonic entities. Working on this record, whatever equipment I touched I ended up squeezing the same kind of aesthetics out of it. I realised that I like all of the sounds in that branch to be as if they could emerge from some kind of a physical body. There is a specific progression of harmonics and envelope that comes from physical bodies.”
Should the suggestion that this is a traditional music for this species then be taken literally? “How literally can it be taken?” Becker laughs. “It seemed natural as a window to look at the music. With traditional music we don’t question authorship. Of course there is authorship, but I don’t perceive it. I never think of writing; I think of legacy, possibly, and I think of rehearsal, but I don’t think of the author within it. I like that connotation, or that quality. Tradition introduces a certain quality to anything that is labelled traditional that I find fascinating. There are a lot of implications in looking at the world through traditional music.”
In labels like White Material, who are shortly to release a four-track compilation presented without artist names, there seems to be a concerted attempt to divest music of authorship once again, and Becker feels some kinship with this. “I liked the quality that was introduced into mass culture with techno,” Becker says. “The authorship being very secondary; the label suddenly being a more manifest carrier of a certain culture than an individual. Many records don’t even really carry an artist name, just a catalogue number. I did like that, just out of an art tradition that started maybe in the ’60s. But we have a strong relapse from that. The way art has devoluted within the last fifteen years is a heavy relapse in Baroque ideas of enablement and talent, and a very strong author. I feel pity about that, but I didn’t set out to blur the authorship. I need something to hold onto when writing, and it’s a certain method and a certain strategy. Then when I feel like the method and the strategy are compelling, and I’m enabled to achieve the sound I have in my mind, then I kind of disappear within the process and the music takes shape. I just throw these people into his possibly uncomfortable place where they live, and then just let them do their thing.”
Becker’s writing process begins with a piece of mind mapping software called The Brain. “You can can horizontally connect information,” he says, “and then browse it through all kinds of different paths. It’s a very comfortable environment to sort your thoughts.” His characters are then reified through a relatively limited set of equipment. “A big part of it is one [Oberheim] Xpander. Another part of it is the Waldorf Microwave, and there is a little bit of Cwejman synth. But a really significant part is the Xpander, just because I’ve had that instrument for such a long time. It’s a very playable synthesiser too, without even having keys.”
Becker’s view of instruments is characteristically perceptive. In instruments with which we are familiar, he says, there is an inescapable class character. He notes that “there are attributes of dominion within the sounds of specific instruments, and within specific harmonic and melodic progressions. They carry some auretic element of feudalism. You get to a police control and you have a harp onboard, they go, ‘Oh, please be on your way sir’”.
He seems drawn, then, to unfamiliar instruments in which it is less easy for “outsiders” to discern a class component. “The Pontus, a little ethnic group in the north of Greece – they play on pig bladders that get punched, and they play it as a flute. They play insane sequences on it. It’s really, really breathtaking music. It’s probably a peasants’ instrument, being a pig bladder. There is a class connotation to that, but that’s not what I perceive, really.” Similarly, “from the perspective of an outsider, there are a lot of exotic instruments [of which] we have no class concept. But they have other attributes or connotations that are compelling. For example the begena, an instrument that I love and adore, is just so compellingly bound to Coptic Christianity, because everything that is being played on this instrument, as far as I know, is deeply devout religious music. Also traditional instruments like the shō, for example – it’s a very, very expensive instrument. It’s only available to a certain group within society. But from an outside perspective we can’t necessarily grasp these concepts behind the instruments.”
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Becker’s class analysis is derived from, or a component of, his enduring communism. As a teenager he wanted to move to East Berlin, which he considered to be “more accommodating and friendly,” but arrived with little time before the Wall came down. His views of East Germany, perhaps the original pariah state, have endured since his first visits as a 14 year old on anti-fascist youth exchange programmes. Around the same time he turned his back on anarchism and began more concertedly to read communist theory. He speaks admiringly of Lenin’s ability to forge a revolution at a time when “the main contradiction between labour and capital [hadn’t] even emerged into most people’s lives.”
I ask whether he considers the revolutionary battlegrounds to have shifted, particularly in light of the growing importance of the debt relation. “I don’t think that the basic battle has changed since the early days of Industrialism,” he says. “It is just that the ways they are experienced have changed a lot. Debt is a very basic principle or function within capital. All money is born from debt. In that regard debt does affect our societies in a different way now, but it has always been the same principle. It’s just that specifically the American economy has aged so ridiculously that whenever money is brought into financial circuits, it leaves a hole within the money system that is installed within society. It is money that is taken out of circulation and brought to an abstract realm where it does not touch goods anymore at all. This is a problem that is getting more and more obvious to most ageing capitalist societies since the ’70s. America has found only one workaround to keep up with that: they juvenate other national economies by bombing them to pieces and then rebuilding them. So the problem is the very same.
“On a very, very general note,” he continues, “I think basically if there is a battle it is property. Any society that organises itself without property can be a just society.”
The arguments surrounding music’s apparent failure to deal with the cataclysmic changes of the last half decade are well rehearsed, and Becker seems similarly ambivalent about contemporary music’s revolutionary potential. He derides noise as an “elitist game,” insisting that it “doesn’t touch society.” When pressed he suggests that a “revolutionary identity” may be demonstrated by some traditional acoustic artists. In some cases, he says, “just from the mood and the progressions in the way the guitar is played, you know it’s revolutionary songs. But you would probably feel that they are a bit anachronistic. There is revolutionary intent in youth culture, but I don’t think it gets through to the revolutionary subject.”
Becker’s politics are brought to bear in subtle but significant ways on his day-to-day life. His treatment of his day job at Dubplates seems psychologically intricate, and born of a feeling of shared responsibility for the way in which the nature of work has changed in the past quarter of a century. “I walk miles at Dubplates,” he says, “just saying ‘I’m not here to live my life, to meet interesting people, to listen to great music – I’m here to pay my rent.’ I feel a lot of things have changed in the image of labour since the ’90s, and a big part of that is people mixing their personal idea of achievement and value with their professional surroundings. People who like to work with freelancers pick up on that quite easily, and it has become such a natural input to your profession or your qualification, that you do not properly separate it from your culture or identity. The Deutsche Bahn takes on interns, 400 a year, and they give education after that to maybe 15 of them. But for a year they just have to show their personal commitment to serving drinks on the platform, or saying ‘No sir, unfortunately this train is delayed.’ The right to hate your job has vanished from all professional fields with a very steep curve, since maybe the mid-’90s. I’ve always felt that people like me take a big bite in the responsibility for that.”
It is not too significant a leap to suggest that Becker’s musical world-forging is also born from his politics. While the landscape he has created in Traditional Music might not be one in which we would wish to live, the instinct to build a new society, with its own modes of interaction, can clearly be seen in all aspects of Becker’s life. His are fundamental convictions, and they make for a bewildering record – and a fascinating man.