The phrase “mastered by Rashad Becker” in an album’s liner notes confers a seal of approval that can’t be equaled. As engineer at Berlin’s Dubplates & Mastering, Becker’s name can be found on almost any noteworthy techno or experimental release of the past twenty years. His own music came as a pleasant surprise when he released his debut album for PAN with 2013’s Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. 1. At that time, he already had 1200 titles with his credit on them. With Vol. 2, a look at his Discogs page reveals that tally is now nearing 1600 releases. That Becker even has time to contemplate his own music seems impossible, like the leader of a country also having spare time to executive produce a television show.
Much like his first album, he breaks the sides (none of which pass the 4:45 mark) into “Themes” and “Dances,” though one would be hard-pressed to determine the concepts underpinning one side, much less figure out just what moves and steps would comprise the latter. As the title suggests, it’s an album redolent of Smithsonian Folkways’ field recordings from Africa and Indonesia, with nods to early musique concrète and intercepted extraterrestrial transmissions. So maybe it’s closest comparison is to the ritualistic sounds of alien tribes as overheard by a curious visitor.
“Themes VII” wheezes and lurches and bumps into things, while “Themes VI” rattles like a china cabinet loaded into a UFO. The near-vocal quality of his sounds and their cartoonish weirdness brings to mind Hans Reichel’s self-made daxophone, a bizarre wooden instrument that you bow to elicit sounds. “Dances V” stretches and purrs like some space-age polymer while Becker gets an especially nougat-y bass tone for “Dances VI.”
Whenever Becker conjures a familiar sound, he quickly husks history, meaning and expectations from it so that it might quiver in space all on its own, like a cell under a microscope. A mental picture that forms at the beginning of a piece will lose its meaning by the end. So yes, “Themes V” has frequencies suggesting struck metal and the rhythms of a gamelan ensemble. But what to make of the worming frequencies, shortwave static and what sounds like a thrummed comb that then intrude upon the track? His tracks bring sounds, descriptors, and language itself into question.
“Notional” becomes the operative word here, as each piece feels conjectural, possible but unreal. There is, again, a folkloric tinge, an echo of music from peoples in other parts of the world never previously encountered by the West. Much like early electronic music and musique concrète anticipated the means that lies behind most modern music-making—even though it seemed to merely be noise and gibberish at the time—there’s an aspect of Becker’s work that sounds like nonsense, yet also hints at what we might deem music in another half-century.