Mics, complicated-looking hardware and other studio detritus line the walls in a kind of orbit of the main control hub. As Becker brewed coffee, I wandered this perimeter and came across something curious: a trombone, assembled and sitting at the ready on top of its case. "I started playing trombone not too long ago," he says a bit later, when we're discussing his musical background. "It's a very difficult instrument but it's also great. I realized at some point that many of the things I long for or look for in electronic colors are actually quite easily played on a trombone."
Music is Becker's longtime vocation and obsession. He's been enamored of it since bands like Throbbing Gristle "readjusted every coordinate that had been present on my map" decades ago. "There's nothing—no hobby or anything—that I can actually listen to music while doing, because everything I do is related to music," he says.
In the last 15 years he's become something of a rock star in the field of mastering. He's a household name to the sort of obsessives who pay attention to the esoteric squiggles etched into the dead wax of techno 12-inches, and his credit on a record is a stamp of approval not entirely unlike a Hard Wax "TIP!" But when he discusses the music he's making outside his day job—and it's worth stressing that the music he's making falls well outside the bulk of what passes through his limiters and equalizers—he sounds more like a man of letters, delving into character development, tone and storytelling. His trombone is an instrument, but he's essentially interested in it as a literary device. "I would write novels if I had more talent with that," he says. "But I have more talent with sculpting sound than I have with writing words."
Like plenty of great literature, Traditional Music Of Notional Species Vol. 1, Becker's full-length debut on PAN, is a challenge. A seasick suite of buzzes, rumbles, growls and blasts unconstrained by any easily identifiable melodic or rhythmic structures, it may be the most confounding 34 minutes of music you'll hear this year. You can't really take it in while doing anything else—it's both attention-hogging and, should you manage to pull yourself away from it, next to impossible to catch up with. "I read somebody wrote that the record sounds like it's licking its cheeks constantly," Becker says, and they have a point: Notional Species has the spirit of an enthusiastic puppy who won't stop kissing you, though its fangs are drawn and eyes glowing red. It's tempting to discuss the album, which arrived in shops last month after numerous delays (and a good deal of subtle prodding from PAN head Bill Kouligas), in terms of mastering; that a topic so notoriously difficult to describe is one of the easier ways in gives some idea of how tough Notional Species is to parse.
Becker isn't just making a lot of noise, though. "I really don't feel my music is experimental music," he says. "I reject that notion because I'm not experimenting." He explains that most of the music you'd find sharing shelf space with Notional Species isn't particularly experimental, either—it's made with electronic, synthetic elements that occasionally sound wild and abstract, but it's more or less mimicking sounds and structures that have been used before. "This is the same kind of disappointment that I get when I look at animated movies, and I see that they just use very classic camera schemes. I'm always like, why don't you make use of the option, the possibility, to do something within animation that can't be done with a real camera?"
There's another level on which he's not just experimenting in this studio: his music begins with a score, albeit one without notes on a staff. Years ago, he began using software called The Brain to piece together ideas. "It's for managers, I guess," he says as he pulls up some examples on the computer monitor. "The name is quite descriptive. It's there to kind of throw your thoughts in there and have some kind of system to stay in control of them." In The Brain, Becker doesn't have to think about sounds or even notes yet, but he can get his ideas down and let them start taking shape. "You can browse it in many different ways, so whenever two thoughts share—what's the opposite of a parent?"
"A child," I offer.
"They have child thoughts," he says, laughing. "You can link them in many different ways, and then you can browse through all their attributes. So if you go to a certain attribute and different characters share the same attribute, they would all pop up and hint to other attributes that are shared or not shared." Everything starts to take shape in The Brain, in ways both obvious and obtuse, and the connections start to give form to characters. When the time is right, Becker names them. "At the end of the score, I have a list of names. They show me the features that these characters have and also the features they share with other characters. Then I sit down and sonify it."
Becker says he tends to squeeze "the same kind of character out of most of the machines that I encounter" during this sonification process, and I ask if he can characterize it. "It's rather the progressions," he explains. "It's the envelopes and the harmonic progressions that the sounds have that are all—like syllables, maybe. These are the progressions that I obviously, or naturally, or automatically look for, that resemble speech, breathing and performance, that represent a certain actual shape of a body."
He says he's long had an affinity for music made in the days before multi-track recording, when music had to be performed and errors weren't so easily scrubbed out. When he first started Clunk, he intended to only commit two tracks to tape—one for each stereo channel. "The flaws, and the courage to live with these decisions—it gives the music some timeless tension that has by a large scale disappeared nowadays in music production."
As someone who'd been stumped by Notional Species more or less since hearing it, I was thrilled to hear how it came together. When you know there are personalities embedded within all these strange washes of sound, you begin to hear individual voices emerging from the din, and their abstract vernacular starts to sound a bit more like a language you can understand. Becker bristles at there being one strategy for getting through the album, or one authoritative reading of its message. "I don't want there to be a manual," he pleads. "I don't want people to look at the pieces through the process of how they've been written. I want them to live in their own right."
And it's true that music this alive and untethered shouldn't be pinned down just because it's difficult. In doing so, we risk losing sight of what gives it its charm—and it's great to reach the point where music like Becker's can charm. I think again about the trombone, an instrument whose form allows you to play the notes between notes, to break apart Western scales and revel in out-there tones and timbres. It might be the ideal instrument for a guy like Becker, but he cautions against reading too much into it. "I've never been snobbing on tempered music. There's composers, they say, 'I'm not writing for piano because it's tempered! It's not microtonal!' I've never felt that way. It's just that the tempered scale never came naturally to me."